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The Earth Strikes Back

Some 19th-century science fiction makes for fun 21st-century reading

4 min read

Edison's Conquest of Mars

By Garrett P. Serviss

Apogee Books Science Fiction,

Burlington, Ont., Canada

Republished 2005, 264 pages, US $10

ISBN 0-9738-2030-6

Once again, we have been watched by vast intellects with envious eyes that, slowly and surely, drew their plans against us. This summer's science-fiction movie blockbuster is Steven Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells's iconic 1897 novel, The War of the Worlds . Once more, the Martians have sallied forth to bring destruction to Earth, only to be foiled at the last moment by a terrestrial infection.

Spielberg's production is just the latest in a long line of adaptations of Wells's novel, perhaps the best known being Orson Welles's 1938 U.S. radio broadcast. Orson Welles's use of faux news reporting in the first half of his production convinced many listeners that a real alien invasion from Mars was under way, sparking a minor panic on the East Coast.

There have even been some attempts to create a sequel to The War of the Worlds , including a short-lived television series in the late 1980s. But none of them can have quite the claim of the long-lost--until now--1898 novel, Edison's Conquest of Mars , by Garrett P. Serviss.

To explain how Edison's Conquest of Mars came to be and why it has any significance whatsoever, a little background on the U.S. publishing industry at the end of the 19th century may be helpful. At the time, the industry ignored copyright in a way that would put today's movie and software pirating operations in Asia to shame [see "Steal This Software," IEEE Spectrum, June]. Not content with simply reproducing works without any regard to their owners, U.S. publishers happily tweaked things to suit their audiences.

So it was that in 1898 readers of the Boston Post opened their papers to find the first installment of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds --except now it was called Fighters From Mars , and instead of being set in and around London, the action centered on Concord, Mass., thanks to some unknown editor who simply replaced every location in England with a suitable one from New England.

Fighters From Mars was a big hit, and readers were delighted when, almost immediately following the novel's conclusion, the Post's editors announced a sequel, written by Serviss, who was already known as an astronomer and science journalist. In a masterstroke, Serviss secured permission to use one of the most famous and respected Americans of the day as a character: Thomas Edison. Not least among those who eagerly awaited the next installment was a teenage Robert Goddard, later the father of modern rocketry. Goddard's diaries reveal that both Fighters From Mars and Edison's Conquest of Mars had a deep impact on him.

The result of Serviss's labors was a well-paced, action-packed technothriller, more akin to a Michael Crichton novel than to H.G. Wells's psychological drama. Edison looms large throughout the book as the architect and commander of Earth's counterattack against the Martian menace, and other famous turn-of-the-century scientists make cameo appearances, including a disintegrator-gun-slinging Lord Kelvin.

The plot begins as humanity rebuilds after the failed Martian invasion of The War of the Worlds . Ominous astronomical observations, however, reveal that the Martians may be preparing to reinvade, and despair falls across the nations of Earth. That is, until Edison, partially through reverse engineering abandoned Martian hardware, invents a disintegrator gun and a spacecraft capable of transporting 20 men at a time to Mars.

An international summit is held (which gives an interesting window into 19th-century geopolitics--Russia and France appear as America's warmest supporters). The summit leaders commission Edison to build 100 spacecraft and to set off for Mars to strike at the enemy before it can invade again.

The book is pure hard science fiction--that is, the author strives to be as scientifically plausible as possible. While Serviss didn't invent this type of science fiction, he makes a number of important contributions to the genre. He had a good understanding, for example, of how space and low-gravity environments, such as a small moon, were different from Earth's surface or its atmosphere. So when venturing outside their spacecraft, Serviss's crew members wear airtight spacesuits, and because the vacuum of space eliminates sound, they must communicate via a sort of personal telephone arrangement. Serviss's figure for the velocity required to escape Earth's gravity is dead on, and he correctly imagined the black-and-white nature of shadows in space, where there is no air to diffuse light.

The book also features pitched space and air battles, and the former--involving an entire fleet of spacecraft--is believed to be a literary first. (If any Spectrum readers can offer an earlier example, please write and let me know!) Other innovations include the aforementioned disintegrator gun, the mining of near-Earth asteroids, and even the idea that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens, who also abducted earthlings.

There are, of course, a few howlers. Serviss has replaced Wells's inhuman, betentacled, monstrous aliens with humanoid, if frequently ugly, giants. Mars is lush with huge reserves of water and giant red trees. And much of the Martian psyche is explained with recourse to phrenology, the discarded pseudoscience that examined the bumps on people's heads to elicit clues about their abilities and behavior.

Other aspects of Edison's Conquest of Mars may also grate on a modern reader. The almost complete absence of any female characters, except for one nubile damsel-in-distress; the casual attitude toward the brutal Indian wars then recently ended in the United States; and even some animal cruelty (the disintegrator gun is first tested on a crow)--all mark the book as a product of its time's social order.

But despite these drawbacks, the book makes a deliberate attempt to envision an enlightened, multicultural interplanetary expeditionary force, stocked as much with scientists and engineers applying their brains and ingenuity as with hardy soldiers cutting a swath through Martians.

Apogee Books' 2005 edition of Edison's Conquest of Mars comes complete with the original illustrations that accompanied each chapter in its newspaper run. The new edition includes a short foreword and an afterword by Apogee editor Robert Godwin that helps put the book's story in perspective.

Apogee is to be commended for resurrecting Serviss's work, which was only partially reprinted once during the 20th century. If you get tired of all the War of the Worlds rehashes, this original 19th-century take on what happened next makes for great reading.

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