Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P Serviss (1898)
Not long after H G Wells published The War of the Worlds, the story came to the attention of American newspaper publishers. At the time, (1898) the concepts of copyright we take for granted were essentially nonexistent, and so it was not at all unusual for written works to be appropriated with little consideration for the feelings (or financial rights) of the original author. In the case of the War of the Worlds, the concept took a particularly unusual twist, but one that has subsequently come to define the elastic qualities of the book to be re-imagined to suit contemporary times.
On January 9th 1898, (several months after the story was officially serialised in Cosmopolitan Magazine) The Boston Post newspaper began publication of an entirely revised version of the War of the Worlds, in which the action was relocated to the local area under the somewhat cumbersome title, "Fighters from Mars - or The Terrible War of the Worlds as it was waged near Boston in the year 1900". The serialisation in the Post was a great success, and when it was completed in early February, (and with Wells' original novel still to be published in America in book form) the Post made the bold announcement that they were going to commence printing a sequel.
As sequels go, the story that emerged was truly a masterpiece of promotion and hyperbole. This was not just to be any old sequel, this was to be Edison's Conquest of Mars, a tale that would see the great inventor lead a fleet of avenging spacecraft back to the red planet to take on the Martians on their home turf. Edison himself however had nothing to do with the story other than to authorise the use of his name; this Conquest of Mars was instead the work of one Garrett P Serviss, an established popular science writer.
The story that Serviss crafted can I think be best be summed up with an analogy to a well-known science fiction film series of modern times. Edison's Conquest of Mars is in essence, as the film Aliens is to Alien. Where the former is executed at a tense and measured pace, the latter pulls out all the stops and ups the ante into a series of breathless cliff-hangers. Serviss was one suspects very much writing for the medium, keeping his audience coming back on a daily basis to discover how his fearless crew of astronauts escaped each previous day's calamity.
Having survived the initial Martian attack, the still reeling Earth sets about planning a response. The urgency of the matter is accelerated when it becomes clear from observations of Mars that the Martians are preparing a second invasion. America swiftly becomes the focus of the impending defence, and perhaps offence, for it transpires that Thomas Edison has invented both a disintegrating weapon the equal of the heat ray, but in his remarkable "electric" aircraft, has also provided a means of delivering that weapon (and retribution) to the Martians. What follows is the launch of a stupendous fleet of spacecraft toward Mars and a series of brutal engagements with the enemy. Along the way, the astronauts visit the moon (where they discover the proof of a long dead Luna civilisation) and an asteroid.
It needs to be made clear that Serviss is no H G Wells. His prose can be florid in the extreme and there are occasions where you have to chew through the pages with considerable effort, but more than anything this story is a fantastic historical document, and no matter how painfully dated the writing, you can't be anything but complimentary toward Serviss as a futurist. The ideas in this book are remarkably far ahead of his time. Amongst other things, he postulates using the moon as a staging post for a mission to Mars and writes about spacesuits, space walks and the mining of asteroids. While the scientific elements of his story are sometimes and inevitably unable to stand the test of time, (the Luna civilisation for instance) his attempts to create a plausible scientific background to his story are laudable and frequently not at all inaccurate.
He also weaves in some very odd concepts, including the idea that the Martians had kidnapped humans some centuries previously from an Aryan super-race in the vicinity of Germany. I should add hastily that Serviss was no Nazi, and though the informed reader will feel a little chill of unease at the idea, this was merely a common and rather innocuous idea of the time. It all adds to the really bizarre flavour of a story that also presents its characters with some serious moral dilemmas. Is it right to visit vengeance on the Martians so terrible that it might wipe them out? I won't give the ending away, but suffice to say there is a certain unavoidable synergy with events of this century.
I certainly can't promise you a scintillating read should you buy this book, but if you can just put aside your modern day preconceptions of what makes sound science fiction, then this newly republished story can be enjoyed for precisely what it is, a good old-fashioned space opera and a truly remarkable historical document.
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