Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008

EDISONíS CONQUEST OF MARS

by Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929)

A Review by Richard Dengrove

This early example of science fiction includes anti-gravity drives, disintegrator rays and oxygen pills. While advocating more advanced views, it was three years earlier than Honeymoon in Space. It was published in 1898 as a serial in the New York Journal. Part of its significance is that it further shows that many of the conventions of science fiction go back to the Victorians.

In addition, there were other notions we  consider modern: e.g., alien abductions and aliens building pyramids. Of course, there are notions we would not be so comfortable with: racial superiority, Aryans and Phrenology.

What is strange is one marvel is absent,  radio. We wonder why, like in Honeymoon in Space, Serviss said nothing about radio. There apparently was wireless telegraphy by then. In fact, Testla had just succeeded in transmitting radio waves thirty miles. Instead, the anti-gravity ships communicate, like ships at sea then, by flag signaling. 

In addition, this novel had another purpose besides technological wonders: Serviss wrote it to refute Wells’ War of the Worlds, and reassure the populace. It shows the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race even over the advanced Martians. It not only defeats the Martians in war; the Martians are not all that different from it. 

A view popular in the 1890s was that humans were the height of reason. The idea goes back to Christian Huygens,  in the 17th Century. For that reason, any intelligent extraterrestrial would have to be humanoid. His skin might be a different color, as in Gustavus Pope’s Journey to Mars (1894); but he was a human. 

H.G. Wells scoffed at this idea. He fashioned his Martians so that not only their minds were far more rational but their bodies were far more rationally designed. His Martians  vaguely resembled octopuses.

Serviss ignores this because, I am sure, it had been one reason Wells’ novel had unsettled the populace. At first, it seems that the Martians have evolved large heads. However, it turns out that is not true. They have large heads because they have stimulated the portion of the brain they needed. They did not even have to learn anything; that part expanded with the knowledge already there. For some reason, warriors, in particular, ended up with especially large heads.

In short, Phrenology, on Mars, had become an exact science. As far as Serviss was concerned, however, it was used in a wrongheaded manner. Their large heads betrayed intellectual and moral  imbalance. 

The Martians’ only real difference from us was, like in Pope’s novel, because of the lower gravity. They were taller, maybe on average 15 feet. The beings from the asteroids, in even lower gravity, were taller still. Serviss speaks of a 40 foot woman from there.

In many ways, Garrett P. Serviss was very much like George Griffith of Honeymoon in Space. Both were journalists. Both wrote science fiction. Neither one of them was good at characterization. Serviss doesn’t even try. Also, both included all the latest ideas in their books. Finally, both wrote melodramatically in the fashion of their time. 

However, there are differences. Garrett  had a reputation for explaining the science of his time to the masses.  In addition, he was apparently very well informed on it. His field of expertise was astronomy, which he wrote five books on.

While he frequently explains in this novel what, to us, is good science, some of his technology, to us, is absurd. Maybe not for his time, though. As I said in my review of Honeymoon, an anti-gravity drive was considered feasible until the Theory of  Relativity was accepted. Also, many still thought there was something to Phrenology, although not as many as earlier in the 19th Century. As for the disintegrator ray, I gather it still remains theoretically  possible.

However, from the tone of the novel, I suspect Serviss wrote it to be a crowd pleaser. It is an novel of action adventure and daring do, and the practical remains unimportant. Certainly,  a military mission which all the great military and scientific minds of the time take part in sounds more like a child’s fantasy than an adult’s reality. 

Given the nature of the novel, he may not have even been racist. In popular fiction like this, writers who weren’t knew their audience wanted racial slurs, and provided them. They sometimes went to as much trouble to insert them as we do to avoid them. 

In addition, it helped that Serviss mentions so many big names. Since this novel  made Thomas Edison into the savior of Earth, it, of course, had his approval. 

One commentator complained that it should have had the approval of H.G. Wells as well. Why?  Despite its proclaimed objective, it has nothing in common with War of the Worlds

The beginning makes it sound very similar. The Martians, having devastated the Earth, leave it.

However, unlike with Wells, the Earth is hardly helpless. Some Earth men decide the Martians will return unless they can prevent it. Thomas Edison is foremost among them. For a mission to Mars, he conjures up the anti-gravity drive and a disintegrator ray. 

Having developed these, he has the President convene a meeting of all the nations. There we get ethnic stereotypes galore. In particular that of the Kaiser, who is arrogant. He believes Germany should head the project because we Americans are Republican upstarts. However, the German people force him to back down. Another stereotype is that of the Chinese Emperor, who acts like a buffoon. 

The upshot is that the nations of the world promise $25 billion dollars to finance an invasion of Mars. With the money Edison can test his anti-gravity drive  in outer space. When it is successful, he goes for it. 

Edison has a hundred anti-gravity ships built, which will carry twenty crew each. They are supposed to be more maneuverable than the Martians’. However, given the close calls, they can’t be all that much better. Earth is not always the victor in space battles with the Martians.

Also, they are, as I said, manned by the top military and scientific minds of the time. For example, Wihelm Roentgen is there, the inventor of the X-ray; and Lord Kelvin, the great physicist, is there. I am sure that the idea wasn’t that we lose them in one fell swoop. This, as I said, is a kid’s idea of the world: they could only return safely.

One word about Serviss. He never mentions himself by name; however, he does refer to the narrator as”I”.  He seems to be an imbedded reporter, like the imbedded reporters of  the Iraqi War. Unlike today’s imbedded reporters, he helps out wherever he can, and he is totally obedient to Thomas Edison. 

There are wonders galore in the trip to Mars. During their journey, they find that the Moon was once inhabited. Later, they find a solid gold asteroid.

Another wonder yet plays a big part in the plot. They eventually succeed in landing on the Martian surface, entering a building and finding a pretty Earth woman, whom the Martians keep to entertain them with her music. She is the only one of her kind left. The Martians had other Earth slaves killed when Edison’s men starting attacking them. The Martians  feared the slaves would betray them.

The Earth force learns the woman’s language, and it turns out she is a descendant of the original Aryans. Historically, they lived in Iran about 5,000 years ago and our language is derived from theirs. ...Or did Serviss have them living in Egypt? ... In any event, the Martians had abducted a whole bunch of Aryans. And built the pyramids and the Sphinx besides.

The woman is a lucky find. The Earth force had captured a Martian and they had been learning the Martian language  from him; but he dies. Instead, they use the woman to discover intelligence about Mars.

She suggests to the Earth force how they can land a knockout blow. Like in Journey to Mars, Mars has oceans. Also, it has canals and there is a power house that distributes water all over Mars. All this, in actuality, contradicts Percival She suggests to the Earth force how they can land a knockout blow. Like in Journey to Mars Lowell’s theory of the Martian canals, which presupposed a dry Mars. However, those who claimed oceans on Mars and those who claimed canals rarely conflicted.

What the woman proposes is to open the flood gates at the power house and inundate Mars. Which, after a fight, an Earth team succeeds in doing. Edison himself personally finds and uses the mechanism that controls the flood gates. 

While there is still some fighting to come, the anti-gravity ships, this time, live up to the claims made for them, and the Earth forces are wildly successful. Ultimately, the Earth force takes the emperor of Mars prisoner and dictates peace.

 

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