Monday, September 3, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Edison's Conquest of Mars

When I was a child, one of my favorite stories was The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, which I knew from original 1898 novel (and whose opening lines I can still quote from memory to this day) and the 1953 movie I must have one Saturday afternoon while visiting my grandmother. To say that the book had a huge impact on my youthful imagination would be an understatement; for many years after first encountering it I had dreams -- or, perhaps more accurately, nightmares -- of alien invasions of Earth. This is probably what has fueled my lifelong interest in UFOs, extra-terrestrials, and ancient astronauts. And while I'm considerably more skeptical of such things today than I was then (which is to say I don't believe in them at all), I nevertheless retain a great fondness for Wells's masterpiece.

Consequently, when I recently learned of the existence of an unauthorized sequel to The War of the Worlds, also published in 1898, I was greatly intrigued. Called Edison's Conquest of Mars, the novel was written by Garrett P. Serviss, an American astronomer, and was initially serialized in the New York Evening Journal. It was later collected together and published as a whole in 1947 by Carcosa House. Since then it's been republished, often in abridged form, by several other publishers, but you can also read it online, since it's now in the public domain.

Like much late 19th century literature, Edison's Conquest of Mars is very long and given to extensive digressions that detract from one's enjoyment. Serviss's prose is baroque and oddly composed, but it's worth enduring because his ideas are interesting and, in retrospect, prescient, at least insofar as science fiction goes. Written in the first person, from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, Edison's Conquest of Mars begins by both revealing its connection to Wells's original and by immediately expanding on it, as any good sequel ought:
It is impossible that the stupendous events which followed the disastrous invasion of the earth by the Martians should go without record, and circumstances having placed the facts at my disposal, I deem it a duty, both to posterity and to those who were witnesses of and participants in the avenging counterstroke that the earth dealt back at its ruthless enemy in the heavens, to write down the story in a connected form.
The Martians had nearly all perished, not through our puny efforts, but in consequence of disease, and the few survivors fled in one of their projectile cars, inflicting their cruelest blow in the act of departure.
From this, Serviss goes on to explain that the fleeing Martians had left behind "a mysterious explosive, of unimaginable puissance" in Bergen County, New Jersey -- a device so powerful that it destroyed what remained of New York and the surrounding towns. The destruction not only slays tens of thousands of people, but causes seismic shocks in Britain and on the continent of Europe. In the aftermath of the Martian invasion and the destruction of New York,
Differences of race and religion were swallowed up in the universal sympathy which was felt for those who had suffered so terribly from an evil that was as unexpected as it was unimaginable in its enormity.
Fearing that the Martians might choose to return to Earth to deliver a death-blow against a weakened mankind, the greatest human minds begin a desperate race to understand the Martians' technology and harness it so that they might be repulsed should this inevitable second attack come. Though Lord Kelvin, Herr Roentgen, and others throw themselves into this great task, it is -- as one might expect, given the story's title -- Thomas Edison who succeeds and gives humanity the means to defend itself against the alien invaders from the Red Planet.

Edison's first invention after understanding the Martians' machinery is to build a "flying ship," which uses the "principle of electrical attraction and repulsion" to overcome gravity. A test flight to the Moon proves Edison's genius, a fact made all the more apparent by his invention of a "disintegrator" weapon. Now, the nations of Earth -- led by the United States, "whose leadership was never for a moment questioned abroad" -- meet in Washington to decide what to do with these great discoveries and how best to protect humanity from the Martian threat.

Though initially considering a defensive posture in dealing with the Martians, the assembled leaders of the world come to agree that a better option is an offensive one -- taking the wars to Mars rather than waiting for it to return to Earth. With each nation pledging men and materiel for this cosmic effort, Edison then sets about building a fleet of flying ships, armed with disintegrators, to send into the void of space. In addition, Edison invents spacesuits, an "aerial telegraph," and other marvels to assist in the coming war. The human fleet stops first at the Moon, which they discover was once inhabited but was now a dead world. They also discover gems, crystals, and other materials that might aid them in the construction of yet more devices to use against the Martians.

The story continues on at some length, describing both the wonders Earth men encounter and their preparations for war. As I said, Serviss is a windy writer, given to extensive digressions and his prose leaves much to be desired in terms of beauty. Yet, he throws out so many amazing ideas, from asteroid mining to Martian meddling in Earth's past, that it's hard not to be impressed by the man's imagination, especially when you consider he wrote this story in 1898, well before most of these things had become staples of science fiction literature. Edison's Conquest of Mars is, frankly, an amazing novel from a historical perspective, even if it's far from great literature. 


  1. A brief comment on the original that spawned the sequel, I think the thing that strikes me about Wells' prose is how readable it is. The imagery in "War of the Worlds" is downright cinematic, I can imagine the scenes playing out on a screen. Pretty impressive, I'd say, for a novel written in the earliest days of motion pictures.

  2. I love War of the Worlds, both the novel and the 1953 movie version. (Who wouldn't enjoy seeing Los Angeles destroyed.) I hadn't heard of "Edison's Conquest;" now you have me intrigued.

    It's also a great period for gaming -- the age before the "Golden Age" of science fiction. Space 1889 was one of my favorite games, in spite of the weak mechanics.

  3. I originally heard about this on IIRC, a lot of the ideas in the book are very ahead of their time.

  4. In my unauthorised sequel to the unauthorised sequel, it turns out that Edison stole all his inventions from Tesla.

  5. This would make for kickass campaign.

  6. I bet this is what inspired the XCOM computer games from the 90s, wherein you are tasked with running a global super agency (the Xtra terrestrial COMbat agency) who has access to the world's best scientists, engineers and soldiers and who must shoot down UFO's with interceptors and then raid the crash sites. Technology must be captured from the superior aliens and then researched to even the odds, bases defended from retaliatory alien attacks and alien bases must be infiltrated and destroyed. What makes the game so difficult is that you must get good radar coverage over most of the planet or the regions drop their funding - or drop out of the project altogether (and side with the invaders!).

  7. I wonder if the "Martians invade New Jersey" part of the fanfic made its way to Orson Welles' library...

  8. Wow, this really makes Space 1889's setting seem a lot less original. I'm not denigrating Frank Chadwick's very fine work on that game, but things that to me previously seemed daringly creative and new are now revealed to be lifted nearly whole cloth from this earlier work. Still, that is how things are, and Space 1889's setting is still very good. (The system mechanics are another story...)

  9. Actually, it is an unauthorized sequel to an unauthorized remix. Fighters from Mars was a serialization of War of the Worlds in The Boston Evening Post that had been heavily re-written to have the events take place in New England as opposed England. Hence the discussion of the destruction of New York. In fact, my reading of the original novel indicates all the Martian landings in it took place in England, perhaps merely in greater London.

    While I can't say for sure, given the time line it is distinctly possible Severiss was unware of Well's original and only know the altered version.

  10. There are few facts that might need to be pointed out. 1. This was a newspaper serial when it came out & its one of the reason's its windy & wordy. 2. These Martians are very different from Well's tentacled lovelies, 3. Frank Chadwick's borrows some of the ideas from here but not many. Frank zig left with his Martians. While Edison commits mass genocide on the Martians..
    Serviss was pretty good at what he did but this is a very different animal then either Wells or Mr. Chadwick's creation. Good stuff & I've used it for gaming. Lots of potential for Steampunk

  11. Matthew James StanhamSeptember 4, 2012 at 8:44 AM

    I bet this is what inspired the XCOM computer games from the 90s.

    Jut what I was thinking!

  12. Matthew James StanhamSeptember 4, 2012 at 8:45 AM

    Just what I was thinking!