Edison’s Conquest of Mars, by Garrett P. Serviss

By a circuitous route I came across this old novel, conceived as a sequel to War of the Worlds and published in 1898 in serial form. I got my copy on iBooks for free. No copyright. I’ve now discovered that several of H. G. Wells’ own works are there for the same low price. Score.

What drew me to the novel was the preposterous idea of its antigravity spaceships, its journey to Mars, and Thomas Edison at the helm. How can you go wrong here? Pulp, 19th-century style.

What kept me reading to the end … well, aside from sheer stubbornness … was this lingering question whether, and how much, this was like science fiction of a more recent vintage.

I would score it this way. The antigravity spaceship is one of those science fiction hand-waving devices, useful for doing things so far from current technology the author can’t put together a plausible rationale for it. Wells used such devices, too. As such, it fits squarely into the tradition, even if such pseud0-scientific explanations are generally frowned on now.

The rest of the technology is more credible (at least to me: but watch, in ten years we’ll have antigrav airships but not the others). Edison develops a disintegrator gun. It sends a vibration, which causes the substance it strikes to break apart at an atomic level. A nasty weapon, that, and intuitively appealing as futuristic, far-out science.

He invents spacesuits — I’m told this is among their first appearance in literature. The astronauts (not so-called) speak to each other via electrical signals, a kind of wireless tricorder built into the suits. A helmet communications device, perhaps. Anyway the suit was (rightly) to protect them from the lack of air and proper pressure.

On a subtler level, Serviss used real astronomical calculations to lend an air of plausibility to the flight to the Moon and then Mars. He discusses using the Moon as a preliminary step on the way. The Moon happens to be en route to Mars (this isn’t the only convenient plot twist). The rotation of planets, the unwelcome presence of asteroids and comets, gravity — all these properties have a genuine impact on the novel’s action and plot.

Science aside, the novel is an adventure romance (in the old sense). The travelers uncover mysteries on the Moon and Mars. The red planet is described vividly, including Martian ecology, culture, politics, and planetary defense. The travelers uncover strange secrets, too: Egyptian pyramids are finally explained. A cryptic line or two from the Bible factor in. Of course there are space battles (apparently a first in literature, too), and the inevitable triumph of the heroes — Edison especially.

On so many levels, this looks like sf. What makes it feel and read differently are a few writing techniques. It’s rare to fictionalize famous living scientists–not only Edison, but Lord Kelvin and others. The passive voice runs rampant through 19th-century fiction, as far as I can tell. This was no exception. A key plot point hinges on an extremely lucky coincidence, without which the humans stand no chance against the superior armaments of the Martians. Blatant praise for American ingenuity and world-saving prowess is less common now, too, however much the assumption seems to lurk in some works.

Those are obvious weaknesses of this work, at the technical level. I’ve not read anything else from the extensive bibliography of Serviss (most of it non-fiction), but he was clearly a clever fellow. He told a good tale. It had high points and weak points. It wasn’t great literature, but it was exciting even to me, and it surely entertained his readers. It used science and some hand-waving to spin an outlandish tale about interplanetary travel, American ingenuity, luck, and most of all adventure. Sounds like many a good old popular novel to me.

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4 thoughts on “Edison’s Conquest of Mars, by Garrett P. Serviss

  1. Enjoyed the analysis, sounds interesting!

    I started reading science fiction about 3rd or 4th grade on library books that seemed old even then, so they must have mostly been books from the 40s and 50s (one of the tropes at the time was the space ship with large external fuel tanks).

    I remember puzzling over the explanations the authors gave for the various engines, weaponry and other gadgets, and feeling stupid for not understanding it. It wasn’t until some years later that I realized, I couldn’t understand the rationales because they were nonsensical, the pseudo-scientific rationales you mention 🙂

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