Steampunk Book Review: Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898)
I’m sure you are all familiar with the classic scientific romance, War of the Worlds, but did you know that someone penned a sequel? When H. G. Wells published the original in Pearson’s in the UK, a different version featuring the American landscape was running concurrently in Cosmopolitan Magazine in the States in 1897. By 1898, an American author named Garrett P. Serviss penned a sequel where the Earth strikes back.
As you can glean from the title, Thomas Edison plays a large role in the book. In a short time he creates both a means to travel through space and a sophisticated weapon to fight our alien foe. At first, they were thought of as precautions in case they Martians tried another invasion, but the world powers have a pow-wow and decide that the best defense is a good offense and bankroll the mass-production of his new technology. Around 2,000 men, many of whom are the Earth’s top minds in their fields, embark on the journey, which first takes them to the moon. When they arrive at Mars they find a much more developed society than their meager telescopes could have predicted, with a large population covering several continents.
At first, they are totally at a loss for how to accomplish their task of making the Martians think twice before planning another invasion, until they meet a human slave-girl who is the last human servant left on the planet. Unbeknownst to us, the Martians had actually visited Earth at least one other time thousands of year ago and taken some of our ancestors with them. After their failed invasion and in fear of an uprising, the order had gone out over Mars to kill all of the human slaves, but Aina was kept alive in secret by a Martian general as an entertainer. And her knowledge proves to be their downfall.
There were two things that really struck me about this book. First, Serviss completely changed the nature of the Martians. Rather than being tentacled monsters, they are simply very large humanoid beings. The males have had their brains augmented in much the same fashion as the Selenites in First Men in the Moon so they have really large, misshaped heads, but other than that they are more or less people like us. I thought this was really strange to see in a sequel, and it was a missed opportunity on Serviss’ part to be really creative with look and feel of things on Mars.
The other deviation from the original story was the tone. Wells’ narrator was very pragmatic and his understanding of the Martians was that they were superior beings exerting their will on the human “animals”, much like we might kick over an ant hill. Serviss’ narrative including several references to malice and evil on the part of the Martians, painting them and their intentions with a totally different brush. This probably wouldn’t have bothered me at all if this was a free-standing narrative, but it was obviously meant to be a sequel to Wells’ book and abandoned the spirit of the first.
Like so many scientific romances, this book was also a very interesting study of the life and times in which it was written. There is a portion of the book before they actually land on Mars where they encounter a comet passing close to the planet that is being mined for gold. To me, the idea that an alien race would also have a currency based on gold is downright laughable considering it is actually a rather useless metal besides being shiny, but I am sure it would have been difficult for someone at the end of the 19th century to be able to make that sort of leap. I also thought the section where the world’s leaders all assembled and got into a sort of backwards bidding war to be the ones to donate the most to the cause as a mark of prestige was an interesting commentary on views of nationalism and race. So even with the deviations from Wells’ original story, I would definitely recommend this book to any classic sci-fi fan.
Have you ever read this book or anything else by Garrett P. Serviss? Leave a comment below!