It is January 12, 1898. The modern city of New York just came into being when Brooklyn merged with the other boroughs. Tensions escalate between the US and Spain, and war is widely considered inevitable even with the sinking of the Maine a month away. Also, fun fact, some in Congress are suggesting that we ought to annex Japan. Tomorrow, Emile Zola will publish J’accuse, his defense of
Richard Alfred Dreyfus. Friday, Lewis Carroll will die.
Topping the charts are “Eli Green’s Cake Walk” by Cullen and Collins, and the Manhattan Beach March by John Phillips Sousa and his band. Also, a bunch of songs I won’t mention because I am fairly sure their titles are now considered racial slurs. Speaking of which, Way Down East opens in New York, a play which will later be adapted to film by pioneering racist filmmaker D. W. Griffith. Yeah, sorry. 1898 is not a time period I have a lot of source materials for.
If you’re the reading sort, though, you may have just finished up reading one of two serials entitled Fighters From Mars, one in the New York Evening Journal, and the other in Boston Post. These two serials were attempts to capitalize on the popularity of a certain serial that had made its US debut the previous year in Cosmopolitan. And by “capitalize”, I mean, “rip the fuck off”, because Fighters From Mars, in both its versions, were just The War of the Worlds with all the geographical references translated to New York and Boston respectively, and all the boring science parts omitted. And they got away with it because I don’t know why. Probably something to do with international copyright law being a total clusterfuck back then, as opposed to the mild clusterfuck it is today.
But in both cities, Fighters From Mars was followed up by a piece of original fiction by science and science fiction writer Garrett P. Serviss. A bit of a late Victorian Carl Sagan, Serviss was a writer and lecturer on science who helped to popularize astronomy at the turn of the century.
At the time, there was a bit of a fad on for a genre of fiction now called the “Edisonade”, fictionalized accounts of the life of Thomas Edison, who, at the time, was basically the Chuck Norris of Science, and because no one had found out how awesome and crazy Nikola Tesla was yet. And as Fighters From Mars wound up, Serviss decided to follow it up with a sequel in the form of an Edisonade, Edison’s Conquest of Mars.
Preemptively fulfilling the promise of Goliath, it’s the story of Thomas Edison and a star-studded cast unlocking the miracles of super-science to take the fight back to Mars. Hilarity and genocide ensues.
If we take The War of the Worlds to be Science Fiction’s Dracula, Edison’s Conquest of Mars is Varney the Vampire. It’s a pulpy action story that does all the tropetastic science fictiony things Wells refuses to. It’s got space battles, disintegration beams, alien abductions, food cubes, even aliens building the pyramids. If it weren’t for the fact that every chapter doesn’t begin with retconning the end of the previous one, you could see this getting turned into a Republic serial. It’s also weirdly star-studded, featuring Thomas Edison, of course, but also Lord Kelvin and Wilhelm Röntgen in prominent roles, with guest appearances by William McKinley, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Emperor Mutsuhito. Which must have been awkward what with Congress grumbling about whether or not we should conquer him. Weirdly, the book retains Wells’s convention of telling the story from the point of view of an unnamed (It’s an author self-insert. He’s named in an illustration caption as “Professor Serviss”, but his name doesn’t appear in the text of the story) science writer.
But just because Serviss’s sequel is aimed at a more lowbrow audience, it’s not simply a big dumb space adventure. Serviss’s science-fetishism has a different focus from Wells’s, but it’s no less prominent. Where Wells would go on lengthy digressions about alien biology and obsess over the horror of something that can be explained and justified enough to sound plausible yet utterly other, Serviss’s interests are based more around engineering. He devotes a lot of time to describing the man-made technological miracles that result from studying Martian derelicts. Rather than an interest in what shape life and technology might take arising under completely different conditions, Serviss’s speculative science is grounded more firmly in being just one or two steps askew of reality. Space flight and death rays are depicted not as something utterly alien, but rather as only a couple of breakthroughs away from the readers’ own reality. It is, in essence, steampunk, but approached from the opposite direction: rather than contemporary writers trying to invoke the trappings of Victorian science fiction, this is a Victorian writer trying to anticipate science fiction of the 1950s. Being just a step askew of reality describes the science of Edison’s Conquest of Mars in other ways too: his Martians are not cephalopods, but large, lumpy humanoids, not far off from the rubber forehead aliens of Star Trek.
The story opens with the final retreat of the Martians. New Jersey briefly reenters our larger story, as the few Martian survivors evacuate the planet from Bergen County in a “projectile car” launched by an explosion so powerful that it collapses the Palisades and levels the remains of New York City (which, don’t forget, literally only started existing in its modern form today). But despite the great destruction around the globe, mankind recovered, with the countries and regions which had been far from the fighting sending aid to help in the rebuilding. Serviss makes a surprisingly insightful observation, and one which is particularly relevant to us, given what I’ve been saying about the “alien amnesia” angle of the TV series:
But the worst was not yet. More dreadful than the actual suffering and the scenes of death and devastation which overspread the afflicted lands was the profound mental and moral depression that followed. This was shared even by those who had not seen the Martians and had not witnessed the destructive effects of the frightful engines of war that they had imported for the conquest of the earth. All mankind was sunk deep in this universal despair
Further dispiriting mankind were the observations by astronomers of increased activity on Mars, taken to indicate that a renewed invasion was being prepared. “But there was a gleam of hope of which the general public as yet knew nothing,” Serviss tells the reader, though: “It was due to a few dauntless men of science, conspicuous among whom were Lord Kelvin, the great English savant; Herr Roentgen, the discoverer of the famous X ray, and especially Thomas A. Edison, the American genius of science.” Headquartered at Edison’s lab (whose survival is kind of a surprise, given the scale of the destruction to north Jersey: Edison was based, as the story confirms, in West Orange), the world’s most famous scientists had learned from the Martian debris and figured out how to reproduce and counter the power of the invaders.
This is simultaneously the most and least steampunk thing about the book: there’s actually no steam. It’s 1898, the age of the miracles of electricity. Everything, everything in this story is electrical. The word appears over a hundred times. Edison’s key breakthrough from the Martian debris is, “How to produce, in a limited space, electricity of any desired potential and of any polarity, and that without danger to the experimenter or to the material experimented upon.” Pretty much everything falls out from that. First and foremost, since (Serviss finds this somehow both too technical and too obvious to need to explain beyond an analogy to the tail of a comet which sounds like complete bullshit to me) gravity can be counteracted by an electrical force, Edison’s discovery leads immediately to the invention of powered flight, a whole five years before a non-bullshit method of powered flight would be invented by a couple of bicycle repairmen. By polarizing the exterior of an airtight metal craft, one of those great old-timey bullet-shaped science fiction space ships, Edison could make the ship repel itself away from the Earth. A test-flight to the moon proves the whole thing plausible enough that humanity gets the bright idea of invading Mars, and it’s on.
Edison’s next miracle invention is… A sonic screwdriver. Sort of. The word “sonic” never comes up — not “electric” enough for this story. But that’s pretty much what it is. A weapon which induces harmonic vibrations in whatever it’s aimed at. Turn the dial to the resonant frequency of the dominant material in something, push the button, and it vibrates itself out of existence. Edison demonstrates this by setting it to 386 MHz (Yes. Edison has documented the harmonic frequency of feathers) and vaporizing all the feathers off of a bird. And then he does a quick frequency sweep to disintegrate the rest of the bird. Because Edison is a dick. To demonstrate that the device had applicability beyond torturing small animals, he deploys a battery of the devices to safely demolish a dangerously unstable condemned building.
A warfleet is commissioned, and ahead of its launch, all the important nations send their leaders to Washington to celebrate, and here things get silly for a bit. Kaiser Wilhelm throws a brief fit, jealous that a good old-fashioned monarch like him should have to take a backseat in the greatest war ever waged by man to a democratic republic. He also gets upset when Edison declines to attempt to make the science of the Disintegrator, “Plain to the crowned heads.” (Czar Nicholas gets a kick out of that). Wilhelm is also bothered by the smell when Edison demonstrates the disintegrator on an inkwell. I know next to nothing about Kaiser Wilhelm, but I do love the idea of him just being a belligerent jackass who wants to prove his length and girth by getting his war on, given that more or less that is how the history of the German Empire is going to go.
There’s a big go-round to fund the mission, whose price tag is estimated at $25 billion (Being 1898, it’s phrased in the delightfully archaic “twenty-five thousand millions of dollars”), about $650 billion in today’s money. Which frankly is ridiculously cheap for an interplanetary war. With no one wanting to be outdone, the US immediately puts up a billion, to the delight of everyone, even, “One of the Roko Tuis, or native chiefs, from Fiji,” who, “Sprang up and brandished a war club.” Yeah. This book is going to be just delightful in its fair and nuanced treatment of other cultures (The author seems to be particularly enamored with the Emperor of China, who’s described as friendly and affable, is amused by everything, prone to dispensing Ancient Chinese Wisdom, and whose dialogue I won’t quote here because it all sounds like it’s coming out of the mouth of a white college girl whose YouTube video is about to go viral. Sufficed to say, if this were adapted for the screen, he’d be played by Christopher Lee in yellowface). A bidding war breaks out between the Germans and the British, and the king of Siam throws in a huge diamond. Since the author is American, the US agrees to scratch up the difference after the various countries of the world have all been shamed or goaded into bankrupting themselves, and Edison’s given a no-bid contract not subject to any sort of oversight. Nice work if you can get it.
The fleet launches six months later, a hundred ships strong. The narrator scores a spot on Edison’s flagship. It’s never explained why he’s got so much access to Edison, but you don’t really need to justify a media-savvy guy like Edison singling out a reporter prone to fawning. Also assigned to the flagship are Lord Kelvin, Lord Rayleigh, Röntgen, Sylvanus P. Thompson, and, randomly, Moissan (the guy who invented Moissanite). During their shakedown cruise to the moon, one of the ships is pierced by a meteor, killing “two or three” of the crew. The others are safely evacuated from the airless ship and eventually recover, because what’s a couple of hours sucking on hard vacuum?
They stop over on the moon to bury the dead and repair the damaged ship, and discover that though it’s just as uninhabitable as in the real world, it had presumably not always been so, as there’s evidence of a long-gone civilization, including a giant footprint. Now, when I was a kid, it felt like it was a convention in adventure stories, children’s and adults’ alike, that the heroes in an adventure story weren’t allowed any sort of material gain: the Grail falls into the pit when the seal opens up, One-Eyed Willy’s ship breaks through the cliff wall and sails out into the sunset, Alexander the Great’s tomb self-destructs, the treasure in the old haunted mansion is “worthless” Confederate money, the Atlantean computer made out of platinum falls into the magma pit, the alien healing device disintegrates when touched, the super-warp-drive engine breaks after one use, that sort of thing. The only stuff you got to take home with you was fake rewards like “self-confidence” and “character”, and if any of the plot coupons you collected along the way actually did have a resale value, they had to be expended in the final battle. I didn’t cotton on at the time, but that was a fairly recent adventure trope when I started encountering it. In older adventure stories, like, say, this one, adventuring was in large part all about that, ahem, booty, with loving descriptions of the valuable swag the heroes won along the way. Accordingly, the moon’s got mountains made of diamond (Probably. Moissan offers that they might be something similar to diamond but even more valuable. Because space.), and everyone resolves that what with the moon diamonds, this invasion will basically pay for itself.
Which is good because they nearly blow it upon leaving the moon. A comet passes by the fleet and they all get caught up in its gravity, the unpredictably changing electrical charge from the comet’s tail making it impossible for them to break free. They’re only saved when the comet passes close to Earth, allowing them to lock on to the greater mass. I was surprised to see this development foreshadowed earlier in the story: while discussing their proving flights on the first “electric car” (He never really settles on one good name for the spacecraft), Serviss explains that, as it moved by effectively using electromagnetism to push itself away from the ground, if another object approached with, “electrical polarities unknown to or unexpected by the navigators,” the vehicle would be unexpectedly pushed or pulled until they could compensate. Moreover, without a large nearby mass to lock onto, the ships were effectively ballistic, able to perform only limited maneuvering by pushing off of each other. Yup, it’s electric (Boogie-Woogie-Woogie).
After apologizing to the people of Earth for getting them all worked up (Hey! The battle fleet’s back! You guys conquer Mars yet? Oh.) and showing off their moon diamonds, they set out for Mars again. Then we skip forward about a month because there’s a whole lot of nothing between Earth and Mars. We rejoin our heroes about three fourths of the way to the red planet, when they encounter a large, previously undiscovered asteroid, and see signs of life on its surface. Pulling up close, they turn their telescopes on the asteroid and get their first look at the Martians themselves.
Excuse me while I wet myself in terror. Yeah, the Martians are super goofy. At least twice the size of the humans, bug-eyed, with a disproportionately large head that’s misshapen for reasons that are explained later. Also, for whatever reason, they dress like Elizabethans with World War I aviator hats and goggles. The group on the asteroid are crash survivors. The humans assume them to be the predicted second wave of Mars’s invasion, who’d run afoul of the asteroid, their ships lacking the maneuverability of Edison’s design, but later realize that they’re actually pirates, who’d been shot down while raiding an asteroid mine. The Martians are able to incinerate two of the Earth ships with their heat ray — which, too, is described in electrical terms, its beam likened to a lightning bolt and emitted from a “bulb” — and our first proper space battle begins. The Earth ships confuse the Martians by attacking from multiple angles, and by a happy accident, it turns out that Edison’s disintegrator has a greater effective range than the heat ray.
Suddenly a repetition of the quick movement by the Martians, which had been the forerunner of the former coup, was observed; again a blinding flash burst from their war engine and instantaneously a shiver ran through the frame of the flagship; the air within quivered with strange pulsations and seemed suddenly to have assumed the temperature of a blast furnace.
The flagship takes a hit from a distance, and though some of the crew are momentarily incapacitated, it doesn’t suffer any damage. Edison puts on a space suit, steps outside, and disintegrates the emitter bulb off of the heat ray. The other ships follow suit and easily dispatch the Martians before Edison can signal them to stop, not wanting, “To murder them without necessity.” The ships land, and Edison deals with the single survivor using a stun gun he’s invented. Curiously, the stunning weapon isn’t electrical, but rather, “By means of which a bubble, strongly charged with a powerful anesthetic agent, could be driven to a considerable distance into the face of an enemy, where, exploding without other damage, it would instantly put him to sleep.” While the prisoner is being secured, the narrator finally gets around to mentioning gravity, explaining the low gravity of the moon, and the lack of gravity in open space, telling an anecdote of how he’d decided to go for a space-walk some weeks earlier, secure that Newtonian physics would maintain his velocity relative to the space-car even once he’d stepped outside. Only a warning from Lord Kelvin reminded him that whatever force he used to push off from the car would be all the delta-vee he was going to get. Then Edison warned him off, fearing that the others would want to try it too and all end up lost in space.
This is all set-up for the reveal that, still interested in weight and weightlessness, Serviss weighed himself on the surface of the asteroid and found his weight to be five and a quarter ounces, rather than the ounce and a half he’d predicted, and this leads them to the discovery that the asteroid is composed almost entirely of gold, which will come in handy if the Cybermen show up. There’s a bit of discussion about how such a thing could happen, but they don’t dwell on it too much as, “Gold is a thing which may make its appearance anywhere and at any time without offering any excuses or explanations.”
The second battle of this war takes place when the Martian army arrives to arrest the pirates and finds humans instead. The Martians underestimate the humans, trying to capture them rather than incinerate them immediately upon landing, but Edison’s personal death ray develops a fault at a key moment, and the rest of the crew have the marksmanship skills of an Imperial Stormtrooper, costing a dozen lives before the heat ray is disabled. Six more are killed by Martian hand-weapons, but the Martians are again routed. Then there’s a digression where, upon seeing some of their comrades land right back where they started after running away so fast that they launched themselves into orbit, everyone has a go at throwing themselves around the planet and tossing gold nuggets at the Earth for luck.
The detour to the asteroid doubles the length of the last leg of their expedition, because electricity! and all (The bigger the thing you’re launching from, the faster you can go), and they spend the time learning the Martian language from their prisoner, who becomes cooperative once they give him his oxygen pills and earn his respect by demonstrating their combat skill. There’s a comic aside where the American, French, and German linguist argue over whose language the highly advanced alien’s will most resemble. It’s scenes like that that do a lot to render the otherwise insufferably late 19th century racism palatable (Still not acceptable, but something that you can look at and grimly chuckle at what complete shits 19th century white men were). Yes, Serviss might unironically use stereotypes about non-Europeans, up to and including having the Emperor of China’s dialogue sound like Beatrice Lille in Thoroughly Modern Millie), but the way he presents the characters from all nations, even the Americans, deliberately plays up the ridiculousness of their respective bigotries.
Dumb luck, you may have noticed, has been a major contributor to human success in this story. I’m not sure how I feel about that from a storytelling perspective, but it’s certainly interesting in a story that’s so invested in the magic and majesty of modern science and technology. On the one hand, there’s something unsatisfying about having so much of the plot hinge on continual strokes of luck. But contrariwise, this kind of Great White Inventor story has a terrible habit of lapsing into “Mighty Whitey curbstomps backward furriners because we’re just so awesome” territory. The luck factor helps this story achieve a balance that’s unusual for a story of this vintage. The humans possess a certain technological superiority due to Edison’s unusual genius: the disintegrator and the electric ships of the humans are a little bit better than the heat rays and ballistic cylinders of the Martians. But this doesn’t turn the whole thing into a Stephen Ratliff space battle, with Her Royal Highness Admiral Marissa Amber Flores Mos Def Picard, DFA, Heavweight Champion of the World** tossing off one-liners as she slaughters the entire Romulan armada without losing a single redshirt. No, the Martians are still formidable opponents, skilled at war, and with a massive homefield advantage. As we’ve seen, while the disintegrator has a longer range, the Earth ships have no defense against the Martian heat ray, which also seems to have a greater rate of fire, and could incinerate an entire Earth ship outright in a single shot, unlike the disintegrators, whose precise destructive effect had to be carefully aimed to incapacitate large targets. So we’re left with a situation which really seems to appreciate the difficulty involved in waging a war of conquest a long way away with technologically superior but numerically finite resources in a way that, say, the Bush administration did not. Also, there’s something clever in the way that the human campaign succeeds against odds largely due to serendipity, inverting how the Martian invasion failed despite odds largely due to misfortune.
The next stroke of luck for the Earthmen is that their prisoner happens to have a copy of Martianese For Dummies in his pocket, so by the time they make orbit, they’ve picked up enough to make light conversation. Even with their detour, the armada reaches Mars just over two months after their departure from Earth, prompting fears that I am already two months and four thousand words in and Edison hasn’t actually done any conquering of the Martians yet. It only took Santa a couple of days. So you know what? I’m going to stop here and save the invasion of Mars proper for Christmas week, if only because it makes the timing come out better when we go back to the TV show. See you next week.