Friday, May 31, 2019

Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss

Neither as fun nor as exciting as its title implies
Edison’s Conquest of Mars, a science fiction novel by American author and astronomer Garrett P. Serviss, was published in 1898. It was written as a sequel to Fighters from Mars, an Americanized version of the H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds, that was serialized in the New York Evening Review in December of 1897 and January of 1898. Neither Wells nor Thomas Edison had anything to do with the writing or publication of Edison’s Conquest of Mars, but apparently copyright laws were lax enough back then to allow this unauthorized sequel to be released.

Serviss immediately picks up right where Wells left off. The aliens, having invaded Earth in The War of the Worlds, have departed our planet in defeat. In doing so, however, they set off an enormous explosion that levels New York City. Eager for retaliation and unwilling to wait passively for the next Martian strike, the citizens of Earth decide to go on the offensive and attack the Martians where they live. Several prominent scientists gather to solve the technological problems necessary to accomplish this feat, led by American inventor Thomas Edison. Edison invents a spaceship that uses electricity to achieve anti-gravity propulsion and a disintegrator ray that serves as a powerful weapon. The monarchs and heads of state of all the nations of the world gather in Washington, DC to discuss the plan of attack and contribute financial support to the war effort. Soon enough war machines are manufactured to launch a military campaign against Mars. A force of 100 electric ships departs Earth, each staffed with 20 men. Edison himself captains the flagship and leads the Earth forces into battle.

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator who rides alongside Edison in the flagship. Even so, it might as well have been written in an impersonal third person voice, since all events are described in a very bland journalistic style. Edison never really becomes a character in the book, nor does the narrator for that matter. In fact, there is almost no character development in this novel. Only a few people are named, and they never develop personalities. The size of the Earth force allows hundreds of nameless fighting men to perish in battle, but they are all unknown soldiers as far as the reader is concerned. The Martians are not the fearsome octopus-like creatures of The War of the Worlds, but rather humanoid beings not too different from us. The males are extremely tall and bug-eyed, but of course the females are beautiful, even by Earth standards. Also disappointing is the fact that Earth wins its victory not so much on the basis of technological superiority or intelligent strategy, but rather just because they take advantage of a convenient loophole that magically wins the war in one fell swoop. Even when you take into account that this story is set on a Victorian-era Mars with oceans, canals, and cities, this climactic maneuver defies belief as it seems to violate the laws of nature.

With his optimistic faith in technology and trust in the worldwide brotherhood of man, Serviss’s writing bears more resemblance to that of Jules Verne than to the often pessimistic visions of Wells. Serviss certainly seems to have a firm grasp on the science of his era, and his depictions of spaceship dogfights are surprisingly advanced considering the airplane hadn’t even been invented yet. There is a reason, however, that Wells and Verne are household names and Serviss is not. This novel just isn’t very good. There is no denying this book was ahead of its time, but that doesn’t keep it from being dull and lacking in literary merit.
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