Monday, July 3, 2017

Victorians In Space

While most sci-fi fans are familiar with H.G. Wells' classic The War of the Worlds, they may not have heard of an obscure, fan-fiction style sequel that proved, in some ways, to be just as groundbreaking as its predecessor. 

Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss, now available from Monroe St. Press, started out as a serialized tale published in the New York Evening Journal in 1898. Here, a team of scientists and inventors led by Thomas A. Edison meets with world leaders in the aftermath of War of the Worlds' Martian invasion to plot a counterattack on the Red Planet. 

Armed with disintegrator guns that Edison invented, along with telephonic communications, airtight space suits, and electrically powered spacecraft, the Earth fleet (which includes a number of real-life scientists and scholars) sets out on a mission to insure that Mars never threatens Earth again. Along the way, they explore the Moon and the Asteroid Belt, encounter alien beings, and make shocking discoveries about the history of Earth. 

Edison's Conquest was not published in book form until 1947, almost 50 years after it first appeared in print. It reflects then-current but now outdated scientific ideas of its day, such as the notion that "canals" possibly built by intelligent beings could be seen on the Martian surface. 

But it also contains some amazingly prescient features: it was among the first science fiction tales to depict airtight space suits, laser-like weapons, hand-to-hand combat between humans and aliens, astronauts walking/floating in space, and spacecraft powered or operated by reversing its electro-magnetic polarity. It also was among the first stories to advance the idea that aliens built ancient Earth monuments such as the Egyptian Pyramids.

Serviss, a graduate of Cornell University, was a noted astronomer and lecturer. He wrote science articles for popular magazines and traveled the U.S. in the 1890s,using state-of-the-art lighting and other effects to simulate how Earth might look from space, and what it might be like to stand on the Moon or other extraterrestrial bodies. He also wrote at least 10 books on astronomy, stargazing and the solar system. 

Serviss was, in essence, the Carl Sagan of the late Victorian Era (both were Cornell graduates) and his depiction of space flight is surprisingly accurate for having been written more than 60 years before the first humans went into orbit: 

... the great planet beneath us hung unspeakable in its beauty. The outlines of several of the continents were clearly discernible on its surface, streaked and spotted with delicate shades of varying color, and the sunlight flashed and glowed in long lanes upon the surface of the oceans...
   As we gazed upon this magnificent spectacle, our hearts bounded within us. This was our earth—this was the planet we were going to defend—our home in the trackless wilderness of space. And it seemed to us indeed a home for which we might gladly expend our last breath.