ZPi Logo "Serving the Paranoid
since 1997"
Lyle Zapato

Edison's Conquest of Mars

Lyle Zapato | 2005-11-14.5800 LMT | Kelviniana | Entertainment | Technology | Retro

As previously mentioned, Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss is an unauthorized 1898 sequel to H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Unauthorized by Wells, that is. It was authorized by Thomas A. Edison, and the story reads like an Edison promotional vehicle (which it essentially was):

Edison reveals his inventions to the assembled leaders of Earth, including the insufferable Kaiser Wilhelm -- curse his handlebar moustache!

(NOTE: Spoilers, but this book is of more historical interest than dramatic.)

The plot revolves around Edison saving the Earth from a second Martian attack by leading an international counterattack on Mars with his newest inventions: a flying car that contravenes gravity using electromagnetic repulsion and a gun that is able to disintegrate objects by increasing the vibratory swing of their constituent atoms. The latter is notable as the first appearance of a ray-gun in science fiction. The unnamed narrator describes Edison's test of the gun:


I had the good fortune to be present when this powerful engine of destruction was submitted to its first test. We had gone upon the roof of Mr. Edison's laboratory and the inventor held the little instrument, with its attached mirror, in his hand. We looked about for some object on which to try its powers. On a bare limb of a tree not far away, for it was late fall, sat a disconsolate crow.

"Good," said Mr. Edison, "that will do." He touched a button at the side of the instrument and a soft, whirring noise was heard. "Feathers," said Mr. Edison, "have a vibration period of three hundred and eighty-six million per second."

He adjusted the index as he spoke. Then, through a sighting tube, he aimed at the bird.

"Now watch," he said.


Another soft whirr in the instrument, a momentary flash of light close around it, and, behold, the crow had turned from black to white!

"Its feathers are gone," said the inventor; "they have been dissipated into their constituent atoms. Now, we will finish the crow."

Instantly there was another adjustment of the index, another outshooting of vibratory force, a rapid up and down motion of the index to include a certain range of vibrations, and the crow itself was gone—vanished in empty space! There was the bare twig on which a moment before it had stood. Behind, in the sky, was the white cloud against which its black form had been sharply outlined, but there was no more crow.


"That looks bad for the Martians, doesn't it?" said the Wizard.

And with that inauspiciously avicidal passage was born Flash Gordon, Star Trek, Star Wars, and countless other violent space adventures. Edison brought both light to our homes and death to Klingons. Other notable Sci-Fi staples first appearing in this story are space combat (including EVA ray-gun battles) and proper spacesuits (with built-in telephones).

Edison isn't the only 19th century science luminary character as Lord Kelvin also goes along on the adventure. Unfortunately he doesn't get to disintegrate any Martians (at least not explicitly, he is depicted near the end with a "pair of disintegrators hanging by his side, attached to a strap running over the back of his neck, very much as a farmer sometimes carries his big mittens") and is mainly used for scientific exposition. For instance, Kelvin explains to the narrator that stepping off the deck of the car while it's in space is a bad idea since his initial impulse would cause him to drift away, never to return.

Lord Kelvin's Great Jump

At one point after the "Worldian" invasion fleet wins a battle against oxygen-pill-taking Martian miners on an asteroid made of solid gold, Kelvin (who mysteriously has picked up the nickname "Big Kelvin") conducts gravity experiments on the asteroid consisting of flinging chunks of gold into orbit and hopping up and down:

It was one of the most laughable things imaginable to see Lord Kelvin, dressed in his airtight suit, making tremendous jumps in empty space. It reminded me forcibly of what Lord Kelvin, then plain William Thompson [sic], and Professor Blackburn had done when spending a summer vacation at the seaside, while they were undergraduates of Cambridge University. They had spent all their time, to the surprise of onlookers, in spinning rounded stones on the beach, their object being to obtain a practical solution to the mathematical problem of "precession."

Immediately Lord Kelvin was imitated by a dozen others. [...] The figures of these men of science, rising and sinking in this manner, appeared like so many gigantic marionettes bobbing up and down in a pneumatic bottle.

"Let us try that," said Mr. Edison, very much interested in the experiments.

Although the story is an Edison vehicle, he is deferential to Kelvin more so than anyone else in the story, at least in the few parts where Kelvin is referred to. When Edison goes before the leaders of Earth to unveil his flying car and is asked to explain how it works, he says: "I can explain its details to Lord Kelvin, for instance, but if their Majesties will excuse me, I doubt whether I can make it plain to the Crown Heads." (All the leaders take this jokingly in stride except Kaiser Wilhelm, whom Serviss makes numerous digs at.)

This supposed sequel takes some liberties with (or rather, outright ignores) parts of War of the Worlds, particularly the appearance of the Martians. Here they look like giant, disproportioned, bug-eyed humans:

Martian comparative anatomy
Left: Martians. Right: Marty.

By comparison, Wells' Martians were more "pulsating," "fungoid," and "tentacled" ("eldritch" wouldn't come along for another twenty-nine years.)

Manly stories of derring-do are nothing without some tragically beautiful babes in distress. Of course, this being 1898, none of the members of the invasion fleet are women (at least that we know of -- I suppose we can imagine that Marie Curie was on one of the unmentioned cars discovering radium), so instead they encounter their babes along the way.

"By the Seven Devils of Dona Ana we must rescue her from those Indians—I mean Martians!"

Chief among them is Aina, the human slave-girl, rescued from Martians who forced her to play a harp for their twisted, harp-loving amusement. Her people were abducted some 9000 years ago from the Vale of Cashmere (aka the Garden of Eden) and taken to Mars. She speaks an Aryan Urlanguage that is the root of all civilized tongues, but fortunately communication isn't a problem since the invasion fleet brought along a consistently unnamed language professor from the University of Heidelberg who every sentence with a verb ends.

Good ol' Professor What's-his-name cracks the Urlanguage ("I cut off a head" = Ksutaskofa) then teaches Aina English in three weeks. After recounting the history of how the Martians built the Pyramids and the Sphinx (the first mention in literature of this bit of history -- take note von Dänikenites), she explains to them how best to attack Mars: Destroy the gates that hold back the Martian seas and flood the entire planet! (Most of Mars is conveniently below sea level.)

Aina also causes no small amount of tension in the fleet as the various members of the flagship vie for her love. Will she choose the dashing Colonel Alonzo Jefferson Smith, who rescued her from the clutches of the Martian harp aficionados but has flash-backs to the Indian Wars, or the handsome-but-otherwise-nondescript Mr. Sydney Philips, who suddenly materializes in the story for no other purpose than to create a love triangle? And why was Professor Skinny McHeidelberg the Urlanguage translation for "I love" (Levza) in his notebook scribbling? She does end up marrying one of them on the last page, reuniting the Aryan race or somesuch, but you'll just have to read the book to find out whom. (Hint: it's Sydney.)

The other babes are more incidental, but make up for that in size. We learn that while the Martian men are hideous (explained as the result of some sort of phrenological effect where their highly militarized brains affected their countenance) their women are actually quite beautiful, with dark-olive complexions not unlike the women of Spain or Italy, albeit 12-feet tall (or maybe you're into that). We only learn of them near the end when Edison is negotiating the surrender of the Martian Emperor, who has an "array of Martian women" to complement his gold thrown.

Even more for you macrophiles, there's a brief appearance of a 40-foot, Venus-like, slave-girl-in-distress who was taken prisoner by the Martians from her home world of Ceres (apparently the smaller the planet, the bigger the humanoids get). Sadly, and rather pointlessly, she drowns right after being introduced. Her beauty was so tragic that her death causes Mr. Philips to briefly regret unleashing a cataclysmic, genocidal deluge on Mars. Briefly.

Serviss' writing isn't in the same league as Wells and the serialized, newspaper-published form gets to be a bit annoying, as every few paragraphs the story is interrupted for no good reason with a HEADLINE SAYING SOMETHING OBVIOUS, typical of the journalistic style of the time. Ignoring all that, it's still an interesting read since Serviss was ahead of his time in terms of scientifically accurate depictions of space travel (he was an astronomy writer) and inventive Sci-Fi gadgetry.

For some more on the story and the history of its publishing, see this article by René Rondeau (who oddly enough has a book on tinfoil phonographs AFDB smiley).

UPDATE 2005-11-18: This post spurred someone to post about the book at MetaFilter. One of the commentors there found a site with scans of the original story from 1898 New York Evening Journal issues (warning: huge GIFs with lots of dirt/artifacts). They also have the original illustrations (as well as the redone ones from the 1947 reprint), some of which weren't included in the new Apogee Books edition I read. In particular: Lord Kelvin's Great Jump (I added a version of it to the appropriate place above.)

UPDATE 2007-10-25: Egads! I just noticed that I misspelled the author's name throughout this post. Corrected. Also, there's now a Project Gutenberg version of the book available for download.

End of post.