Robyn Spengler, EBM South Portland
We’ve had a Weird Old Book Sighting!
In this series, we talk about strange or interesting public domain titles which are available to print on the EBM. Whether you’ve heard of them or not, it’s a fair bet you’ll have a hard time tracking these books down through the usual channels. Of course, with the EBM, you can print even the most unusual books, and save yourself the trouble of hunting.
Today we will be looking at Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett Putnam Serviss, published in 1898. If that title doesn’t intrigue you right away, then I don’t know what will. For reference, the Edison in the title is, indeed, Thomas Edison the inventor. And yes, he does conquer Mars. Also, this is considered to be a sequel (more or less) to the H.G. Wells Classic, the War of the Worlds.
There’s more. This book has more than just a ludicrously intriguing plot hook, and a puzzling pedigree; this is a book with a fascinating history, which has contributed in numerous ways to pop culture, especially the foundations of the then burgeoning sci-fi genre.
Let’s start at the beginning, with H.G. Wells and copyright law (I promise this is not as boring as it sounds!). When the classic War of the Worlds was first published, it was in serial form in Pearson’s Magazine, which was pretty standard for many novels of that time period. It wasn’t until the full run of the story had passed through the magazine that the book was collected into the volume we all know and love today.
Sometime between the magazine serialization and the book publication, The New York Evening Journal and The Boston Evening Post each picked up the story, made a few changes, and re-published the entire run in their respective newspapers. Copyright law was a great deal looser in those days, and while there is some controversy regarding whether the New York version was agreed upon (which Wells may have accidentally allowed when he gave the story to Pearson’s), the Boston version was totally unauthorized and was published despite some rather vehement protests on the author’s part.
The resulting stories, re-titled Fighters from Mars, were re-located from England into the two papers’ respective locations. It’s mostly the same story, though both of them portray a more devastating version of the war against the Martians, with the human population decimated in the aftermath.
Fighters from Mars proved insanely popular, so much so that a sequel was commissioned by The New York Evening Journal, to be published in the newspaper once Fighters had finished its run. Once again, because of the wobbly nature of copyright in this era, especially where the idea of intellectual property hadn’t quite been invented yet, Wells’ hands were tied, legally. Back then, there was nothing preventing the publication of something which amounted to fan fiction and selling it for profit. For whatever reason, they chose their astronomy writer, Garrett Putnam Serviss to do the job.
Mr. Serviss was the Bill Nye the Science Guy of his time, (or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or Mister Wizard, pick your own generationally appropriate comparison) with a specialization in astronomy. He could have done nearly anything with his life, but he committed himself to increasing the understanding of his fellow man. He had a degree in science from Cornell, and a law degree from Columbia, but he never did any work as a lawyer. He much preferred writing and lecturing, primarily about his pet subject. He was known for taking the concepts of astronomy and breaking them down for the layman, and had already written his first book (of many) on this subject when he was approached to write Conquest. His work helped the common person to understand a subject that was mostly in the purview of those few who could afford a college education. In addition, he conducted lectures for the public, sometimes including a Magic Lantern (which projected the stars on the walls of a dark room, basically serving as a portable precursor to those laser light shows at the planetarium) to make the lectures more entertaining and easier to understand.
Here’s an Ad for one of them. It uses candles, for Pete’s sake.
Mr. Serviss began work on his first fictional story a little more than a month after the last part of Fighters from Mars was published. Billed as a sequel, it was only really a spiritual sequel, at best. None of the original War of the Worlds characters appear. The Martians themselves are different, both in appearance and temperament. There are two completely new alien races which appear, despite not ever being mentioned in War of the Worlds, -or- Fighters from Mars. It seems as though the author was given only the briefest of synopses on the book he was supposed to be creating a sequel to; something along the lines of “Martians invade Earth, are killed off by germs,” which is the only connecting detail between the two stories.
So, we’re talking about a pop science celebrity writing an unofficial sequel to the unauthorized re-write of an extremely popular book, a book the author may have never read, which he decided, for whatever reason, to turn into a giant love letter to Thomas Edison (oh, and the obligatory self-insert. Though he doesn’t make a big deal of it, a “Professor Serviss” is the narrator). This is pretty exceptional, all on its own, but there’s more!
If you read sci-fi, you may be familiar with such concepts as the disintegrator ray, alien abduction, the vacuum sealed space suit, the airlock, asteroid mining, or perhaps the idea that ancient monuments were created by an alien race. After all, these are some pretty basic premises for thousands of sci-fi novels.
This book may be the first time any of the above concepts were used in fiction. Think about that for a second. In 1898, most people were still travelling by horse or train. Electric light hadn’t yet moved into residential areas; most people were still reading by gas lamp and candlelight.
No one had been in space at all, yet, and this guy is thinking to himself; “Well, if people are going to travel in space ships, they’re obviously going to need protection from the vacuum. I’ll put them in airtight suits, and make sure that all the air doesn’t leak out of the ship when they get out,” and “Aliens don’t need to invade, necessarily, they could just scoop people up, and take them away,” and “Geez, the sphinx is big, and no one knows for sure how it got there. I wonder if aliens did it?” That’s groundbreaking!
Admittedly, the scientific community had been hypothesizing that there was no air in space for centuries but they obviously didn’t know that for certain, yet. And Serviss, as a recreational mountain climber, may have just been extrapolating based on the way air gets thin the higher you go, but it’s still a big leap to go from “It’s hard to breathe at the top of the Matterhorn” (Serviss actually climbed the Matterhorn, by the way) to “spaceships clearly need an airlock,” and then creating a plausible plan for how one would work. The other common tropes used here require similarly astounding leaps in logic, which created ideas so innovative and unique, which resonated so well with public consciousness, that science fiction writers are still using them to this day.
Of course, this book is still a product of his time. The way it handles certain social issues is a bit cringe-worthy, and the gung ho “Go, Science go!” sentiment seems a bit naïve and childish in a post atomic bomb society. There’s nothing that sets it too far outside the bounds of the time period, though, and readers who typically enjoy works of the era will find nothing more untoward than usual.
So, Sci Fi fans, meet the long lost forgotten great grandfather of your genre. He’s a bit backward, a bit crazy, and he’s really hung up on Thomas Edison. But, that being said, he has an entertaining story to tell, and he was one of the writers who set down the roots of the genre. This is a must for the sci-fi fan who has read everything, and it’s available upon request at the Books-A-Million Espresso Book Machine! Want a copy for yourself? Contact me and we’ll get one printed just for you!