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Edison's Conquest of Mars
Jamais Cascio, 19 Nov 05

edisonmars_sm.gifGiven the relative success of the recent War of the Worlds movie, based on H. G. Wells' 1897 novel, I wonder if anyone will make a movie version of the book's sequel from the next year, Edison's Conquest of Mars.

You probably haven't heard of Edison's Conquest of Mars,probably because it wasn't actually written by H. G. Wells, but by Garrett P. Serviss, an astronomer and journalist. Hired by newspaper publisher Arthur Brisbane to come up with a serialized sequel to Wells' popular story, Serviss came up with a story that set the tone of science fiction for decades to come. Edison's Conquest of Mars contains the first known literary depiction of a ray gun and of a space battle, and managed to mix depictions of known science (such as the effects of zero gravity) with a reasonable adventure story. More importantly, Edison's Conquest of Mars is one of the earliest examples of a political debate carried out in the pages of speculative fiction.

(A book version of Edison's Conquest can be purchased here, but scans of the original serial, and its art, can be found here -- warning, the images are large, and download very slowly.)

Bruce Franklin, in War Stars, cites Edison's Conquest as a pro-Imperialism story meant to generate support for the Spanish-American War, and to counter the anti-Imperialism of Wells' War of the Worlds, and it's easy to see why. As the story's title suggests, the lead character taking the fight back to Mars was none other than Thomas Alva Edison, who invents most of the devices used by Earth to defeat the Martians. He's accompanied by Lord Kelvin, who plays Spock to Edison's Kirk, giving scientific explanations but steering clear of combat. Unsurprisingly, the story includes stoic soldiers (fresh from wars of conquest on Earth) and women in distress, held hostage by the savage Martians. And, of course, the Earthlings win, killing off the Martians in an act of genocide and annexing Mars for colonization.

Although the commonplace concept of sci-fi is more about blasters and rocketships than about politics, speculative fiction has a long history of tackling sticky political issues. It's an ideal venue for political stories, in many ways. Authors are not bound by conventional effects of political decisions, nor by commonplace articulations of political motives and ideals. Moreover, science fiction authors can explore the more extreme results of choices now being debated.

Like Wells' anti-imperialism vs. Serviss' gung-ho adventure, current political science fiction stories often embrace completely antagonistic viewpoints. Michael Crichton's State of Fear tells us that global warming is a big hoax, while Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain (and its imminent sequel, Fifty Degrees Below) explores some of the harsher possible results of climate disruption. John C. Wright's The Golden Age trilogy celebrates a far-future utopia where everything is market-based (and the bad guys are open source -- seriously), while Ken Macleod's Fall Revolution series (starting with the brilliant The Star Fraction) shows the appeal of a post-singularity form of communism.

But while political science fiction is still quite common, stories involving living real-world characters in a fictional setting are much less so. Stories that "borrow" the intellectual property of other works without permission (I find no indication that Wells knew of, let alone agreed to, the publication of the sequel) are even harder to find. A movie sequel to the 1996 "Independence Day," for example, with (say) Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Craig Ventner leading the return invasion of the alien homeworld would be shut down by an army of lawyers before it even made it past a producer's desk, especially if the underlying story was an attempt to highlight the folly of invasions and nationalistic pride.

It is kind of fun to imagine, though.

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Comments

Hmm - I wonder how the book treats Edison, considering he had some rather questionable methods and ways of dealing with people and animals.

Tesla, on the other hand...


Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 19 Nov 05

It's interesting to note how Wells, being the among the first to depict alien invasion before it became cliche, got it right the first time: we'd be powerless to stop a foe with vastly superior scientifical knowledge.

The only thing that saves the Earth in the end is an intelligence error in the invasion plans. Another character in the book who proposes a guerilla war against the occupation of the Martians is shown as hopelessly naive. And at the end, the narrator of the story leaves open disquieting possibility that the Martians would simply immunize themselves against infection and try to invade again.

Many other science fiction stories that followed on the same issue seemed to miss this point. They'd often unrealisticly minimize the technical gulf between the humans and invaders or they'd naively depict humans has having some vaguely defined quality (Pluck, empathy, capitalism!) that allows them to run rings around the calcified and bureaucratic extraterrestrial invasion force.

I guess this makes sense. Many people prefer to read entertainment with a happy ending but, Wells didn't exactly give us that in his story.

Although I've never read it, it seems like Serviss commits another error in accuracy for the sake of a story. He falls for the "lone mad scientists who invents magically advanced technologies all by themselves" cliche. You find this cliche all the time in badly written science fiction.

This is simply not how science or engineering work. It is true that the pace of scientific advance is accelerating but science is always a vastly collective enterprise. A major reason why technological breakthroughs happen so rapidly now is that we have hugely increased the number of scientists and engineers working on problems--more brains and labor do things faster, especially if they collaborate and share their discoveries.

I think this was one of the main points of James Burke's Connections series--genius matters but it's always in a context. Edison's real genius was his invention of the industrial research lab where all the money made from previous gadgets is plowed right back into hiring more smart folks to invent more gadgets for you.

Hm. Don't know if this is really on topic.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 19 Nov 05

If I remember correctly, the copyright law didn't apply to derivative works in 1898 the way it does today. I remember reading an article once about Alice in Wonderland, and how it gained a lot of visibility (and subsequent popularity) from people writing pastiches of it in the popular press within the first few years after its release. These often used Carroll's characters and settings quite openly.

Couldn't happen today without someone getting sued. Hurrah for progress. :/


Posted by: Evan on 19 Nov 05

the question is nevertheless who gives us the right between animals and humans to differentiate?


Posted by: domain on 20 Nov 05

...He [Serviss] falls for the "lone mad scientists who invents magically advanced technologies all by themselves" cliche. You find this cliche all the time in badly written science fiction.

Trouble is, this cliche has a factual precedent: Archimedes' defence of Syracuse against the Romans (although he eventually lost)


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 20 Nov 05

At the risk of sounding like the Comic Book Guy - ok, too late - How can a sequel to War of the Worlds contain the first reference to a ray gun? The Martians use heat rays in the original novel.


Posted by: Adam Burke on 20 Nov 05



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