Sometime around the end of Clarion West last year, I took a drive up to the Barnes & Noble because I was tired of poking through the awesome University of Washington bookstore and really missed the big box experience. I hadn’t actually planned to buy anything, but then I came across two books that were so awesome just in principle that I couldn’t resist.
The first was a compilation of two novellas by Karl Schroeder titled Virga: Cities of the Air, which everyone reading this blog should find and read immediately. The second is the book I’m actually reviewing right now, thanks to the review feature on Goodreads.com. It’s an unauthorized 1898 sequel to The War of the Worlds in which Thomas Edison conquers Mars, cleverly titled Edison’s Conquest of Mars.
Fascinated yet? I was!
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I picked this one up for two reasons: The novelty that came with learning of a contemporary sequel to The War of the Worlds that I’d never heard of, and the idea of an 1890s story depicting interplanetary warfare with, as the book jacket promised me, “a cornucopia of technical ingenuity.”
As a sequel to The War of the Worlds, the book doesn’t hold up very well. Not only is it a totally different kind of story, but it ignores virtually all the commentary on humanity that made Wells’ book a classic. The plot hangs on a woefully implausible flash of genius that reads a bit like Thomas Edison writing his own fan fiction — the idea of Edison leading an invasion fleet is so silly that even Serviss seems to back away from it in the later chapters — and the Martians lose all their mystery and are portrayed, both in appearance and behavior, as larger-than-life versions of humanity.
At the same time, it really is a prescient example of storytelling. Serviss’ amazing electrical comet aside, it’s easy to forget that the story was written when our understanding of the solar system was limited to theories and blurry sketches of Mars through a telescope. It’s easier to remember when the author spends any time describing women or foreigners — even the German language expert can’t seem to use proper grammar — but at the same time Serviss presents the expedition as a truly international venture, and lets Aina wittingly provide them with the key to the Martians’ destruction.
Where The War of the Worlds was a story about society and psychology, Edison’s Conquest of Mars is a showcase of physics and technology, combining the best of what the nineteenth century’s speculative minds could produce. It’s a fascinating look at how well our great-grandparents predicted the future. And if the story is unremarkable now, that’s at least partly because it’s been copied so many times. Doing it first isn’t the same as doing it best, but, hey, it’s a quick read too.
I have even more reviews (okay, one more) on Goodreads, if you’re interested. Here’s a link!