'Labyrinths' by W.H. Matthews (1922)
Piranha - a poem

Review Round-up: The King's Men and Edison's Conquest of Mars

EdisonGarrett Serviss' Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898) is the sequel to a knock-off. Following the success of War of the Worlds, the Boston Evening Post ran an unauthorised variant called Fighters from Mars (author unknown, but credited to, I kid you not, "H.C. Wells"). Conquest is the sequel - a serialised novel in which, under the championship of Thomas Edison, Earth strikes back. 

Conquest has certain merits as a part of science fictional history: it is a classic Edisonade and it is an early transformative work. However, it is particularly remarkable in how it displays the worst traits of both genres.

An "Edisonade" (term defined by John Clute) is a type of proto-SF based around an inventor and his (invariably a man) works. Everything from Tom Swift to Herbert Strang to "The Steam Man of the Prairies" (which is kind of awful as well, actually). In this case, the term is literal, as Edison - shown here as a scientific, moral and political paragon - invents, well, pretty much everything: spaceships, spacesuits, disintegration rays, asteroid mining, you name it...

That would be fun if the book weren't so terribly, terribly goofy. All the nations of Earth gather together (stereotypes on full display) and build a massive space armada. This is done by pledging all of the world's money and all of its industrial output. The Earthling then head to the Moon as a test run, and find that it is composed of diamonds (which is handy - the mission has already turned a tidy profit and/or crashed the world economy). The fleet meanders by an asteroid (Made of gold! Space is awesome! Economics less so!) and eventually engages the Martians on their homeworld. The battle goes to and fro, but eventually a (beautiful) (princess) human servant on the planet informs Edison of the ONE LEVER THAT WILL DESTROY THE ENTIRE PLANET. Edison et. al. storm the unguarded lever-building, pull the lever and watch all the Martians die. The humans head home triumphant, having taught the Martians a thing or two about genocide.

Oh, the Martian women are hot, so they get to live. Mostly.

EdisonConquest is also, for lack of a better word, hyperactive. Everything is the biggest and the best and filled with gold and shooting lasers and destroying planets and made of actual compressed Edisonian awsum. As proto-SF, Conquest is obsessed with the technology, and that comes at the expense of any plot, conflict, or even a wisp of character development. Exacerbated with the haphazard pacing of serialisation, the result is a whiplash effect as the book jerks  between widget-lust and hastily-resolved plot arcs. Conquest further compounds the problem by conflating technological prowess with  moral rectitude - the biggest gun equals the cause of Good, and vice versa. We know we are right because our disintegrator has more buttons. This book manages to be everything wrong in science fiction - before that genre was even formally invented.

Meanwhile, taken as a transformative work - that is, early fanfiction - Conquest also manages to stumble upon all the most problematic stereotypes of that genre (or format, I suppose) as well. The narrator is a clear Mary Sue - an astronomer/writer who, although nameless, is adopted as a member of Edison's Bridge Crew and gets to share in his adventures. The story also uses known 'media properties' instead of actual character development: everyone from Lord Kelvin to Kaiser Wilhelm II appears at some point, always as caricatures of themselves, sparing the author original thought. And, of course, there's a shoe-horned romance - the bizarre placement of the single human on Mars (a lost princess). What little plot there is in Conquest is further derailed by the clunkly love triangle that springs up between princess whatshername and two equally-forgettable square-jawed members of Edison's team. This is fanfiction at its worst - more interested in indulging a personal fantasy than creating a halfway decent story; a syncophantic portrayal of a media property (in this case, Edison) rather than a meaningful contribution to literature. As a historical artifact - and argument for the the cultural history of fanfiction - Conquest is significant. But as a demonstration of the potential quality of transformative work, it is counterproductive.

Robert Grant's The King's Men (1884) is subtitled "A tale of to-morrow" - it is an early work of political speculative fiction: a world where a (polite) revolution in Britain overthrows the monarchy and forcing King George to flee to America. After an initial 'honeymoon' period, the country polarises into anarchist and royalist factions, with a few Great Men (the true republicans) desperately holding everything together.

With this as the backdrop, The King's Men is essentially a historical romance - of the Robert Chambers, Stanley Weyman - school. Great Men are Great, lesser men are envious and cruel. Women are equally polarised (although obviously "Greatness" is beyond them and their frail constitutions, they can at least choose the Right Side to stand by). Despite all its period posturing, The King's Men is good fun and weirdly even-handed politically. Grant notes the tragic nobility of the fallen aristocrats and the beautiful pathos of their plight, but his heart is clearly with the republicans, and the forces of change. He sets things up nicely though, gleefully dropping in many of the omens and portents of knighthood and nobility, only to switch them up as the story presses on. Grant's thesis seems to be that although chivalry is not dead, its allegiance to the monarchy is wholly undeserved, and the best that we should do is look forwards, not to the past. 

Although intriguing as a contribution to the republican debate, Grant was an American (a rather prominent one at that). The book is less a call to arms for global revolution than a reminder of American belief in its righteous destiny - a combination of reassuring jingoism and carefully coached contrasts between the US and Great Britain. Given that the US was barely a century old and less than a generation removed from its own, very much non-fictional, civil war, a little reassurance doesn't seem too far-fetched.

Still, unlike, say Edison's Conquest of MarsThe King's Men has quite a bit going for it: the characters are fun (in their slightly overblown 19th century way), the plot is genuinely intriguing and there's a nice little story behind it all. The use of the speculative elements adds intrigue: even though the revolutionary conflict is a familiar one, by setting the scene in the 'future' the book adds tension - unlike a historical novel, the reader has no idea how it is going to end.