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Books of Mars

Books of Mars

In 1898, Herbert George Wells wrote what is arguably the most important novel in the history of science fiction. The War of the Worlds established a lasting benchmark for a whole subset of the genre, that of the alien invasion of Earth. But just as the Martians have journeyed here, so too have we engaged in flights of fantasy there, and could even Wells have imagined the wonders that our robotic ambassadors are now uncovering?

The way science has viewed the red planet has been integral to the development of the fictional Mars, and it is perfectly possible to trace how literature has changed along with our scientific understanding. Equally, it is also fair to argue that if not for the intense interest in creating fictional Martian landscapes and the way these worlds have captured the public imagination, we might not have expended so much effort and resource on attempting to visit this distant world. If we ever land a man or woman on Mars, it will be in large part thanks to the legacy begun by H.G. Wells.

The War of the Worlds has enjoyed an astonishing longevity. When Wells wrote it, I am sure that even he, the great predictor, would I have been stunned at how quickly his story struck a chord and was endlessly re-adapted for new audiences. It seems that The War of the Worlds has an organic and timeless quality that makes it ripe for such re-imagining.

When Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, it was common practice for a novel to be first serialised in popular magazines. Hence in the UK the story first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine, and was serialised in the United States in the pages of Cosmopolitan Magazine; not the health and beauty Cosmopolitan of modern times, but a far more erudite publication whose broad remit included journalism, serious comment and stories from some of the best known writers of the age.

The book in its complete form was published in 1898, but it was only a few months after The War of the Wars had been serialised in Cosmopolitan that a revised (and wholly unauthorised) version began publication in the pages of the Boston Post newspaper. Fighters from Mars took the original text and crudely dismembered it into a shorter version, switching English place names for equivalents in and around Boston. It is an extraordinary oddity, and one that proved so popular that it spawned a sequel, even more outrageous in intent, called Edison’s Conquest of Mars.

This would see the inventor Thomas Edison lead an invasion fleet to Mars to seek retribution for the Martian attack. Written by a noted popular science writer of the time, it deserves a place in science fiction history not only for the audacious nature of the project, but also for many firsts in the genre, such as space-walks and asteroid mining.

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