Serviss, Garrett P

Tagged: Author

(1851-1929) US journalist, amateur (but knowledgeable) astronomer and writer who majored in science at Cornell University, then studied law, and only around 1874 entered journalism, achieving some fame, writing as the "Sun's Astronomer", for a column on Astronomy in the New York Sun between 1876 and 1892. At the end of 1897 he was commissioned to write an unofficial sequel to an equally unofficial 1897 US newspaper revision of H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (book form 1898) which – in the absence of adequate copyright protection – set the action in America. Serviss's "sequel" (see Sequels by Other Hands), Edison's Conquest of Mars (first appeared 12 January-10 February 1898 New York Evening Journal as "The Conquest of Mars" [see Checklist for further details]; 1947; cut vt Forrest J. Ackerman Presents Invasion of Mars 1969), which is set a few years further into the Near Future, quite remarkably captures the ebullient US spirit of the time, its sense of innocent entitlement. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) himself (see Edisonade) is the protagonist. The Martians have duly perished of bacteria (as described in Wells's original), though a few survivors had devastated New York in the immense wash of their escaping rocket; the world as a whole resembles Post-Holocaust landscapes from later sf. Astronomers soon detect signs that the Martians are preparing to invade again. In response, Edison invents a flying machine capable of doubling as a Spaceship, powered by an Antigravity device which is also his Invention; at the same time, he invents a new Weapon, a disintegrator Ray that will prove useful in the forthcoming Invasion of Mars, to be launched under his command by the unanimous wish – in deference to America's unquestioned primacy – of all the nations of the world. One hundred armoured ships are constructed, and the armada, crewed by the world's most famous Scientists, takes off. En route the crew enjoys realistically-depicted space walks in vacuum (Edison has invented a workable space suit); endure a meteor strike; enjoy a stop-over on the Moon, where they discover evidences of an extinct race of giants (see Great and Small); and engage with Martian spaceships in a very early rendering of Space Opera combat. In all of this, Serviss's grasp of astronomy helps him convey a palpable Sense of Wonder, which if anything deepens after the armada lands on Mars itself, where the canals envisioned by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) can be observed weaving intricately, from sea to Schiaparellian sea, across the numerous, roseate continents (see Planetary Romance). After much conflict, during which one commander repeatedly confuses Martians and American Indians (see Colonization of Other Worlds), the narrator of the tale (Professor Serviss) helps rescue a human woman, the sole surviving descendant of a group of humans abducted 9,000 years earlier from the Vale of Cashmere (see Lost Race) during an earlier Martian invasion. She speaks both Martian and Aryan – the latter described by Serviss as the original human language (see Linguistics; Scientific Errors) – and helps Edison arrange the malfunction of a great dam, which results in a genocidal flood and the end of Martian civilization, though the few survivors will be offered colonial status.

Edison's Conquest of Mars was one of the first edisonades to be written for adults, and perhaps the only adult presentation of the entrepreneurial inventor to include his name in its title. Crudely composed but with telegraphic speed and compression, the tale might have been an influential model in the development of the Space Opera and the Planetary Romance, had it not effectively disappeared after its serialization in an obscure newspaper, remaining essentially unread until its rediscovery and book publication in 1947, when it demonstrated the depth of the impulses that helped create Genre SF in America.

Serviss's remaining sf is intermittently vivid, but lacks the seemingly unconscious mythopoeic potency of his first. In The Moon Metal (1900), set in 1940, a mysterious figure supplies the world with a rare untraceable metal which serves, for a while, as a new fiscal standard in place of gold (see Money). "The Sky Pirate" (April-September 1909 The Scrap Book) features the superscientific exploits of the eponymous adventurer. A Columbus of Space (January-June 1909 All-Story; rev 1911) features another pioneering Space Flight, powered by Nuclear Energy derived from uranium, this time to Venus. The Second Deluge (July 1911-January 1912 Cavalier; 1912) is a Disaster novel in which the Earth is inundated to a depth of several miles as a result of passing through a "nebula" composed of water; a latter-day Noah, having built an ark, saves all God's creatures and visits the US West, where the President has also been saved. Serviss's last story, The Moon Maiden (May 1915 Argosy; 1978 chap), is a dubiously complicated love tale in which it is revealed that lunar beings have been Uplifting us for millennia.

Serviss's nonfiction, beginning with Astronomy with an Opera-Glass (1888) [for this and other selected nonfiction subtitles see Checklist], was generally competent and invigorating. Other Worlds (1901) is a significant work of popular science; The Moon (1907; vt The Story of the Moon 1923) has some of the vivid clarity of several passages in Edison's Conquest of Mars. The Einstein Theory of Relativity: with Illustrations and Photos Taken Directly from The Einstein Relativity Film (1923 chap), a Tie that interestingly puts into textual form The Einstein Theory of Relativity (1923), a twenty-minute documentary cartoon produced by the Fleischer Brothers: Dave Fleischer (1894-1979), who directed, and the pioneer animator Max Fleischer, who controlled the visuals (see Relativity). In a sense, Serviss, who was almost fifty before he began writing fiction, was born too soon; born twenty years later he might have become one of the prolific masters of the new sf. [JC/MJE]

see also: End of the World; History of SF; Holocaust; Matter Transmission; Pulp.

Garrett Putman Serviss

born Sharon Springs, New York: 24 March 1851

died Englewood, New Jersey: 25 May 1929


nonfiction (highly selected)


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