The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898)  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Edison’s Conquest of Mars was written by Garrett P. Serviss and first appeared in New York Evening Journal (Jan 12-Feb 10, 1898). Serviss (1851-1929) was a reporter for the Journal as well as the author of several popular science books on astronomy.

The real Thomas Edison (1847-1931) was a brilliant inventor and self-promoter who in 1879, with his associates and employees, developed and created carbonized cotton thread as a filament for conducting electricity. The invention eventually led to the development of the electronic vacuum tube, and was directly responsible for electric lamps and lighting.

In 1897 H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was being syndicated in America to great success. Because the contemporary copyright laws in America did not provide any protection for English or European authors, numerous unauthorized imitations appeared in American newspapers and magazines. One of these newspapers was the New York Evening Journal. Serviss was commissioned by the Journal to write a sequel to their version of Wells’ story. In the Journal version of War of the Worlds, the Martian invasion has been far more widespread and much more damaging, with most of the world, rather than just southern England, invaded and badly damaged. Serviss’ Martians differ from Wells’: they are humanoid, fifteen feet tall, more intelligent than humans, and extremely evil. As in Wells’ novel they are killed by bacteria.

As a dying act the Martians set off an explosion which destroys all of New York City, tumbles the Palisades, and creates a tidal wave which is felt in Europe. This adds to humanity’s “profound mental and moral depression,”1 caused by the invaders' technological superiority. When strange lights are seen on the surface of Mars, the signal for a new invasion, the “universal despair” becomes “tenfold blacker.” But

Suddenly from Mr. Edison's laboratory at Orange flashed the startling intelligence that he had not only discovered the manner in which the invaders had been able to produce the mighty energies which they employed with such terrible effect, but that, going further, he had found a way to overcome them.2 

Edison’s studies of the abandoned Martian equipment enable him to discover an electric repulsion force that works as a source of antigravity. Edison then designs and builds a spaceship based on this force. His ship is faster and more maneuverable than the Martian crafts; he is so brilliant that he single handedly bypasses the centuries of Martian technology and inventiveness. Edison also discovers a “vibratory disintegrator,” capable of working at long ranges, that is superior to the Martians’ electric ray.

“Even while the Martians had been on earth” there had been a worldwide expectation that it would be the Americans who would destroy the invaders, and when an anonymous American suggests that humans invade Mars, the suggestion is taken seriously. Edison publically demonstrates his ship and then his disintegrator, and so everyone becomes aware that such an invasion is possible. But massive amounts of funds are necessary to build an invasion fleet, so a congress of nations is called and held in Washington, D.C. Every head of state attends, from Queen Victoria to Tsar Nicholas to the First Syndic of Andorra. The leaders of the major countries attempt to outdo each other in the amount of money they can contribute to the cause, especially when it is reported that an observatory has seen more flashes of light from Mars, which means another invasion is possible.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are contributed, and the scientists of the world, including Lord Kelvin, Lord Rayleigh, and Wilhelm Roentgen, and Doctor Moissan, meet with Thomas Edison, their de facto leader, and work on building the invasion fleet. Using Edison’s new technological discoveries one hundred spaceships are built. The fleet leaves for Mars, but first Edison and the narrator take a side trip to the moon where they test their space suits and find the remains of an ancient civilization and a single enormous footprint. In space the human fleet passes by a gold asteroid which the Martians have been mining and then encounters the Martian fleet. Two space battles follow, with the Martian technology proving inferior to Edison’s but with the Martians’ numerical superiority inflicting heavy losses on the human fleet. This continues when the humans reach Mars, so that by the end of their first attack on Mars only around half of the human fleet is left. The humans temporarily withdraw, but when they begin to run out of food they are forced to raid Mars in search of food. They find food as well as a young woman, Aina, who is the descendant of human slaves captured by Martians during a raid on the “Vale of Cashemere” several millennia ago. (During a later trip they built the Pyramids of Egypt).

The human fleet retreats to Deimos, one of Mars’ moons, and during a planning session decide to destroy the facility which regulates the melting Martian polar ice caps. The humans succeed in their plan and Mars is flooded, killing millions of the natives and destroying their civilization. The Martians sue for peace, but during negotiations the Martian emperor attempts to betray the humans and is disintegrated for his troubles. The human fleet returns to Earth, taking Aina with it.

Edison's Conquest of Mars has not aged well. As a fiction it is primitive, written on deadline, and Serviss makes use of the irritating authorial tactic of not providing scientific explanations and technical details of Edison’s inventions on the grounds that they are beyond the reader’s knowledge and interest. Serviss’ Martians are not truly alien; they are simply evil monsters. Characterization is one-dimensional at best, and the humanocentric chauvinism and approval of ruthless tactics against the Martians, down to Edison’s smug threat of genocide unless the Martians surrender unconditionally, are distasteful. The American exceptionalism, which undoubtedly appealed to Serviss’ contemporary audience, will meet a less kind reception today. Serviss also engages in crude racism: the Emperor of China speaks in pidgin and the novel ends, after Aina has been brought back to Earth, with the statement that “thus was united, for all future time, the first stem of the Aryan race, which had been long lost, but not destroyed, with the latest offspring of that great family.”3 

The novel does have a few interesting aspects, however. Serviss anticipates modern space opera in the space battles between the Martian and human fleets. Serviss’ Edison, who is both brilliant as well as willing to get his hands dirty in the field, is a forerunner of the heroic two-fisted scientist of the pulps. And the story as a whole is the next evolutionary step in the development of the Edisonade. The pro-white bigotry and poisonous American patriotism of the classic Edisonades are replaced in Edison’s Conquest of Mars with a bias against aliens and a story format which allows for and even assumes the triumph of humanity over those aliens. (The exploitive treasure-seeking aspect of the Edisonades remains, but is applied to outer space, to the gold asteroid). This formula would be repeated ad nauseum in popular fiction in the twentieth century, from the pulps to comic books to television to movies.

As John Clute and Malcolm Edwards write,

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.4 

And as Rene Rondeau writes,

It is, however, a shame that the story has not had more recognition. Aside from its historic interest as an homage to the great Edison, as well as a reflection of its times (hot on the heels of the patriotic fervor of the Spanish-American war), it is important in science fiction as the first story to describe space suits (to allow the travelers to space-walk and repair their ship), the first instance of a "ray-gun" and the first description of a battle in outer space.5 

Rondeau’s point about Edison’s Conquest of Mars being published around the time of the Spanish-American War is well-taken, although Rondeau is incorrect about Serviss’ work being “hot on the heels;” Edison’s Conquest of War, in its original serial form, preceded not only the war but the sinking of the USS Maine. Appearing at a time when the expansionist impulse ran high in the United States, Edison’s Conquest of Mars inverts the open ending of War of the Worlds and allowed the contemporary American reader to fantasize about an American-led expansion of humanity’s borders to Mars.

Wells ends with insecurity. Serviss explicitly reverses this by localizing the warring impulse within the Martian ruler who is killed. The crew of the Earth fleet are told: "In destroying him, you have made your victory secure" (251). Serviss achieves the narrative closure denied at the end of The War of the Worlds by rationalizing attack as defence and extinction as necessity.6 

The Edison of Edison’s Conquest of Mars is a dime novel version of the Edison of Villiers de-L’Isle-Adam’s Eve of the Future. Serviss’ Edison is the Edison of myth, the wizard who can miraculously create advanced technological weapons and transportation and embodies the supposed spirit of America. He is by universal acclaim the leader of the world’s most brilliant scientists. Edison is an American (and human) patriot, and is adventurous and eager to go to Mars. Once there he is polite but firm toward the Martians, and willing to commit genocide against them unless they surrender.

Recommended Edition

Print: Garrett Putnam Serviss, Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Seattle: Amazon Createspace, 2018.



1 Garrett Putnam Serviss, Edison’s Conquest of Mars (Los Angeles: Carcosa House, 1947), 4.

2 Serviss, Edison’s Conquest of Mars, 5.

3 Serviss, “Edison’s Conquest of Mars,” 208.

4 John Clute and Malcolm Edwards, “Serviss, Garrett P,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, accessed Jan. 25, 2019,

5 Rene Rondeau, In the Groove, qtd in David Gerrold, “Wars of the Worlds,” in Glenn Yeffeth, ed., The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives on the H.G. Wells Classic (Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2005), 205.

6 David Seed, “The Course of Empire: A Survey of the Imperial Theme in Early Anglophone Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies 37, no. 2 (July, 2010): 236.