Monday, October 8, 2012

A Martian Treat: Kevin J. Anderson's The Martian War

If you find Kevin J. Anderson’s The Martian War at a used bookstore, it may not have his name on it.  The 2005 publication uses Anderson’s pseudonym Gabriel Mesta which, I admit, would not have drawn my attention to the bookstore shelf.  And as a reader of Anderson, I’m glad Titan Books is giving this novel another release since it is a sheer delight for any fan of H.G. Wells’ fiction.

Unlike his contributions to Star Wars and Dune, Anderson’s The Martian Wars is neither prequel nor sequel to H.G.’s 1898 classic War of the Worlds.  Instead, it stands on its own as a story about H.G. Wells himself and his contemporary, novice astronomer Percival Lowell.  Anderson takes advantage of how H.G. popularized the notion of invading Martians, and then adds depth with Lowell’s theory that Mars has the canals of an advanced culture.  I like how these two non-fictional characters, with their respective descriptions of Martians and Mars, are then put in a fictitious adventure where their imaginations are made real.  Anderson uses these viewpoints to divide his novel into two stories: the first has H.G. getting to discover Lowell’s canals, whereas the second has Lowell coming into contact with H.G’s Martians.  Its a satisfying synthesis.

[note: mild spoilers follow]

The book begins as H.G. Wells watches a meteor shower with his biology teacher and mentor T.H. Huxley in 1884.  Huxley is an outspoken scientist whose fame is established as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for defending the theory of evolution.  The friendship with Huxley turns out to be a fortuitous one for an impoverished H.G. a decade later.  His first marriage falls apart, and he lives with his true love, Jane Robbins.  Both are worried about causing a scandal for not being married, since it is London in the Victorian age, so they risk being thrown out of their apartment.  H.G. doesn’t make much money from his short stories, but a letter from Huxley affords him a new but mysterious opportunity at the Imperial Institute.  Soon Huxley, H.G, and Jane become a trio who share a magnificent adventure in which they witness the British government’s secret attempts to perfect an invisibility formula, perfect agents for chemical warfare, and test an anti-gravity device known as a Cavorite Sphere. 

Moreover, they meet Dr. Moreau.  I’m pleased that these plot elements are all placed in the proper historical context.  After all, when all of this takes place in 1894, a year before Huxley’s death, it explains the characters, technologies, and inspired plot twists from then unpublished fiction by H.G. Wells: The War Of The Worlds (1898), The Invisible Man (1897), The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1896), and The First Men In The Moon (1901).  

Meanwhile, Lowell and Dr. Moreau meet in the Sahara before Huxley, H.G, and Jane form their trio.  They are an unlikely duo, but why not?  Lowell is an amateur astronomer who is not taken seriously by the scientific community.  Moreau is a biologist who has been disgraced in his profession, exposed by T.H. Huxley for his vivisection experiments.  Who better to find a Martian (Lowell) and perform an autopsy on one (Moreau)?  Lowell will be taken seriously by coming into contact with a Martian, and Moreau will regain his prestige in scientific circles.  Moreau keeps a diary which serves to inform the trio of his and Lowell’s encounter with a Martian and their subsequent adventures at the Lowell Observatory (named for Percival’s grandfather) in Flagstaff, Arizona.  This predates and thus incorporates Lowell’s books:  Mars (1895), Mars And Its Canals (1906), and Mars As The Abode Of Life (1908).

I would be remiss to not mention that Huxley, H.G. and Jane meet Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man.  It’s not a pleasant encounter.  And if you’ve read The First Men In The Moon, then you’ll remember the Grand Lunar, a key player in Anderson’s plot, as well as the Cavorite Sphere which makes space travel possible.  

Purists of hard science fiction will have to approach this book with a grain of salt, or not at all. The Martian War weaves together Victorian science with the inspired fiction of that age, without consideration as to discoveries since that time.  Be ready to accept that craters on the moon are the result of war, that Martians exist and have built canals on Mars, and so on.  Also, for those who do not like to have classics tampered with, be warned.  Though I think it’s fun to see H.G. have a romantic adventure with Jane that begins in a top secret facility, or T.H. Huxley beat the U.S. into space, or Dr. Moreau vivisect a Martian, others might consider this sacrilege - but they are party poopers.  I like how Anderson adds his own creative imprint on H.G.‘s literary and Lowell’s astronomy timelines, and in so doing gives me a sense of how the real H.G. Wells and Percival Lowell could evolve into unexpected heroes.  Moreover, I’m impressed with the possibility of Dr. Moreau redeeming himself.  Anderson, in sum, captures the science fiction mindset of the late nineteenth century.  If the reader can go back into this historical context, then he or she is in for a Martian treat.