#3. The Phrase "Reverse the Polarity!"
"Reverse the polarity" is what science fiction characters tend to say or shout when they need a science-fictiony-sounding solution to a difficult problem -- it's most often heard in old B-movies like Forbidden Planet (Leslie Nielsen says it there) and classic sci-fi shows like Doctor Who, where "Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" even became a catchphrase for the Third Doctor.
Of course, in all those situations, "reversing the polarity" shouldn't really do shit: Neutrons don't even have an electric polarity, which is why they're called neutrons. It's just meaningless technobabble that hack writers like to use as shorthand for "I can't be arsed to look up some actual science, and I'm hoping you won't notice." Being the hackest of all writers, Serviss didn't just use the exact same term in Edison's Conquest, several decades ahead of everyone else; he also somehow managed to do it multiple times within the same book.
His laziness transcended time.
Chapter II: "... by varying the potential or changing the polarity ..."
Chapter V: "... this charge, it was evident, was opposite in polarity ..."
Chapter VI: "... and reversing their polarities the members of the squadron ..."
Chapter VIII: "... after they had reversed their polarity, and applied their intensifier ..."
Chapter IX: "... instantly reverse polarities ..."
Counting paraphrasing and the like, we found nine instances of "reversing the polarity" in Edison's Conquest, which, according to TV Tropes, is seven more times than it's used in all of the original series of Star Trek. The most shocking part, however, is that the phrase is actually used pretty consistently: According to the book, Edison's ships have the power to change (reverse) their own magnetic charges (polarity), which causes them to be repelled from celestial bodies and thus travel near the speed of light ...
SCIENCE: Ribbed for your pleasure!
... which still makes zero fucking sense, but at least he made an effort. The War of the Worlds may be the respected literary classic, but how many meaningless catchphrases did it spawn?
#2. Space Mining
Mining resources in outer space, usually on asteroids or planetoids, sounds like a more recent trope that writers have added to bring some realism to their stories about banging green women with three boobs. We've seen it in Alien, Battlestar Galactica and Avatar, among others -- in fact, we're still waiting for the inevitable crossover film where the Weyland-Yutani Corporation wipes out the blue cat-people of Pandora for their unobtanium by dropping xenomorph eggs all over the jungle.
However, hardcore science fiction fans know that asteroid mining was already present in an Isaac Asimov story from 1944 ... and hardcore fans of shitty knockoff sequels know that Edison's Conquest beat that story by nearly 50 years (and Alien by 80). Just before reaching Mars, Edison's death-expedition (deathpedition) lands on a nearby asteroid that turns out to be made of solid gold. The humans notice that there's a mine on the asteroid, which leads to the following exchange:
Mostly, "HOLY SHIT!"
"This must be the great gold mine of Mars," said the president of an Australian mining company, opening both his eyes and his mouth as he spoke. "Yes, evidently that's it. Here's where they come to get their wealth."
Why did they bring along the president of a mining company, besides for spotting mines in the unlikely event that they ran into some in outer space? Not important. What matters is that gold is being mined illegally by Martian pirates, leading to a short fight where Edison's disintegrators decapitate most of them.
"Dude, seriously, you have to stop that."
What follows is a discussion of the practical implications of space mining, like how the asteroid is probably mined seasonally, depending on its proximity to Mars, or how the Martian government must restrict the amount of gold that can be extracted in order to prevent it from crippling the economy. In other words, science fiction was barely a thing yet, and Serviss was already saying, "No, this part needs less laser fights, more boring politics."
At least when Ridley Scott and James Cameron tackled the same plot point, they were considerate enough to throw in some monster rape to keep the audiences entertained.
"Oh, hi there. Don't mind us, we're just talking about Space Congress while playing with our space boobs."
#1. Aliens Building the Pyramids and Abductions
This is another trope we associate with recent-ish movies, usually crappy-ish ones, too: Stargate, Alien vs. Predator, Transformers 2 and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull all reveal that a race of aliens visited ancient Egypt and helped build the pyramids, because there's no way that people back then were able to lift those rocks and stack them up that high. Except of course they were, don't be silly.
Apparently Egyptians were really bad at drawing Predators, so they just made them look like dogs.
The "ancient astronauts" theory was first seriously proposed in 1954, but it turns out that science fiction has been using it since the late 19th century ... more specifically, since Edison's Conquest. That's right, before Alien and Predator, before Transformers and before Indiana Jones, the first sci-fi franchise that resorted to that alien pyramids bullshit in a crappy sequel was Edison's Conquest, which even went so far as to suggest that the Sphinx was actually a monument to the Martian leader.
They failed to capture the "eyes popping out of the skull" look, though. Aliens suck at art.
In the book, Edison's men find out that thousands of years ago, the Martians traveled to a "Land of Sand" and were so impressed by the great mountains they saw there that they decided to level them and then build some of their own using "huge blocks of stone." While they were at it, they also built a "gigantic image of [their] great chief." One of the more perceptive members of the Edison entourage shocks all the others by shouting out that the "Land of Sand" they're talking about must be Egypt.
The purpose of these massive space-Lego projects isn't really addressed; the only explanation was that it just seemed like the sort of weird shit aliens would do, you know? Also, it's revealed that the Martians kidnapped people from all the way over in India to do most of the actual pyramid building, for some reason. Those human slaves were then taken back to Mars -- which, yep, means Edison's Conquest also features one of the first-ever mentions of the concept of alien abduction. The heroes even get to meet a descendant of the original slaves, who leads them to a Martian storehouse.
"This is where they store the Martians."
So, for over 9,000 years, the humans served as slaves to the alien race, until Edison arrived to change everything -- not by saving them, but by inadvertently getting 99.9 percent of the slaves murdered by the Martians by just going to Mars. Whoops.
Via Wikimedia Commons / US Public Domain
So there you have it. A good chunk of modern sci-fi actually comes from a book that was ignored in its time for being poorly disguised fan fiction. Hey, who knows, maybe 100 years from now, all movies will look like that BDSM Twilight fanfic novel (but hopefully not).
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a freelance English-Japanese-Polish translator, tour guide and writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more crappy rip-offs that actually aren't so crappy, check out 6 Famous Characters You Didn't Know Were Shameless Rip-Offs and The 6 Most Psychotic Rip-Offs of Famous Animated Films.