The 6 Most Important Sci-Fi Ideas (Were Invented by a Hack)
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells is credited as one of the most influential science fiction books ever written, having introduced ideas like super-advanced aliens coming to Earth and said aliens hating the shit out of us and trying to wipe us out. Even though it was published as a novel all the way back in 1898, it's seen as the blueprint for every alien invasion blockbuster released more than a century later. This article isn't about that book.
In the same year, a writer named Garrett P. Serviss crapped out an unauthorized sequel to Wells' book called Edison's Conquest of Mars, in which famed inventor Thomas Edison turns the tables on the aliens from The War of the Worlds by flying to Mars and killing all of them with his revenge boner -- it's the Victorian-era equivalent of shameless straight-to-DVD crapfests like Transmorphers and Titanic II.
Oh, you thought we were joking about the boner part?
Also, it was one of the most revolutionary sci-fi novels ever written.
That's right -- many fundamental elements of science fiction as we know it can be tracked back to this cheap knockoff, not the classic it was ripping off. Like ...
The First Mention of Ray Guns and Handheld Disintegrators
You can't have a science fiction story without a ray gun of some sort, from Han Solo's Greedo-murdering blaster in Star Wars to Marvin the Martian's beak-displacing gun in the Looney Tunes cartoons. In Star Trek, the phasers (which apparently do everything from stunning people to disintegrating them) are the most used gun in the universe after Captain Kirk's dong.
Surely such an idea must have originated in an era where, at the very least, revolvers were no longer considered cutting-edge technology, right? Wrong: Back in 1898, Edison's Conquest of Mars described the Martians as carrying "hand engines, capable of launching bolts of death of the same character as those which emanated from the knobs of their larger machines." So, rather than coming up with new weapons, Serviss had simply taken the giant mounted heat cannons used by the aliens in The War of the Worlds and made them smaller, accidentally inventing one of the most classic staples of science fiction.
"Making a whole new weapon sounds hard, I'll just revolutionize the genre instead."
In Edison's Conquest, the effect of these rays can reduce the humans to "heaps of cinder" -- but what about flat-out disintegration? This book has that, too ... on the human side. Early on, Edison invents a little portable device with the power to break molecular structures and disperse the atoms of any given object, leaving only an existentially haunting mist behind. The characters even refer to it as a "disintegrator," despite the device being described as something resembling a pocket mirror.
"Hey, does it say 'Patented by Nikola Tesla' on the side?"
Before leaving for Mars, Edison demonstrates the weapon by aiming it at a crow and disintegrating its feathers while leaving the bird unharmed. He of course then kills the bird anyway because, as we never get tired of mentioning, Edison was kind of a dick.
"Hahaha, fuck you, bird. Hahahahaha."
The First Spacesuits (and Space Flight in General)
The War of the Worlds was ahead of its time in many ways, but space flight wasn't one of them. The Martians arrive on Earth via "meteors," and at no point do humans themselves leave the planet. H.G. Wells wouldn't write about that until a few years later in the also classic The First Men in the Moon (1901), which did feature a description of space flight, but obviously lacked things like spacesuits, zero-gravity walks, airlocks and such, because come on, Wells was a great writer and all, but it's not like he could actually see into the future.
The dude who wrote Edison's Conquest, on the other hand, apparently could. If another novel or story mentioned the concept of spacesuits before this, nobody can seem to find it.
If not for Edison's Conquest, NASA would have just Saran Wrapped our astronauts and called it a day.
For someone who claimed to have never been on a spaceship, Serviss suspiciously nailed down a lot of things about space travel ... roughly five years before humanity even figured out how to make a regular plane lift off the ground for more than a few seconds. In the book, Edison invents possibly the first fictional spacesuit ever, which is described as "an air-tight dress constructed somewhat after the manner of a diver's suit" and could be used to leave the dildo-shaped spaceships (also made by Edison) without freezing to death.
The suits were heated via an intricate series of tubes, had their own propulsion system and even had built-in phones -- oh, and they looked like ridiculous gimp suits.
Serviss' working title for the novel was Sadomasochistic Ninjas from Outer Space.
Edison's ships also feature a "double-trapped door which gave access to the exterior of the car without permitting the loss of air" ... which is a very rough description of the same protective airlock chamber you've seen in every space movie ever made. At one point, the book's narrator describes the awesome feeling of stepping outside the ship and experiencing weightlessness thanks to his all-body leather condom; or, as he put it, "the delicious, indescribable pleasure of being a little planet swinging through space, with nothing to hold me up and nothing to interfere with my motion."
Why do they move like Terrance and Phillip mid-fart?
This was written 67 years before the first real spacewalk, but the impressive part isn't that a science fiction book predicted it: It's that a cheap ripoff sequel by a hack writer did it. Along with ...
The First Epic Space Battles
The main difference between modern science fiction and classic science fiction is the amount of explosions: We don't expect a book by Jules Verne to have awesome space battles like in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica or Firefly, because we're pretty sure that awesomeness hadn't even been invented back then. The War of the Worlds was the first book to feature an all-out confrontation with alien invaders, but the "war" consists mostly of one side shooting death rays and the other trying to dodge them.
Edison's Conquest of Mars took a look at The War of the Worlds, and the first problem it found with it was that the humans there came off as giant pussies. The sequel immediately fixed that mistake by having the Edison fleet fight and straight up obliterate the Martian Air Force, right there on their own red turf, and, as far as we can tell, invented the concept of massive ship vs. ship space battles in the process. Though why Edison didn't think to bring up this revolutionary Martian-stopping technology during the weeks when the Earth was being continuously raped by the same guys, nobody knows.
"Well, I had to file for a patent first, obviously."
The battle between the Martian bat planes and the Edison dick rockets is described in great detail, focusing on swooping, diving and shooting enemies in midair, and this was written back when the only kind of dogfights in real life included actual dogs. Here's a typical sentence during one of those fight scenes:
Almost in an instant, it seemed, a swarm of airships surrounded us, while from what, for lack of a more descriptive name, I shall call the forts about the Lake of the Sun, leaped tongues of electric fire, before which some of our ships were driven like bits of flaming paper in a high wind, gleaming for a moment, then curling up and gone forever!
Looking at those bug eyes and bulging faces, we have to add Total Recall to the list of movies this book influenced.
The sequel also expands on the warmongering nature of the Martian race, giving them a long history of conquests around the galaxy. It turns out that before coming down to Earth and kicking all of our asses, the Martians attacked and defeated the 40-foot-tall inhabitants of Ceres, a dwarf planet in our solar system. Edison and company even encounter a slave woman from Ceres on Mars ... who dies in a flood caused by Edison.
Making him the first interplanetary douchebag.
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?
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."
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 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.
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.