A new series of posts looking at the early days of science fiction stories, as seen in story papers and comics. I’m going to roughly aim for pre-1950 stories as, of course, that was the year that Dan Dare bought futuristic space-travel right to the front pages!
Anyway, lets kick off with a tale from 1929, called…
The Doom of the Martians – John Hunter
This story appears in a book called “The World’s Best Boys’ Annual”, a bold and unfounded claim. The annual isn’t dated, but my copy has an inscription from 1931. However this story mentions 1929 so I presume the annual originally appeared in Septemberish 1928.
As the name of the story implies it’s about battles in space, but before all that you get what is, for my money, the best opening passage I have ever read. Just look at it! I still get chills…
This, gentlemen, is how you open a story!
After that epic opening, the story… erm, actually goes off the boil and becomes a lukewarm stew. I can’t help but see it in my head as one of those film montages where you are expected to follow the plot by vague clips alone… like the scenes of progress in “Things To Come”. Or the battle scenes of numerous modern war films where they spend millions on huge recreations of battles and then run through them with a handycam so you can’t even see anything.
Anyway, the story says that it was humans who first forged out into space and bought technology to other beings… probably a natural attitude for Britons to take in the days of empire. It also mentions intelligent life being found on the moon (with which earth forges “the first great space alliance”) and Saturn… both of which we now know to be impossible for varying reasons. But of course it is Mars that the story is mainly concerned with. Oddly the Martian “canals”, a scientific fact of the day, are not mentioned.
A Human scientist called Brunwold shows his friend Zatun, the king of Mars, a new “radio wave of terrible power”, which can be fired as either a narrow beam or a wide wave, and cause terrible destruction. The Martian wants to learn the secret of this ray so he can use it to conquer the universe. As this is a story from 1929 “radio waves” are the cutting-edge of technology, as as well as being used as weapons they are also mentioned as being the power source of spaceships. This isn’t entirely unlike the “Impulse Field” of Dan Dare, or indeed the proposed spaceships that are “pushed” into space by lasers on earth.
Brunwold refuses to build the ray, and is imprisoned in Zatun’s palace. Luckily his cell has transparent walls and he is able to use his glasses to flash a Morse code message to a passing earth ship. Zatun catches him in the act, tortures his secret out of him and then kills him. The pilot of the earth ship, Dick Trevor, received the message and turns back for earth, chased all the way by a Martian cruiser. It is finally destroyed over India by Earth ships.
Television back then was newer than “future technologies” such as hydrogen fuel cells are now!
The actual mechanics of space flight and space battles are kept deliberately vague. At one point in the chase Dick feels an “electric ray” trying to “disrupt his drive mechanism”. The Martian ship is destroyed by “something leaping aloft at such gigantic speed that it seemed to simply draw a steel line across the blue of the heavens”. I should also point out that in this story outer space is described as “the blue” rather than black. Well, as nobody had actually been there at the time…
Whilst politicians from all of the other planets hold a great meeting (once again using “radio”, which this time produces holograms so it appears they are all in one room together). Dick can’t wait for that so calls on his friend Captain Hunsen, a Norwegian, who takes off in a space cruiser with Laroche, a Frenchman and Varney, an American. The story also briefly predicts night vision as “television rays” that reveal everything to watching eyes in the darkness.
Once the two ships arrive at Mars, four Martain fighters come up to attack them. Dick is somehow able to break the beam that connects them to their power stations on the ground. For some reason breaking the beam “earths” the power station and blows it up. See what I mean about vagueness? The Martains aren’t helpless as they also have rocket engines, but they are destroyed before they can recommence the attack.
They then spot a Saturnian scout ship racing away, and break it’s beam too. For some reason this damages the ship, and the pilot flings up his “speed hood” and struggles with his oxygen supply, which has stopped working. Varney climbs out of the cruiser and rescues him. This scene is given a coloured plate…
This scene dates the story pretty badly, as you can see! Apart from the fact the spaceships have open cockpits (well, except for in all the other illustrations) and space is blue the ship is on fire(!) and producing smoke(!) and the big cruiser has rotor blades(!!). Oh well, I suppose at least they didn’t do anything silly like put this picture on the cover of the book.
Now the Martian Air Navy flies up in full force to meet them. One of the ships “crosses the path” of Hunsen, though I don’t know if this means it somehow cuts off his power or actually collides, but either way Hunsen’s ship bursts into flames and dives down towards Mars, with a large store of explosives on board. Dick’s ship is hit by an electric ray but the insulation “asserts itself” and he only recieves a minor shock. Eh? Insulation doesn’t “assert itself”, it either works or it doesn’t!
Hunsen transmits his control code to Dick, who begins to direct the cruiser by remote control. Luckily the Martians don’t understand the Earth’s codes. But at one point a Martian crosses the radio control beam and Dick realises if they “guess the length” of it (eh??) they can take over the cruiser themselves. But in the end they are too late, and Hunsen’s machine obliterates the palace and Zatun with it. Dick turns for home, and so do the Martains, seeing the rest of Earth’s navy coming up “out of the blue”.
In the end there is no war with mars, or any more wars in the known universe, the people look at the “blackened and awful crater” and the warlike spirit died out of them. It’s a shame the “blackened and awful craters” of London, Coventry, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima &c didn’t have the same effect!
On the summit of Mount Everest (still unclimbed in 1929, remember!) a large statue of the three men on the cruiser has been built, with the simple inscription “they saved the world”.