Thursday, December 24, 2009

Life on Mars: Fenton Ash

In 1877 the talented astronomer Schiaparelli observed what he believed to be canals on the surface of Mars. Today we know that these were in fact the result of an optical illusion but for a lonf while around the turn of the Twentieth Century, there was a fascinated regard given to the possibility of life of Mars which was derived, in large part, from the drawings of these canals. In particular, the astronomer Percival Lowell took the notion much further than Schiaparelli and proposed that these were in fact irrigation canals made by intelligent life-forms. He drew his own version of the canals which Schiaparelli thought was largely imaginary. In 1907-8 Lowell published, in serial form, a book which was eventually a single volume later in the year called, Mars as the Abode of Life and, although it had begun before most notably of course in 1898 with The War of the Worlds, it was in the wake of this book that a large number of early science-fiction books were written focussing on the encounter with alien life forms on Mars.

One such author was the pseudonymous Fenton Ash, actually Francis Henry Atkins, who wrote a great deal of lost world/fantasy/science fiction aimed largely at an adolescent market and who is remarkably collectable today. So I was delighted to find the other day this bound volume of the Young England magazine from 1908 with the whole of the novel, serialized, A Son of the Stars by Fenton Ash, which is a story about schoolboys travelling to Mars to meet the natives. The plot seems to be extremely close to that of Ash's novel, A Trip To Mars (aka The Sunday Circle) but a cursory examination of the Google books version of A Trip to Mars and the text of the magazine story makes me think they are actually quite different - but it is possible there's a relationship - the book may be a thorough rewrite of the magazine publication, I'll have to spend more time with them to be sure. The Young England story does have some fabulous illustrations and you can see above the fold-out colour frontis to the whole volume which should give an idea of the kind of Mars that is drawn in the story.

The serial versions of famous novels, when they constitute the first publication of a particular title, are never quite the same in the eyes of a book collector, as the first single volume publication in book form (with the possible exception of Dickens and his ilk). However, I remember doing very well when I found once the two volumes of Pearson's Magazine which contained the whole of H. G. Well's The Time Machine, serialized before book publication, and it is sometimes still possible to find these kind of volumes and turn a tidy profit.

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