Monday, December 20, 2010

Retro review: 1889 Mars novel Mr. Stranger's Sealed Packet by Hugh MacColl

A JOURNEY TO THE PLANET MARS

Mr. Stranger's Sealed Packet. By Hugh MacColl (London: Chatto and Windus, 1889)

A work of fiction, founded upon scientific facts, is interesting to us, inasmuch as it may extend, to no inconsiderable degree, the scientific knowledge of its readers. Such attempts, however, to assimilate science with fiction may have an injurious effect, unless treated by one having an intimate knowledge of the phenomena which he describes, and we have to congratulate the author of this work upon his acquaintance with the Cosmos, exhibited in this account of an imaginary journey through interplanetary space.

The many means devised by that clever author, Jules Verne, for such a journey, are too well known to need any comment here. Mr. MacColl lacks the minuteness of description peculiar to Jules Verne, but nevertheless fabricates a "flying machine" that may rank with the best products of that author's ingenuity.

The principle employed is stated as follows :—

The attracting force residing in every particle of matter, and drawing it towards other particles, is capable of conversion into a repelling force.

A body, half of whose mass lias had its attracting tendency converted into a repelling tendency, will have a specific gravity of zero, and if placed in a vacuum will neither rise nor fall.

If more than half the mass of a body has had its attracting tendency converted into a repelling tendency, it will rise into the air, and, passing the limits of the atmosphere, will continue moving away from the earth with a velocity for a time accelerated by terrestrial repulsion, but tending more and more towards uniformity as it proceeds.

The "flying machine" was constructed of a substance that had undergone such a conversion. By means of a regulator the resultant of the attracting and repelling tendencies could be turned in any direction, and so the velocity of the machine could be increased or diminished ad libitum.

It was in this machine that Mr. Stranger made his journey to the planet Mars, and the work mainly deals with Martian history, the customs of the inhabitants, and adventures and incidents en route. The two satellites of Mars were met, and their diameters, distance from their primary, and period of revolution are supposed to have been approximately measured by the adventurer. Having reached the planet in safety, a long description is given of the startling difference one would observe on attempting to walk upon a globe where the surface gravity was only three-eighths that of the earth.

The Marsians, Martians, or Marticoli, as Prof. Young would call the inhabitants of our ruddy brother, were, according to the author, living very happily under a form of Socialism; and food was almost as free and plentiful among them as the air which they breathed, because they had learnt to manufacture it from its chemical elements—oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen—which existed in abundance on their planet as on the earth. In this Utopia, not only were electric lights in every house and street, and the phonograph an instrument in common use, but the sound-figures drawn upon the revolving cylinder were used as the representation of speech, such characters being truly phonetic. It appears strange, however, that although the Martians had attained such a high degree of civilization, yet they had no knowledge of gunpowder or any explosive whatever, or of any kind of telescope, a circumstance which seems contrary to our ideas on the evolution of inventions.

The inhabitants of Mars were supposed to have come from the earth, and their transference was effected in the following manner. A sun, accompanied by satellites, in revolving at an immense distance round a larger sun passed very near to Mars and the earth, and caused them to approach one another. In the words of the writer, "The common centre of gravity of the four bodies must have been so situated as to have almost neutralized the resultant of the attraction of the earth and Mars towards their respective centres, so that on one part of the earth's surface the attraction of Mars would overcome that of the earth, and gently and slowly draw a body from its surface to its own; while in other parts the attraction of the earth would be more powerful and prevent this. The two planets must also have been so near that their atmospheres were mingled, and hence the transference did not result in the death of those who had thus to emigrate against their will."

Such an explanation as this, of some perplexing phenomena, shows an intimate knowledge of the laws of gravitation. Again, whilst on a visit to one of the small Martian satellites, a fragment of rock was broken off, and instead of at once falling down on the ground, as it would have done on the earth or Mars, it sailed slowly and gracefully away, until it came in contact with another rock several yards off, when it descended softly and gently to the ground with the motion of a falling flake of snow in a perfect calm—an imaginary incident in perfect accordance with the laws of gravitation. Many similar incidents are just as ably treated, and the description of a meteor is worth repeating here :— "Its general shape was globular, and before we had got close to it, it seemed a perfect sphere, but at this near distance it looked like a round mass of incandescent liquid covered all over with bubbling and boiling protuberances, which every now and then emitted huge jets of flaming gas, or, detaching themselves from the general mass, shot forth as globules of white shining liquid. We were, in fact, the spectators of the early formation of a little world, a sun in miniature, but resembling the sun rather as it was many ages ago than as it is now."

We might quote many other descriptions of phenomena all agreeing with acknowledged facts and rigid scientific principles. We refer to observations of the extreme blackness of the shadows cast by the rocks of the Martian satellite which was supposed to have been visited, the noiseless explosions of the meteor above described, the apparent motionlessness in space of the flying machine, in spite of its enormous velocity, the inferior attraction of Mars and its satellites, and the explanation of how men got transferred from the earth to Mars. Indeed, the work is as interesting to us as to the general reader, and as a means of disseminating scientific knowledge may be eminently useful.

R. A. Gregory

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