Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Lord Dunsany’s voyage to Mars

 I have been slowly reading The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens by Lord Dunsany, the first of his Jorkens collections. It took me years to find a copy so I am savoring the book. I mean to write about the whole experience when I am done but one story really struck me.

While most of the stories I’ve read so far with Jorkens are slightly grounded travel stories, Our Distant Cousins veers into serious science fiction. Which also actually makes it feel the most dated.




For a story that was first published in a magazine pretty close to a hundred years ago 

It has been said that the Jorkens stories helped codify the pub story (even though example go way back) but this one breaks a lot of the conventions. Eh, it’s Dunsany. He seems to have only followed his own rules.

Our Distant Cousins isn’t actually told by Jorkens but by an associate of his who allegedly made the first voyage to Mars but lost all the proof that he had by the time he made it back to Earth.

The actual plot is honestly an abridged version of the Time Machine by H. G. Wells only with space travel instead of time travel. However, it’s the details that really struck me and stuck with me.

The traveler gets to Mars via a conventional airplane, albeit one with a rocket attached. Honestly, I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually seen that idea used literally. 

However, he doesn’t fly through ether or does there turn out to be a breathable atmosphere in space. He actually turns off the engine and uses the momentum of the Earth to to power his trip to Mars. More than that, it takes him thirty days to reach Mars and he describes the silence and boredom of the experience. His head is stuck in a special but faulty oxygen helmet and his body is wrapped in special bandages to deal with no atmospheric pressure.

It’s the last bit that just really stayed with me. Bandages as a space suit. Dunsany actually considered the issues with flying a plan into space. No, they wouldn’t work but they make sense. That part of the story is actually remarkably hard science fiction.

Yeah, landing on a pastoral Mars where grotesque monsters keep humans as livestock sends us straight into fantasy, possible allegorical fantasy. But the space flight part is just neat.

I found out that Dunsany wrote a sequel, the Slugly Beast, where the traveler is lured back to Mars by threatening radio messages. It’s entirely from the viewpoint of Jorkens and the narrator. I think it’s a better, more atmospheric story but it doesn’t have the same science fiction bite.

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