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The Moon Metal by Garrett P. Serviss

The Moon Metal 1900I've now read all four of Garret P. Serviss' readily available science fiction novels. Serviss is so far the best early science fiction writer in America that I've read. He was born in 1851 and became an astronomy journalist for the New York Sun in 1876, and he didn't write his first SF novel until 1898, when he was nearly 50. The Moon Metal was his second novel, published in 1900. E.F. Bleiler considered it Serviss' best story, partly, I think, because he looked down on the "pulp excess" of Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898) and A Columbus of Space (1911), both of which I enjoyed more than The Moon Metal.

That said, I really enjoyed The Moon Metal too (and also the fourth Serviss novel I've read, The Second Deluge). Serviss was explicit about his indebtedness to Jules Verne, and The Moon Metal shows the debt. It's set roughly 40 years in the future, so sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. One tossed off bit of futurology comes when the protagonist takes a commercial airplane to San Francisco late in the book. Not a bad prediction considering that the Wright Brothers' first powered flight happened three years after this book was published. This kind of "prediction" was a specialty of Verne as well, since he was privy to the latest engineering ideas that were under development.

The plot of The Moon Metal concerns a financial crisis caused by the discovery of an enormous amount of gold in Antarctica, which undermines the gold standard. A mysterious figure named Dr. Syx appears with the offer of a new metal called artemisium that he says can be used as the new monetary standard. While he allows people to visit the mine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he claims to produce the metal, he refuses to share the secret of the refining process. The intrigue of the novel circles around this mystery, with the narrator pulled into an investigation into the matter by another scientist.

The title of the book more or less gives away the secret, but the investigation and some of the incidentals provide plenty of fun along the way. For example, there's a mountain-climbing scene that features an experimental balloon-assisted grappling hook, and there's a scary device that kills people by coating them with artemisium. In one remarkable scene that's unfortunately left stranded, Syx plays a film documentary (again, predicting longer form films than existed in 1900) that seems to show a humanoid culture that was wiped out in some kind of cataclysm on what is unexpectedly revealed to be the moon. It's never mentioned again in the rest of the book.

Serviss had plenty of striking ideas, but, as in that last example, he wasn't always good at incorporating them into the story. There's a lot of interesting scientific and pseudo-scientific speculation in The Moon Metal, and I suppose that's the thing that seems remarkable about Serviss from the modern vantage. He was writing at a time when science fiction wasn't even a term yet, let alone a fully formed genre. The American branch of this strange new form of literature was about to be dominated by purveyors of exotic lost world adventure, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and A. Merritt. Serviss was writing more about scientific ideas than the new wave to come, and in that way he looks forward to Gernsback and Campbell. Gernsback was certainly a fan and reprinted three of Serviss' four novels in Amazing as an example of the type of story he was looking for (although, to be fair, he also reprinted Burroughs and Merritt). As the article about him in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says, 'In a sense, Serviss, who was almost fifty before he began writing fiction, was born too soon; born twenty years later he might have become one of the prolific masters of the new sf.'


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2014 10:40 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I'm surprised I've not heard of him before — I'll add him to my reading list.
Dec. 22nd, 2014 10:48 pm (UTC)
All four of the novels mentioned here, along with some of the non-fiction astronomy books he wrote, are available at Project Gutenberg.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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