MESSAGES FROM MARS BY THE AID OF THE TELESCOPE PLANT (1892) – Written by Robert D Braine. I shortened the title for the blog post headline. The main character of this novel is a sailor named Nordhausen. After leaving Madagascar our hero winds up shipwrecked on an uncharted island.
While roaming this island Nordhausen finds plants with thick transparent leaves which refract light like lenses do. The sailor breaks off one of the leaves to study it more closely, only to be seized by the island’s native inhabitants, who have been watching him from hiding.
The natives take him through a cave entrance to their hidden village which is a blend of the primitive and the futuristic. For the “sacrilege” of damaging one of the telescope plants Nordhausen is to be executed. The means? A device formed from several of the lens-like leaves which magnify the sunlight into a makeshift heat-ray, like holding a magnifying glass over a piece of paper to catch it on fire.
Our hero is saved at the last minute by a beautiful woman named Raimonda, who wants him spared. When her own words are not sufficient to stay the execution she enlists the King of Mars to persuade the natives to spare Nordhausen.
Raimonda explains to the freed sailor that the island is called Roxana and its inhabitants Roxanans. Long ago two shipwrecked scientists from Europe showed the Roxanans how to use the incredible leaves of the sacred plant to construct telescopes.
The telescopes led to the discovery of intelligent and advanced life on Mars (Oron to the people of the Red Planet) and, eventually, two-way communication between the islanders and the “Martials” as the book calls the inhabitants of Mars – interchangeably with “Oronites, as the aliens call themselves.
These Martials/ Oronites are ten feet tall and possess no mouths. They have huge eyes and have 10 fingers and ten toes on each hand and foot. The beings have trunks like elephants instead of noses. A white horn grows out of the forehead of each of the Martials/ Oronites.
Males (“Ras”) are a bit larger than the females (“Reins”). Both have hair like the manes of lions with the males also having beards. Their clothing is a thin skin-like covering made of spun glass.
The Martials have been initiating the Roxanans into the secrets of some of their advanced technology, which is why their village has some futuristic elements.
Nordhausen is educated in the ways of Martial culture. In the distant past a disastrous war ravaged the planet after a Civil War erupted over the question of continuing oral communication or switching to communication via changes in eye-color.
High-tech weapons like flying machines, nerve gasses and deadly microbes (gargsia) for biological warfare nearly ended all life on Mars/ Oron. This war started between 9,813 Earth years ago and 14,378 years ago according to alien historians named Ogg and Sawski.
Eventually, just to survive, the Martials overhauled their planetwide culture. Harsh, strict population control was and is enforced to prevent any overpopulation. The Ramkah (Parliament) gave way to a series of Kings.
Each successive King of Mars is the most virtuous individual on the planet, as decided upon by a brain and mind-reading machine called the cerebelograph. The King oversees the quasi-monarchy, quasi-socialist state.
The Red Planet’s inhabitants long ago eliminated solid foods and dine on an elixir-like substance called Sardindrac, amply supplied via reservoirs. (Nordhausen calls the drink a “Ruby Cordial”) They have also evolved beyond the need for oral speech, communicating purely through changes of color in their eyes. Yes the “blinkers” as the anti-oral faction of the Civil War were called, won.
Mars has just four continents and only two are inhabitable, both close to the equator. The other two are frigid wastelands. One continent, for the humanoid Oronites, is called Ribiggia and the other is inhabited by all animals EXCEPT the singing birds which the Oronites keep as pets.
The reason why the animals live separately from the humanoids is because the Oronites used to use the animals as food and as beasts of burden but have abandoned such practices. The animals live in the wild now, undisturbed by the people.
The Martials are beginning to question the wisdom of sharing their technology with a people who were not culturally prepared for it (Should have had a Prime Directive!). Raimonda and Nordhausen fear that the Roxanans will eventually be able to create super-weapons like the Martials had, unleashing a catastrophic war on Earth.
The High Priests of the Roxanans control the islanders, since to them the technology they have been blessed with are gifts from the gods, like the telescope plants. The fanatical priests want Nordhausen to help them along regarding some of the science which the Martials have so far withheld from them. They hope this will jump-start their efforts like when the long-ago Europeans taught them how to use the leaves to make telescopes, paving the way for communication with Mars.
Our hero wants no part of such plans and becomes anxious to leave Roxana when he learns the fate of the previous castaways. Eventually Raimonda helps Nordhausen thwart the efforts of the priests to keep him captive. He escapes Roxana and returns to the outside world.
I found this story very readable and fun. There’s a solid science fiction grounding in the examination of how technology can be a double-edged sword: creating helpful devices or unleashing massive destruction.
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