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William Dean Howells (1837-1920)

Editor's Easy Chair

By W. D. Howells, 1920

[Harper's Monthly Magazine, vol 140, pp 710-2, 1920 (editorial column). Online editor's note: Percival Lowell had claimed to see canals on Mars some years before. Howells refers to World War I, the post-war atmosphere of reaction against aliens, and the Bolshevik revolution.]

IT is not long since three or four, or half a dozen savants declared that certain flamy flickerings or flashings in our atmosphere which apparently reached the earth's material substance and, as it were, bounced against it, were "not impossibly" messages from the planet Mars. None of these savants, however, went farther than that "not impossibly"; but it happens that we are in possession of something much more authentic concerning those flickerings or flashings, for the other night we were vouchsafed an experience quite in the order of the "not impossible" of the savants. What we noticed wavering toward us through the dark was not, indeed, a flashing. but it was certainly a flickering; and quite as sensible to the eye as the lights cast from the perforations of those old-fashioned tin lanterns which people used to carry early in the last century or earlier. As the flickerings came nearer it was more and more interesting to have their source explicitly declare itself such a lantern, carried by one of the quaint couple who defined themselves as distinctly as might be for a pair of Old Dears, and were more convincingly Martians than any celestial visitors who have yet penetrated our atmosphere.

This friendly pair were not only not young in their looks. but were dressed as Terrestrials of their age would be, though rather more bundled up. so to speak. They had distinctly the effect of travelers from a colder clime than ours, and fully justified the scientific conjecture that the prevailing Martian temperature is that of our mountain-tops. As they shed their various outerwraps, however, they not only gained in appearance of youth and good looks, but in a certain effect of fashion which, though not of our planet, was quite possibly fashionableness of Mars. It did not seem to he a class distinction, for, above all, these people expressed somehow an intense and penetrating democracy such as we were supposed to enter into the recent World War to make the earth safe for--after we were no longer too proud to fight. In the course of our ensuing conversation we fancied that their hesitancy was a scrupulosity concerning the exact truth of what they were saying. They seemed to be pretty well informed as to the main facts of that war, in touching which, more or less, they said our whole Terrestial being seemed to them almost planetary.

"Ah," we owned, superiorly, "we suppose you have never had anything quite like it in Mars. Now don't pretend," we added, humorously,"that you have never had any war at all there."

"It would be wrong, of course," the lady. as we must call her "to pretend anything, but we never have. And the fact in your case is not so much applling to our comprehension as impossible."

"We can't take it in," her companion interpreted.

"No, we rather fancy not," we said. "The 'sad variety of pain' which we Earth-folk inflicted upon one another must be more amazing even than the multiple murder." We did not mince our terms as we should have done while the war was still going on, when we should have been obliged to differentiate the facts as phases of heroism and patriotism. "But if you have never had any war at all in Mars," we added, "it is, in a manner, no use talking. We suppose the enormous activities of every sort which you see going on about you here in New York," we diverged, "are more comprehensible. The public works which you have carried through at home in the construction of the canals between your vast landlocked seas must have called forth exertions far surpassing the wildest tumults of our continual building up and pulling down here, or even the rush of our women's shopping, on foot or in taxis or private motors."

"We do notice the shopping," the lady said. "We suppose it is the only means you have of dispossessing yourselves of your riches. Do your women regard it as a public function, something like the exercise of the suffrage?"

"Not exactly," we explained. "There has never been any such rush to the polls as there is to the shops, and there probably won't be. You will see something parallel only in the crowding in and out of the theaters; it used to be the churches."

We were aware of keeping the talk as impersonal as possible, but we could not altogether avoid touching on the latest scientific position concerning their visit.

"There will be some misgiving," we said, "in the public mind here as to your planetary identity, because of the fact, or theory which the French scientists have lately adverted to concerning the supposed signaling from Mars. They hold that your conditions do not support or even permit human life. They say you could not have signaled--and still less come--from Mars because you could not have existed there."

"Indeed!" the lady said, sharply, for all comment.

Her companion added, humorously, "But here we are, quite alive, and perhaps our kind of life could have been supported by the Martian conditions, though your kind--to be more specific--could not."

"No doubt," we acquiesced. "We as Americans are peculiarly gratified by your making us your hosts in your first visit to our humble Earth."

The Martian was silent, but the lady said, after a moment, "Well, you know, we rather meant to land first in New Zealand."

"Ah?" we queried.

"Yes. So much more socialized than any other terrestrial country. More in sympathy with our own planet, which is entirely socialized."

"Do you mean socialisticized?"

"Yes," she answered, and again we said, "Ah!" We thought we had better not say anything more, though we could not forbear adding, from the shock the fact gave us, "If we have understood you, Mars is even more pacifist than socialistic, if possible; and wouldn't you be rather disappointed in learning at first hand that the New-Zealanders fought as actively in the World War as all the other subjects of the British Empire--as the Canadians or the Australians?"

"It would be regrettable," her companion said, "but not quite disappointing. We have learned since our Earth knowledge began that your Terrestrial socialists are as warlike as your individualists. We once supposed that the German socialists would not fight the French socialists. But that has proved a mistake."

"Decidedly," we laughed. "They found out they were French and Germans first and socialists afterward." But we thought it best to leave this branch of the inquiry and we remarked: "Then, though your women have the suffrage, do they take much interest in politics--party politics? Ours don't," we explained.

"You know," the Martian gentleman cautioned the lady, "it was much the same with you when you first got the suffrage."

"I believe so," she admitted. "And after the socialization began there was hardly anything like party politics. Is it much the same now in New Zealand?"

"Well, we don't really know a great deal about New Zealand. We hardly suppose the socialization there has gone anything like as far as with you. And," we added, "anywhere on Earth even theoretical pacifism would have brought you into disfavor. It certainly would in the United States. And your socialism would keep some of you out of our legislative bodies."

"But then," her companion asked, what becomes of your fundamental principle of no taxation without representation? We have understood that your taxes are very heavy. Are they imposed without the consent of the taxed?"

We laughed. "Well, rather! You don't suppose we would vote away the tenth of our incomes voluntarily? It's done somehow, but we don't do it."

The Martian suggested, "Perhaps by a stroke of your American humor."

We were silent for a moment. Then we said: "We will tell you what! We must have a meeting where vou will deliver a lecture on Mars with illustrative maps, and answer interrogatories from the audience. They will seem mostly rather crude questions, but they'll be very good-natured. Be careful, though. about your socialization. Socialism isn't it all in favor just now. It was some time ago. when it was in the doctrinaire stage--Looking Backward, and the like--but now that we see the latter-day socialists really mean it--well. it's another thing. See? Better confine yourselves to your material conditions--your canals and inland seas and polar snow-caps. Don't touch on moral or economical affairs."

"That will be difficult," the Martian said.

"It will be impossible." his companion declared, and the event confirmed her position.

The hall where the Martians were to speak was crowded from the lecture platform to the doors, but the audience was, as usual, in the keeping of our excellent Irish police, who held it well under control. All went very well while the Martians kept to the physical characteristics of their planet. These, as illustrated by the large maps spread on the wall behind them, could not be disputed, but when the Martians could not refrain (especially the lady Martian) from entering upon a glowing account of their civilization, their hearers could not be restrained. The rudest of them began to heckle her and to mock her enthusiastic narrative of the Martian development from competitive to socialistic conditions. To her apparent amazement she. found the Martian socialism confounded in the minds of her hearers with all sorts of American incivism, and it was here that our good policemen lost control of them and of themselves, as if somehow confounding the strange Martian system with English rule in Ireland.

We cannot follow the course of popular feeling from the first expression of patriotism in the breaking of chairs and benches pretty well all over the hall. There were many arrests; the police did their duty nobly; and the trials filled the papers for days. When these ended, rather indefinitely, there were public receptions for the Martians, and personal interviews until our people got tired of them. It all arrived at nothing, but there began to be question of the, Martians' Terrestrial patriotism; it was doubted whether they were good Americans, and the question came up whether it was safe to admit people from other planets indiscriminately. Finally it was decided to make an example of the pair from Mars and they were deported. They could not be returned to their planet, and as the next best thing they were sent to Russia upon the theory that they were Bolshevists.

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