Our Distant Cousins by Lord Dunsany

I had discovered the writings of Lord Dunsany in my school library in college. This editions were raced with the Sidney H. Sime illustrations, which, to my mind, are as much a part of reading Lord Dunsany as the illustrations of John R. Neill are an integral part of the experience of reading L. Frank Baum.

Lord Dunsany was a pioneer of the fantasy field, capturing a sense of strange, ironic, oriental and haunting that reflects the fin de siecle perfectly, both the cynicism and ennui, but also the wish for escape into long lost fairylands. His short stories display his genius better than his longer work, albeit any reader’s life is duller is he has never read THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER.

What I did not know was that Lord Dunsany was also a pioneer of science fiction. Well all know, I hope, that John Carter of Virginia was one of the first earthlings to visit that far sphere, but only dedicated aficionados of early SF will recognize the visits of Thomas Edison or Gullivar (sic) Jones.

I found this story only today, thanks to the wonders of the electronic age:


It seems an Englishman named Terner also made the voyage in a rocket-assisted prop plane, carrying air bottles and a diver’s helmet, wearing a heavt leather jacket against the cold and wrapping himself in bandages tightly enough so that the exposure to vacuum would not harm him.

It seems he uses the momentum of the Earth’s motion around the sun to shoot himself to Mars in what seems to my unpracticed eye to be a crude description of a Hohmann transfer. The prop is used only when entering and leaving the atmosphere.

… “But about 1920, with Mars coming nearer and nearer, and 1924 the only year that would be possible, I began my calculations. I worked at them steadily for three years; I have the figures still: I will not ask you to read them, but the whole point of my work was this, that there was only one motive power that could possibly get me to Mars before all my provisions gave out, and that power was the pace of the world. An aeroplane can do over two hundred miles an hour, and mine got up to nearly three hundred by means of the propeller alone; and in addition to that I had a rocket attachment that gradually increased my pace to an enormous extent; but the world, which is ninety-three million miles from the Sun, goes right round it in a year; and nothing we know on its surface has any pace like that. My petrol and my rocket were merely to pull clear of the earth’s attraction, but my journey was made by the force that is moving you in that chair at this moment at something like a thousand miles a minute. One doesn’t lose that pace merely by leaving the earth; it remains with one. But my calculations were to direct it; and I found that the pace of the earth would only carry me to Mars when Mars was a bit ahead of us. Unfortunately, Mars is never straight ahead, but a bit out to the right, and I had to calculate at what angle I was to aim my plane away to the right of our orbit, in order that the combined pull of my little plane and my rockets, and the vast pace of the earth, should give me the right direction. It had to be as precise as aiming a rifle, with this slight advantage on my side, to make up for all the forces that grudged my journey, that the target would attract any missile that was going a little too wide.

“But how to get back? That doubled the complexity of my calculations. If the pace of the world sent me forwards, so would the pace of Mars. Mars would be ahead of the world when I started. Where would the pace of Mars send me?”

I saw a flash of doubt even on Jorkens’ face at that.

“But it was fairly simple,” continued Terner. “Our world has the inside berth, a much shorter journey round the sun at ninety-three million miles than Mars at an average of a hundred and thirty-nine million. It consequently soon passes its neighbor, and I found that just as I was to shoot forward from Earth to Mars, so by leaving at the right hour, I could shoot forwards from Mars to Earth. As I said, these calculations took me three years, and of course my life depended on them.

His depiction of the martians is brief but memorable:


“And at once I saw that our scientists’ dreams were true, for walking in that enclosure so carefully protected by metal I saw a large party of the human race.”

“Human!” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” said Terner, “human. Folk like ourselves. And not only that, but, as I had often gathered from books was likely to be the case on account of the smaller planet cooling sooner than ours and so starting life earlier, rather more refined than the best of our people. I never saw anything more graceful; ages had given them a refinement that has not yet come to us. I never saw anything more delicate than their women’s beauty. There was a stately simplicity in their walk alone that was lovelier to see than our dances.”

Then he strode on, up and down the room, in silence awhile, smoking furiously.

“Oh, it is an accursed planet,” he said once, and went on with his rapid smoking.

I was going to say something to get him back to his story; but Jorkens saw me and held up his hand.

He evidently knew this point of the story, and the strong effect that it had upon Terner. So we left him awhile to his pacing and to his cigarettes.

And after a bit he continued calmly, as though there had been no pause.

“When I saw that mesh I got my revolver ready, for it seemed to me a pretty obvious protection against some powerful animal. Otherwise, I thought, why not walk about in the open instead of in that narrow enclosure?

“There were about thirty of them there, dressed simply and gracefully, though their dress was a bit oriental from our point of view. Everything about them was graceful except that dingy-looking flat house. I came up to the mesh and greeted them. I knew that taking my hat off would probably have no meaning to them, but I took it off with a wide sweep and bowed. It was the best I could do, and I hoped that it might convey my feelings. And it did, too. They were sympathetic and quick, and every sign that I made to them, except when too utterly clumsy, they understood at once. And when they didn’t understand they seemed to laugh at themselves, not me. They were like that. Here was I utterly crude and uncouth, half savage, compared to them; and they treated me with every courtesy that they could get my poor wits to understand. How I’d like to go back with a thousand more of us… but it’s no good, they won’t believe me. Well, I stood there with my hands on the mesh, and found it was good stout metal though much less than half an inch wide: I could easily get my thumb through the round apertures, so that we could see each other quite clearly. Well, I stood there talking to them, or whatever you call it, as well as I could, and remembering all the time that there must be something pretty bad in those forests for all that thick wire to be necessary. I never guessed what.

“I pointed to the sky, in the direction in which they would have seen Earth shining at night; and they understood me. Fancy understanding a thing like that just from my uncouth gestures. And they obviously did. But they won’t believe me here. And then they tried to tell me all about their world, and of course I understood nothing. And it wasn’t just being ignorant of their language that I felt as my greatest handicap: it was my awful lack of every kind of refinement, in comparison with those gracious gentle creatures, that weighed on me the most heavily all the time I was there. One thing I was able to understand from them. Would you like to hear about those canals’?”

As is the fashion for travelers to Mars, he sees a beautiful Martian girl:

“There was one girl there that was extraordinarily lovely,” said Terner. “But to describe any of them you’d need the language of a lover, and then turn that into poetry. No one will believe me. Not a soul will believe me. I talked to her, though of course my words meant nothing; I trusted so much to her bright intelligence that I almost expected her to understand every word; and so she often did. Strange bright birds flew often over us going to and from the forest, and she told me the names of them in the queer Martial language. Mpah and Nto are two that I can remember, as far as I can spell it; and then there was Ingu, bright orange and black, with a long tail like our magpie. She was trying to tell me something about Ingu, who was just then flying over us, squawking, away from the trees; when suddenly she pointed. I looked, and sure enough something was coming out of the forest.”

To find out what came out of the forest, and what befall thereafter, you must read for yourself. I reveal nothing, lest the skepticism that greeting Terner upon his return be stirred up against him once again by some ill timed comment of mine.

But I will say that there is one idea here which is a perfectly sound science fictional speculation, but one which I cannot recall having ever heard another write mention, albeit, once mentioned, one would think it obvious.

“…I had hanging over me all the while, and oppressing me with its weight, that feeling that I was on the wrong planet. It is a feeling that no one who experiences it can shake off for a single moment. You Jorkens, you have traveled a good deal too; you’ve been in deserts and queer places.”

“Yes, the papyrus-marshes,” muttered Jorkens.

“But,” continued Terner, “not even there, nor far out with the Sahara all round you, can you have had so irresistibly, so unremittingly, that feeling I spoke of.

“It is no mere homesickness, it is an always-present overwhelming knowledge that you are in the wrong place, so strong that it amounts to a menacing warning that your very spirit repeats to you with every beat of the pulse. It is a thing I cannot explain to anyone who has not been lost outside Earth, an emotion I can share with no one.”

The idea that there are not just sights and sensations awaiting us on other worlds, things for which we as yet have no names, is the sine qua non of science fiction. One might almost say it is what science fiction is.

But the idea that there are emotions to which we would all be subject which exist on those other worlds but not here, hence no man has ever felt before, is as peculiar yet as wild a speculation as the idea from VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay that in other worlds we would need additional organs of perception or pleasure, and other suns could shed other primary colors unknown here. How scientifically sound the idea of unearthly emotions is I leave to more learned men to debate: but how imaginative it is, I can say that the mere rareness with which the idea is found testifies.

The only thing even remotely close to this I have ever encountered in any science fiction book is the opposite emotion, Erdenfreude : the emotion felt by humans born offworld upon seeing Mother Earth for the first time. As you can see, we humans in this era have no name for this emotion, it never having been experienced in our current era, nor could be.

The term is invented by Jack Vance in one of the pull quote quotes from imaginary books of the future Jack Vance uses to add local color to his Demon Princes series. In PALACE OF LOVE, it is described thus:

Erdenfreude: a mysterious and intimate emotion which dilates blood vessels, slides chills along the subcutaneous nerves, arouses qualms of apprehension and excitement like those infecting a girl at her first ball. Erdenfreude typically attacks the outworld man approaching Earth for the first time. Only the dull, the insensitive, are immune. The excitable have been known to suffer near-fatal palpitations.

The cause is the subject of learned dispute.

Neurologists describe the condition as anticipatory adjustment of the organism to absolute normality of all the sensory modes: color recognition, sonic perception, coriolis force and gravitational equilibrium.

The psychologists differ; Erdenfreude, they state, is the flux of a hundred thousand racial memories boiling up almost to the level of consciousness. Geneticists speak of RNA; metaphysicians refer to the soul; parapsychologists make the possibly irrelevant observation that haunted houses are to be found on Earth alone.