Let me start by getting the unpleasantness out-of-the-way: I am not a huge fan of steampunk. The aesthetics of it are interesting, and there are certainly exceptions to this general preference. But usually, I don’t enjoy it. Mostly, it is rather hard for me to suspend disbelief with a steampunk story (I have this problem with alternate history in general). It pulls me out of the story when someone tries and builds a story around something that just didn’t–and probably couldn’t–have happened.
The Martian War is a steampunk/historical fiction/classical-style science fiction piece revolving around a Victorian-era Martian invasion. An ensemble cast seamlessly includes both real historical figures like H.G. Wells, Perceval Lowell, and Aldous Huxley as well as fictional characters like Dr. Moreau and Dr. Griffin (the Invisible Man). In the story, Lowell and Moreau discover a Martian scout ship, which turns out to be the harbinger of an invasion. Wells, Huxley, and Well’s mistress Jane Robbins, through a related misadventure, wind up traveling to the moon, and then Mars, where they fight the Martians on their own soil in an attempt to thwart the xenocidal invasion of Earth.
Despite my aversion to steampunk, I really enjoyed this novel. The historical fiction aspects are very thoroughly researched, and Anderson does a great job of weaving both fact and fantasy together. For example, Perceval Lowell really did construct a cutting edge (for its time) telescope in Flagstaff. He also wanted to dig vast ditches in the Sahara Desert and set them on fire to get the attention of the Martians he was convinced existed. Unfortunately, that part never got off the drawing board in real life.
Additionally, there is a major theme in the story that many of H.G. Wells’s stories were inspired by these “actual events.” The version of the Martian invasion is radically different in overall narrative from the event is The War of the Worlds, but all of the same key elements are there. Similarly, Wells spends time on the Moon, meeting the Selenites, setting up his story “The First Men in the Moon.” (Incidentally, some people believe the description of the Selenites in that story was actually the prototype for the “Greys” of UFO mythology, as well as the hive mind trope of later science fiction). These references are well-crafted, and at times almost indistinguishable from the historic elements. For example, I know the almost-magical Cavorite metal does not exist, but I had to look up whether or not Cavor, its inventor, was.
The only downside to the novel, and it ties in with my main beef with steampunk, is that there was some major scientific inaccuracies. I know that Anderson was writing “in universe,” and based on Victorian-era scientific thinking, there was no way to know that Mars, or even the moon had no breathable atmosphere. But I know it, and it pulls me out of the story when the trio of Wells, Huxley, and Robbins are skipping around on the Lunar surface instead of shriveling up and dying from the cold and the vacuum. This interfered with my ability to suspend disbelief, but it makes artistic sense.
Overall, I would recommend this book to any fan of science fiction, particularly the classic origins of the genre like the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells era. If you like steampunk, you will also find it extremely enjoyable. It’s a fun adventure novel with a lot of thought put into it.