[UPDATE Aug 2015: ‘1500 Miles an hour’ is now available as a free ebook at Project Gutenberg, many thanks to  FreeLiterature.org]

Among the one million book images the British Library have released on Flickr are a set of fantastic illustrations by Arthur Layard from 1500 MILES AN HOUR, an early “scientific romance” by author Charles Dixon. The novel features a manned space flight from the earth to Mars and was published in London in 1895, two years before THE WAR OF THE WORLDS featured a Martian invasion in the other direction. In 1896, a brief review of 1500 MILES in London’s Spectator magazine compared the story to the scientific romances of Verne and Poe, but scoffed at the idea of going to Mars:

“Mr. Dixon’s narrative is serious, as far as journeys to Mars and such things can be serious. We must own to a preference for having the marvellous kept within terrestrial limits.”

1500 MILES AN HOUR (66MB pdf) is the story of 4 men and a dog who travel to Mars on a spacecraft – the Sirius – designed and built by “Doctor Hermann FRS, FRAS, FRGS”. Dr Hermann has discovered that the space between planets is not airless but filled with a rarefied atmosphere that can be traversed with electric propellers, driven by a petroleum fuel-cell of his own devising. He estimates the trip will take two and a half years at top speed.

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First, as to my means of conveyance. I have here a design for an air carriage, propelled by electricity, capable of being steered in any direction, and of attaining the stupendous speed of fifteen hundred miles per hour. It can be made large enough to afford all necessary accommodation for at least six persons, and its attendant apparatus is capable of administering to their every requirement. Here is a model of the machine. You will perceive that the material of which it is composed is no metal in common use, nor is its composition, and the method of its manufacture, known to any mortal man but myself. It is remarkable for its extreme lightness, toughness,and power of withstanding heat. Wrought-iron melts at something like 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit ;my metal will stand a fiery ordeal three times as great. This is of the utmost importance, for our high rate of speed would soon generate sufficient heat to melt any but the most enduring substance.

The Sirius is well stocked and equipped with scientific instruments and cameras, medical supplies, books, firearms and ammunition, rubber boats and other perceived necessities for the voyage: “Nor have I omitted clothes, cigars, tobacco, a few bottles of wine to be used on state occasions, and a fair quantity of brandy and whiskey.”

After launching from a field in Yorkshire, England, the Sirius ascends through the clouds and upper atmosphere before reaching the edge of interplanetary space. But as the spacecraft enters its trajectory for Mars, a life-support malfunction threatens the crew and one of them undertakes a dangerous space-walk to fix it.

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I cautiously began to descend, hand under hand, down the smooth, gleaming side of the Sirius. The distance seemed longer than I had calculated, and I could not see very well out of the glasses, for my breath dimmed them. I went cautiously lower and lower, when to my utter horror the bight of the rope gave way, and I slipped down many yards, to find myself hanging by the hands alone in space, below the Sirius.

For one brief, awful moment every drop of blood in my body seemed frozen, when I realised the fact that I was swinging by the hands above the unfathomable gulf of space! Thanks to a nerve which has never yet failed me, my presence of mind did not forsake me. I tried to forget what was below, and to concentrate all my thoughts on what was above. Above was safety; below, the most horrible death a human being could suffer. I shudder now to think of it.

After a year in space, Dr Hermann announces that his original calculations were in error and that their spacecraft may in fact be falling into the Sun, which casts a certain gloom over the proceedings until a year later, when Dr Hermann announces that his recalculations were in error, and they are in fact on their way to Mars after all. In June of 1877, after more than two years in space, enduring interplanetary dust storms and observing passing comets, the crew set the Sirius down on the surface of the Red Planet in a gloomy, storm-lit swamp. But they are not alone…

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With blanched face, and eyes fixed intently upon the water,he pointed to the seething pool. “Tell me if I am mad or dreaming,” he shouted in his terror. Truly, indeed, his alarm was not without cause, for there, coming slowly from the water on to the shore, and in the direction of the Sirius, was the first representative we had seen of animal life in Mars. How shall we attempt to describe this hideous amphibious monster, as it appeared lit up by the almost incessant flashes of lightning? Only its enormous head and forequarters were yet visible — a huge scaly carcass, mapped out with phosphorescent light, a square-looking head with pointed snout, and with two monstrous eyes attached to stalk-like shafts about a foot in length, which in the brief intervals of darkness shone like balls of fire. Raising its head on its long pliant neck, it sniffed the air as if in anger, and then began to crawl out of the pool, yard after yard of its repulsive body emerging, its head nearly reaching the Sirius before its tapering fish-like tail was drawn from the water.

We could hear the grinding, crunching sound of its scaly body as it was slowly drawn along the swampy ground, and so near had it come to us that we could see a coarse, bushy mane hanging round its lower neck in dripping folds. The hideous reptile, for such we must call it, passed on without noticing the Sirius, although we felt its rough, scaly body rub against the sides; and as its hideous, mighty coils disappeared into the gloomy swamp, leaving a luminous, slimy track behind them, we could detect huge protuberances like warts along its back, here and there varied with spiky fins, which were from time to time half-raised, as though the horrible creature were about to engage in combat.

This creature leaves them alone, but the crew soon break out their guns to defend the Sirius against attack by other swamp creatures. They then set off in their rubber boat to explore the surface of the planet, which turns out to include dense jungles filled with alien plants and animal life. After a time they encounter the sentient ‘Martials’ (Martians), who are like the humans of earth but larger (due to the lower Martian gravity) and very beautiful. The earthmen are taken captive, but learn the Martial language and make friends with some of their captors, among them a prototype Princess of Mars, Voline of Gathma.

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The day was nearly spent; the sun, in a sea of yellow radiance, was just about to sink behind the hills, as our prison doors were thrown open, and Kaosp, saluting respectfully, with helmet in hand, ushered Voline and her attendant maidens into our presence. We have already alluded to her marvelous beauty, as we saw her reclining by her father’s judgment-seat; but far more did her charms impress us now,as she swept, with all queenly grace, into our apartment, with head held high, and flowing golden tresses, mantling over her glorious bust and shoulders, and falling in silky coils below her waist. Her outer dress was polished black— a loosely-fitting robe, girdled at the waist, and which clung in ravishing folds to her stately form. A diadem of glittering purple stones, like diamonds,encircled her brow, and her robe was fastened across her left shoulder by a jeweled buckle of fabulous richness.

Though of such commanding stature, she was grace itself ; not a part of her magnificent figure out of proportion with the rest— a woman, yet a goddess, too. Beauty personified! Her lovely violet eyes gave an incomparable expression of saintly beauty to her countenance; and yet there wasnothing meek or humble there; fire, and passion, and unbending will, lurked deep down in their purple, dreamy depths. No being in female form, whether human or divine, could have appeared more lovely, as Voline stood, surrounded by the subdued golden glory of the setting sun,which poured in at the window, and threw a halo round her. A murmur of admiration involuntarily burst from each one of us, as we stood, in rapt astonishment, gazing upon the fair being before us. Then we each bowed low and respectfully, as she sank into the pillowed seat which had been provided for her.

Princess Voline becomes enraptured with one of the earthmen, but not all the Martials are so friendly. A hostile faction drugs the earthmen and prepares to elaborately finish them off, by tying them up inside the Sirius and pushing the lot into a volcanic lake of molten metal.

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We stood on a steep rugged hillside,some twenty yards or so from the summit. Below us was a vast multitude of people, congregated in the form of a horseshoe round the mountain ; around us was a cordon of soldiers, whilst at the very top of the mountain we saw the Sirius, how or when conveyed thither we knew not. Escape seemed utterly hopeless, and for the first time we realized that we were really about to die.

… we were conducted up the mountain-side towards the Sirius, which stood boldly outlined against the sky at the summit. When we got to the top the scene was even more awful, enough to curdle the blood of the stoutest-hearted with horror. We stood upon the crag Remagaloth, a jutting rock which arched and overhung in awful grandeur a vast lake of seething molten fire ! Five thousand feet below,in one clear terrible plunge, the cruel cliffs dipped down to this lake of flame; and on the brink of that rugged crag, jutting out like an index finger above the gulf, was the Sirius, looking as if the slightest touch would overbalance her, and hurl her downwards into the fiery depths.

But the Martials have underestimated our earthmen heroes, who escape their bonds and gain control of the Sirius as it topples towards the molten lake. They set course for a far region, the Desert of Chados, but the fuel-cells of the Sirius become depleted and they are forced to abandon their spacecraft. Resolving to rescue Princess Voline and her family, who have been taken prisoner by the hostile Martial faction, the earthmen set off again on foot. Their travels take them through the forests of Pamax, where they encounter other strange Martian species.

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As we went farther into the forest these curious trees increased in number and in size; indeed, in some places they covered the ground so thickly, that it was difficult to walk amongst them; and we found it best and quickest to make a detour. In passing one of these groves of vegetable umbrellas, we were startled by a perfect tumult of chattering cries, and scores of strange beings hurried out from under them and surrounded us, skipping and hopping about, running to and fro like fiends in the dusky light of the forest.

Had we not seen these singular beings with our own eyes, we should never have believed in their existence. They were fashioned much like ourselves from the feet to the shoulders, the arms, however,being proportionately much shorter — but there all outward resemblance ceased. Neck they had none, the shoulders gradually tapering away to the head, which was free from hair,and the face was intermediate in expression between that of a man, and the higher or Simian race of beasts. Their bodies were entirely naked, and of a chalky brown colour, and they averaged perhaps five feet in height. So fierce and threatening did these curious creatures become that we fired our rifles off to frighten them, which had the desired effect, and they fled-in chattering terror, grinning and grimacing into the trees, and we saw them no more. Whether they were gifted with greater than brute intelligence we know not;we were too startled and alarmed to make a closer acquaintance with them.

After further adventures, concluding in the rescue of Princess Voline and her marriage to the most valorous of the earthmen, the Sirius is readied for the return to earth. One of their number remains behind as a Prince of Mars, and as the story closes the remaining crew are preparing an iron message cylinder that will be sent on ahead to earth in case their voyage meets with disaster.

“What message, O King, may I send from you to my own people on the star-world Earth?” said Temple, pausing for a moment and turning towards the King of Gathma.
“A message of Peace and Goodwill ! Tell thy brothers yonder that the hand of fellowship is reaching out towards them from our world to thine, and that great things shall come to pass for their good and ours.”
“And your last words, Doctor?”
“Are words of encouragement to the men of science at home. To my dear old friend Darwin I especially address them. Tell my brethren that I long to be amongst them, once more, to tell of my discoveries, and to increase the scope of their labours to an extent they have hitherto not dared even to dream!”

We are now about to place this last page of our manuscript with the roll of others in their iron resting-place, and in ten more minutes from now they will have winged their flight away! Adieu!”

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