Weird Science

I love to read old books written by naturalists.  When I am reading about, for example, a woman riding out on horseback to spend a long lazy afternoon watching the nesting habits of vireos, I learn a lot, but I also feel peacefully removed from current troubles.

After reading the bird-watching books of Florence A. Merriam, I was looking for similar works, and came across an ornithologist named Bradford Torrey.  Since he was writing over 100 years ago, all his books are in the public domain, and I downloaded all the free versions I could find onto my Kindle.

I was intrigued by one title, The Certainty of a Future Life in Mars, Being the Posthumous Papers of Bradford Torrey Dodd, so I started with that one.  You may notice that “Dodd” has been added to the name Bradford Torrey.  I didn’t.

One of the first paragraphs:

At the conclusion of a life spent rather diligently in study, and in association especially with astronomical practice and physical experiments, I have, in view of certain hitherto unpublished facts, decided to make public almost incontrovertible evidence that in the planet Mars the continuation of our present life… has been discovered by myself.

What?? The language certainly matched other old books adjective for adjective, but the topic, that in afterlife we go to Mars, was pretty startling.  I began to think that Bradford Torrey had spent too much time studying birds in tropic regions without a pith helmet.

The book goes on like a memoir, telling the story of a boy born about 1870, and raised by scientific parents.  When the mother dies young, the heartbroken father pursues her favorite science, astronomy. While stargazing one night, the father says to the son:

It seems to me within the reach of possibility to attain some sort of connection with these shining hosts.  If we must assume that the disturbances on the Sun’s surface effect magnetic storms on ours, it is quite evident that a fluid of translatory power or consistency exists between the earth and the sun, then also between all the planetary inhabitants of space, and I cannot see why we may not hope some day to realize a means of communication with these distant bodies… we might be brought into conversational alliance with these singular and  orderly creations, and bring to ourselves in verbal pictures a presentation of their marvellous properties.

“Disturbances on the Sun’s surface…” Image from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

At this point, I was feeling like a bad parent because I know I never used terms like “conversational alliance” or even “shining hosts” when talking to my own kids, but I still didn’t click to the fact that this was not a true memoir.

The story goes on with the father and son moving to New Zealand and setting up an observatory.

As the years pass, they form a theory that souls are reincarnated on the different planets.  Mercury is the planet for force or strength, as they call it brawn.  Venus is of course the planet for emotional life or sense, and Earth is the planet for science.  Souls can be born on any planet, they develop throughout life, and after life, they are transferred to the planet that best suits their mental state.  One can progress from being emotional to being scientific, going from Venus to Earth, and one can regress from being scientific to being forceful, going from Earth to Mercury, and so on.

In their theory, the next step in mental evolution is spirit, and the souls that are ready for this step find themselves on Mars.

You may know that most of these public domain books have the same plain cover, and that there is nothing to signify fiction or non-fiction, but it was at this point that I took a good look at the book cover, and finally noticed that it was not written by Bradford Torrey, but by someone named L. P. Gratacap, about a Bradford Torrey Dodd character.

So!  I was not going to learn anything about ornithology in this book, but it was unlike any book I’d ever read, so I kept reading.  Well, skimming.

Our hero and his father conduct numerous experiments with stellar photography and wireless telegraphy.  In 1890, while Mars is closest to Earth, their telegraph receives a message that they feel is intentional, although they can’t understand it.  The father determines to spend so much time studying Morse code that he will remember it even after death.  About a fourth of the way through the story, he dies, and just a few pages later, he succeeds in sending wireless telegrams from his afterlife on Mars.

I was suddenly sitting in a high room, brilliantly lighted by a soft, tranquilizing radiance, listening to a chorus of most delicately attuned voices, indescribably sweet, penetrating and moving.  Around me upon white ivory chairs arranged in an amphitheatre sat beings like myself, all looking outward upon a sloping lawn where were gathered beneath blossoming fruit trees an army, it seemed, of half shining creatures, unlike myself, singing these wonderful choruses.

The father does not get any less wordy in the afterlife, especially considering he has to send all his messages by Morse code.

In these colossal chambers the phosphorescent light from enormous radiators beats incessantly through and through the slowly oscillating, vibrating, revolving soul material.  And here the process of individualization is achieved.  A soul, or many souls, are separated from the great tide, by flashing, under the bombardment of the phosphorescent blaze into shining forms.

And so on and so on.  The father’s first message from Mars lasts for 28 pages!

In his second message, he gets in a little dig about which of Earth’s people make it to the Martian afterlife.

It is singular that of the scientific workers of the earth the astronomers, physicists, and chemists alone reach Mars.  The biologists, zoologists, botanists, geographers, and geologists rarely are booked at the Registries as coming from the Earth.  Their lives may be prolonged elsewhere, they seldom reach us.

Most of the rest of the book consists of these telegraphed messages from the father, telling all about life among the reincarnated Earthlings and the native Martians, their food, music, architecture, farms, and power sources.  There is a lot of actual technical information worked in too.

The Certainty of a Future Life in Mars (online version here) was published in 1903, when the real Bradford Torrey was 60 years old.  (He lived another nine years.)  The author, Louis Pope Gratacap, was a naturalist himself, and his first published writings were non-fiction, so it seems likely that he knew of the real Bradford Torrey.  I have not been able to find out why he chose that name for his character, whether it was a sort of tribute, or just a gambit to trick some readers into buying the book.  It would be like me writing a novel with Sir David Attenborough Jones or David Allen Sibley Smith in the title.  I might get a few readers, but I bet they wouldn’t be happy when they discovered the truth.

If you are in the mood for an “out-of-this-world” reading experience, you might give this book a try!