Fiction Reviews

The Massacre of Mankind

(2017) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 464pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20509-3


This is the official sequel to H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds and is authorised by his estate - so let us start with a recap of the original. Wells’ novel was first published in 1898 though it had appeared in serialised form the year before; it made use of several of the scientific theories of its day (such as the outer planets being older than the inner ones and Mars having canals). It is told mostly in the first person by an unnamed narrator though he also recounts his younger brother’s terrifying experiences of fleeing London; for the latter he always refers to him as “my brother” rather than using the pronoun “he” thus retaining a semi-first person account. Indeed, most of the characters we spend any time with are unnamed or referred to only by title, such as “the curate” and “the artilleryman”; names seem to be reserved for minor or off-scene characters.

As the story opens just a little in the (then) future, our narrator, who lives in Woking, is invited to his observatory at nearby Ottershaw by the astronomer Ogilvy who, looking at Mars, shows him the puff of gasses as, for the second night, a great cannon fires a projectile at the Earth. Over succeeding nights there are ten such firings. A few weeks later, at midnight, the first of these cylinders crashes to earth at Horsell Common, close to Woking. At first nothing much happens but later in the day the cylinder starts to open and, eventually, creatures emerge from it. Ogilvy and other astronomers approach the Martians to welcome them but have the dubious honour of being the first to be incinerated by the Martian Heat-Ray. Soon the Heat-Ray has been used to scour the immediate area, leaving burning vegetation and a number of dead onlookers.

For a while there is only local interest (news travelled slowly in those days) and it some time before the country wakes up to the threat. Our narrator takes his wife to the (hopeful) safety of her cousins’ home at Leatherhead and then, rather mistakenly, returns home and finds himself involved in the desperate struggle for survival. The army is mobilised but soon prove to be ineffectual; with a combination of their Heat-Ray and deadly clouds of Black Smoke the Martians soon deal with the military and, in their hundred-foot tall, tripedal fighting-machines, march all but unopposed on London. What is more, another cylinder arrives every midnight and the Martian numbers grow.

As he heads first towards London then retreats from it, our narrator narrowly survives a number of encounters with the Martians, finally finding himself sheltering in an abandoned house when the next cylinder lands almost on top of it. He is trapped there for two weeks in the company of a curate who is unable to deal with the reality of the disaster in front of him and who slowly loses his mind. As well as the fighting-machines, he sees the handling-machines with which the Martians construct the things they need, including an apparatus that can take the local clay and produce from it ingots of aluminium. He also realises that the Martians are capturing people for sustenance; they have no mechanism for eating and digesting as such but survive on the blood of their captives. Once the Martians depart the area, he finds the Red Weed the Martians brought with them has become a major and still growing problem as it chokes rivers and causes flooding, and he makes his way towards his home. He comes across the artilleryman, who he had met near the beginning of the story and who now has his own madness, in this case believing that he will dig underground to create a new home for the human survivors and that they will capture fighting-machines and thus defeat their oppressors.

Our narrator freely admits that at times his experiences have devastated him and his sanity has sometimes slipped. Hearing that Leatherhead has been destroyed, he makes his way back to London and, after a fearful night, realises the next morning that the fighting-machines are silent. Approaching them, he finds that the Martians have all died, killed not by Man and his armaments but by the microbes to which we are so used but to which they had no resistance. This is all too much and he suffers a breakdown, being taken care of for several days by a kindly family, until he recovers, makes his way home, and finds that his wife has also survived.

The story ends with our narrator philosophising on how lucky we were and whether we should be worried that the Martians will come again and, if so, better prepared. He recounts that astronomers have seen a “sinuous mark” appear on Venus and they have found a similar one on Mars, indicating that perhaps the Martians have successfully invaded that other planet.

And so to The Massacre of Mankind (an expression from Wells’ novel). Stephen Baxter’s sequel has stuck to the ‘known facts’ of the original though he eschews Wells’ anonymity and this time dates are given and everyone has names. The original invasion was in 1907 and the narrator was Walter Jenkins who, following the publication of his account, is now rich but has spent several years in various continental medical research facilities suffering from what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.

We already knew that Walter’s younger brother Frank, a medical student, had escaped from England and had helped the Elphinstones, a couple of ladies he had met, to do so as well. We now find that he later married Julie Elphinstone, though they are now divorced, and Baxter’s story is mostly told in the first person by Julie, though there are chapters in which she passes on the accounts of others.

It is 1920 and the story opens in New York, where Julie is now a journalist. She is summoned to a meeting with Major Eric Eden (retired) (who was briefly mentioned by Wells) and Bert Cook (the artilleryman). In turn, they are all invited to England where they will be telephoned from Germany by Walter Jenkins. He reveals that puffs of gasses have again been seen on Mars - there is a new invasion coming. What is more, this time there were ten cannons and one hundred cylinders are on their way!

Following the first Martian War, Brigadier-General Brian Marvin had become Prime Minister; being a military leader who had survived the action at Weybridge (mentioned by Wells), he has put Britain on a war footing. Greatly aided by Winston Churchill, his Minister of War, Marvin has introduced high levels of security and encouraged the military to prepare new weapons to fight the anticipated second invasion. Britain had become an ally of Germany and had supported their successful attack on France and Belgium, and the Schlieffen War has settled into a protracted slog against the Russians.

Soon the nation is informed of the new invasion and the defence plan is simple: predict the landing spots, have the Army waiting nearby, and, in the nineteen hours it takes for the Martians to open their cylinders, blow them up. The Martians, though, have learnt from last time and have a different game plan. At midnight fifty-two cylinders arrive simultaneously, not landing but smashing down like meteorites; each creating a huge circle of destruction, instantly killing nearly half the Army, and together the craters create a ring sixteen miles in diameter, roughly centred on Amersham. The remaining cylinders arrive the next night, landing more gently inside the Cordon (as the ring of craters becomes known). This time they open within minutes and the Martians are out, Heat-Rays deployed in all directions. In mere hours they have established their authority over the area - and this time they have immunity to our diseases. Before long their fighting-machines are striding round the country, destroying lines of communication, factories, government buildings, artillery, and anything else that threatens them, and in the coming months their flying-machines will be seen around the world. Meanwhile, they mostly leave the survivors alone so long as they are not threatening; after all, they will need them for sustenance.

As the Army mobilises, Frank Jenkins, a volunteer Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, joins the forces waiting for the first landing. It is through him that we get an account of the initial onslaught then, finding himself trapped within the Cordon, we also learn something of life under the Martians. Eric Eden is recalled and soon finds himself in the fighting outside the Cordon and thus we learn more of the early days of the invasion. Despite all the military’s planning and weapons development, the Heat-Ray again gives the Martians almost total superiority; the Army and the Royal Flying Corps score only minor victories by destroying the occasional fighting-machine but always at the loss of their fighting units. Julie barely escapes London, even as the Martians wreak havoc upon it.

Two years pass as the Martians settle in. Now living in Paris, Julie finds that most of the world is taking little action, hoping that the Martians will stay put in England. Then she gets another call from Walter - he wants her to return to England and attempt to communicate with the invaders by means of diagrams he has created. Somewhat surprisingly she agrees and finds herself back in England and with the support of the Army in her enterprise. Warning her that disease is rampant, they dose her up with various inoculations and it is only later that she discovers that they have also turned her into a carrier of a disease which will be deadly to the Martians (though it will have no effect on her). She is expected to somehow contaminate the blood supplies on which the Martians depend and then return.

And so she starts a journey to and through the Cordon, which the Army has now surrounded with a series of huge earthworks and artillery, called the Trench, to ‘box them in’ (unsuccessfully, of course). Once inside the Cordon she finds that life continues though with people sometimes being ‘harvested’. The Martians have brought other humanoid beings with them, some believed to be Venusians and others another type of Martian; both are clearly domesticated and kept for fodder. Furthermore, the Martians are experimenting on humans with the aim of domesticating them as well.

She comes across Bert Cook, happily surviving inside the Cordon having done a sort of deal with the Martians, and he takes her to their central pits, the heart of their operations. Even as Julie wonders how she can achieve her task, a new wave of cylinders arrives around the world and predictably defeat all local opposition. Anything she does now will, at best, only affect the Martians in England and she realises the new arrivals will survive and complete their conquest of the Earth. She persuades the Army to try a new idea, use their explosives to create a huge earthwork. Walter had spotted that the Martian craters and pits were in the shape of the sigil seen on Mars and Venus, akin to a Martian flag of ownership. The Army’s new earthwork has a different shape - that seen earlier in the clouds of Jupiter. Believing the Earth to now be under the protection of the Jovians, the Martians retreat; some return to Mars whilst others go into hiding. There remains much to be done in undoing the changes they have started making to the environment and the Earth wonders about its future - for the Martians have not actually been defeated!

The book is well written but feels pedestrian; there are many little scenes and much detail and I found all this made the story move slowly. Admittedly it tells a longer story than the original, indeed, it is two and half times its length, but it takes a lot of pages to do so and lacks Wells’ succinctness. The landings and attacks on Long Island and New York, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Peking, Durban, St Petersburg, and Berlin each have their own chapter (sometimes several) and I found them to be much of a muchness; read one and you’ve read them all (indeed, the initial attack provided all the detail you needed). With the main tale from Julie plus the passed-on accounts from others, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, many observations, and it just seemed to drag the story out. I often complain that today’s books are unnecessarily long for the amount of story they contain and this, sadly, falls in that category. It was an interesting read but suffered from too much repetition of the basic story of the landings and it took too long to cover what mattered.

It was interesting to see how the understanding of the Martians and their technology have been added to in this story, particularly from our perspective given our scientific and technological advancement over the more than a century since Wells’ novel. However, it did not add that much to the original story, it just extended it for many more pages. Of the two, I found the original to be the better.

Peter Tyers

See also Jonathan's take on The Massacre of Mankind.

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