Fiction Reviews

The Massacre of Mankind

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


This is the sequel of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898) officially authorised by the Wells' estate (if that counts for anything). Stephen Baxter has done this sort of thing before with The Time Ships (1995), the sequel to The Time Machine (1895) back when he was with Harper Collins' Voyager before he moved to Orion's Gollancz. He made a fair fist of that and does so again with this.

I'll assume that you are familiar with the original The War of the Worlds but if you are not (where have you been?) in theory you can read this as a standalone as Baxter goes over everything so meticulously, but to be honest – and I don't mean to be unduly disparaging – every SF reader worth their salt should have read The War of the Worlds which (unlike this authorised sequel) is a short book. If you have not yet, and consider yourself something of an SF aficionado, then go and do it now and do not read any more of this review lest this be a spoiler.

The story opens in 1920 some 13 years after the original Martian invasion. Britain has recovered from the original (Wells') War of the Worlds and has examined the Martian machinery littering the SE of England.  Remember in 1920 Britain was already riding the success of the 18th and 19th century industrial revolution but now it also has Martian technology to examine and has incorporated some of this into its industrial-economic complex. As such this is very much like some other fictional derivatives that drew on this Wells masterwork: things like Scarlet Traces and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Vol II .

However history subsequent to the original 1907 Martian invasion is different to history as we know it. Gone the complacency Britain had had prior to the Martian invasion in which it thought nobody could take down the Empire, it now realised that there were other powerful forces and if Britain was to continue to prevail it would have to be prepared for another bout with the beings from the red planet. And so, in Baxter's sequel, the post 1907 British politics was more on a war footing, right-wing and dictatorial. Our world knew that it may have survived the first Martian invasion but that with the right protection (and possibly inoculations) the Martians could come back in force.

Scientists knew (or thought they knew) that the Sun was cooling and that Mars was therefore becoming uninhabitable. Signs of life on some of the outer planets had also been detected in the form of mysterious markings. It was considered very likely that the Martians would have another go at colonising the Earth. How right this thinking was.

The first war was the Martians simply sending an exploratory force, the next time and we'd be in for a real invasion and colonisation. And so, it quickly seems, such concerns transpire to have merit. Flashes are seen on the surface of Mars and months later Martian canisters began raining down across middle England. Worse, despite all the British army and government's preparations, the Martians get the upper hand and seem unstoppable; they seem to have outsmarted defences despite preparations…

Turning to the book's setting, Baxter considers the world as Victorian scientists might (so no fusion Sun) but there are hints to us (early 21st century readers) with modern understanding and so the Martian's tripod mounted ray cannons are in effect infrared laser. Having said that William Thomson – the 1st Baron Kelvin (or Lord Kelvin) whom Baxter correctly cites as considering that the Sun could not be very many millions of years old. But such a view did not totally dominate scientific opinion (Lord Kelvin did not believe the conclusions of geologists Charles Lyell or, over half a century earlier, James Hutton) at the time, though might have seen his age-of-Solar-System views hold sway with the right-wing British society Baxter envisions following the first Wells' Martian invasion.

Now, I mention all this because Stephen Baxter has clearly undertaken much research in writing this 'authorised' sequel, and indeed there is a very welcome four-page afterword outlining some of this. However it does mean that Baxter crams in a lot into this sequel.

The story is also told from multiple viewpoints involving some of the characters in Wells' original novel. This to means that Baxter has given himself a lot of ground to cover.

Both the above (tremendous research and multiple viewpoints) does though ramp up the page count. On the plus side, this means that we get good value for the book's cover price. Conversely, this is decidedly not the sort of novel that H. G. Wells himself would have written: Wells' SF, with the exception of his magnum opus The Shape of Things to Come (1933), was low on page count and high on sensawunda (sense-of-wonder). Indeed I have two editions of War of the Worlds from different publishers and these have an average page count of 160 pages, so Stephen Baxter's sequel at over 460 pages is not in-keeping with British SF's grandfather's style. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed another bout with Wells' Martians and Stephen Baxter's The Massacre of Mankind  has a very welcome place on my bookshelf, but there is a touch of bloat about it and its length really is not in-keeping with H. G. Wells' style. I suspect that Baxter had researched so much, had a lot to say and wanted to be sure of making a splash with this sequel, that he found it difficult to edit down his first draft.  This is a shame, for I feel that if he had managed to deliver a novel half the length (which would still have made it significantly longer than Wells' original) then this sequel novel would have been far better: this sequel may have been 'authorised by the H. G. Wells estate' but I can't in all honesty accept that in this case this 'official' provenance confers the novel any added validity. (I also note that Baxter's sequel to Wells' The Time Machine mentioned earlier, was also lengthy and so it’s a little surprising that the publisher Gollancz had not asked him to be more economical with the page count.)

Yet despite this one grumble (albeit a significant one) I return to how welcome it was to re-encounter Wells' iconic Martians. This sequel may possibly not have the significant print longevity of the original (such sequels tend not to – how many remember the authorised sequel to The Day of the Triffids?) so get this while you can, and don't let the Martian tripods get you.

Jonathan Cowie

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

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