The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

February 3, 2017

It has been 14 years since the Martians invaded England. The world has moved on, always watching the skies but content that we know how to defeat the Martian menace. Machinery looted from the abandoned capsules and war-machines has led to technological leaps forward. The Martians are vulnerable to earth germs. The Army is prepared.

So when the signs of launches on Mars are seen, there seems little reason to worry. Unless you listen to one man, Walter Jenkins, the narrator of Wells’ book. He is sure that the Martians have learned, adapted, understood their defeat.

He is right.

Thrust into the chaos of a new invasion, a journalist – sister-in-law to Walter Jenkins – must survive, escape and report on the war.

The Massacre of Mankind has begun

No one would have believed in the early years of the twenty first century that a reviewer would read a book created by an intelligence far greater than his own. The reviewer would scrutinise and study the text as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. The reviewer even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this reviewer with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans to purchase it after they had read his review…*

I’ll begin with an admission. I came to War of the Worlds in reverse. I am a child of the nineteen seventies (yes I do know I am hideously old, thanks), and my first exposure to War of the Worlds was the musical concept album by Jeff Wayne. I still have a fond place in my heart even now, forty years later. After the musical I moved onto the George Pal movie version which is shlocky, if massively inaccurate, fun. When I did finally get to the H.G. Wells book, I was completely entranced. It perfectly captures the society it was trying to depict and you can easily see why it is considered a science fiction classic. When I heard that a sequel authorised by the Wells estate was in the works, I was excited and apprehensive in equal measure. Could any author live up to Wells’s vision?

The author who has stepped up to this challenge is Stephen Baxter, and I’m pleased to say he has done a great job of expanding on H. G. Wells’s original story. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve not read any of Mr Baxter’s other novels. I suppose the one positive of this oversight is that I had no preconceived notions going in. The narrative picks up fourteen years after the first book. Walter Jenkins, the unnamed narrator of War of the Worlds, is a shell of the man he once was. The horrors he experienced during the Martian War have left him scarred, both physically and mentally. His marriage has failed and he is obsessed with the red planet and it inhabitants. He has never been able to shake the feeling that the Martians will return. Fortunately, there are many others across the planet who feel the same. The Artilleryman, Albert Cook, also returns. His slightly deranged world view was a treat in book one, and he is as opinionated as he ever was. I’m glad to see him back; outspoken characters are always great fun. Others also reappear. I think it is fair to say that all their lives have all been irrevocably changed.

There are some clever little twists in Baxter’s alt-history of the early twenty century. The First World War never happened. Britain and Germany are still on speaking terms but there is still a whole lot of antagonism across Europe. Germany has conquered France and is involved in an ongoing conflict with Russia. Baxter also peppers the text with some famous faces, Churchill and Einstein to name but a few. Even H.G. Wells gets a mention. It’s these nice additional details that help elevate the narrative into something special.

I’m a firm believer that the best sequels succeed when they don’t just re-run the original story, they enhance it. War of Worlds is centred specifically in England, and doesn’t really mention the rest of the world at all. I want my alien invasions to be a bit more awe inspiring than that. I want to feel the huge scope of what is going on. The Massacre of Mankind does up the ante quite considerably and makes the Martians return feel like a genuinely global event. There are a handful of chapters that detail the invasion across the world from Australia to China, South Africa to India. One of things Baxter manages to capture early on is the same insight that Wells achieved in the original novel. In War of the Worlds, England is so self-assured when it comes to their superiority. There is an implied smugness. The British have never met an enemy they cannot beat. Baxter scales up this idea and then some. In The Massacre of Mankind, the reader gets to view how the Martian’s return affects the entire planet. Humanity’s complacency remains self-evident. Rather than protect or defend themselves when the Martians arrive in New York hundreds flock towards the landing site for a bit of a look. The general populace has little consideration that these otherworldly enemies may have evolved over the fourteen years that have passed since their first arrival. It doesn’t occur that any retribution might be forthcoming.

I’ve always dreamed that there would be a big screen adaption of War of the Worlds that was set in the correct century and followed the plot from the novel faithfully. Now that I’ve read Baxter’s sequel, I think there might need to be more than one.

The Massacre of Mankind is published by Gollancz and is available now. If you’re a fan of the source text I think you’ll enjoy this

*with apologies to H.G. Wells for the conceit of this first paragraph.

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