The Massacre of Mankind: Sequel to the War of the Worlds
London: Gollancz, 2017
As he has demonstrated with his sequel to The Time Machine, the legacy of H.G. Wells, one of the most loved and valued of British science fiction writers (and both fiction and political thought more generally), has been rightfully entrusted to Stephen Baxter. Baxter has established for himself a reputation as not just a prolific, best-selling author but someone who has demonstrated the ability to work in partnership with another author (e.g. Terry Pratchett) and in another writer’s envisioned universe without doing anything to destroy or devalue it. So it is that the front cover proudly notes ‘Authorised by the H.G. Wells estate.’ On the whole, this is a good thing since there is a penchant these days for adding to existing canon in well-respected literature and, plainly, since I ave read and am now reviewing this book, this is something I share to some extent. I imagine that it will not please everyone but, then, nothing ever does.
Presumably, potential readers of this book will be aware of the basic outline of the original, either through the novel, the film, the Orson Welles radio dramatization or just through osmosis via proximity to popular media consumption. The enigmatic Martians prowl the lances and alleyways of southern England in their metal tripods, deploying their murderous heat rays to boil the valiant British resistance. They are halted by the intervention of the common cold but these are creatures who think in the long-term and, a decade later, the two planets reach their conjunction once again and the stars are right for a second round of invasion. The first part of the book shows us some of the original protagonists and how they in real life, so to speak, rather resent the way they were portrayed in the original text. There are a few dozen pages of this and then the dawning realisation that the Martians are going to come back and have another go and then we get what we are waiting for and the monsters reappear on the scene. They have not been idle in the meantime and have come back not just single spies but in battalions sufficient to conquer not just the Home Counties but the entire planet. The action begins around the world and the promised massacre of mankind is made real before our very eyes.
I have read many of Baxter’s books and in none of them has he ever been very good with respect to characterisation and dialogue and, despite doing his best in this case, does it really manage it here. More successful are the attempts to imagine the political and social changes that might have been brought about by the first war (at least to a certain extent: there does not appear to have been any consideration of what might have happened in the numerous European colonies in Africa, Asia and elsewhere and the people living there play next to no part in this text. Not the least of these is the fact that the principal protagonist is a woman who would have found it previously quite difficult to have such ability to move around the plot in the militarised, fascistic society to which Britain has declined. To be honest, it is just as well that we are reminded of her gender from time to time because there is precious little of an intellectual hinterland or consciousness that would jog the reader’s attention.
Stephen Baxter has developed a well-earned reputation as one of Britain’s leading science fiction writers and one who has an interest in long-term social and the long-term of historical evolution. This extensive vision has had to be compromised to some extent because of the nature of this particular project. Nevertheless, there is still much to enjoy here.