The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

A sequel to The War of the Worlds.

Gollancz, 2017, 464 p.

 The Massacre of Mankind cover

This sequel to H G Wells’s War of the Worlds is authorised by the H G Wells estate and in it, of course, the Martians return to Earth. Since in our timeline they did not ever come in the first place that makes this book an altered history. To make it correspond with the original Baxter has to employ early twentieth century cosmology and speculation as part of his story, in particular the supposedly superpowerful civilisation inhabiting Jupiter’s cloud banks.

Our narrator is Julie Elphinstone, sister-in-law of the narrator of the earlier book. Elphinstone is a journalist (divorced from her husband) and at the start of the novel is working in New York. Britain is under an authoritarian regime, astronomy is banned to the general public – apparently worldwide – but of course everyone expects the Martians to invade again at the next opposition. Elphinstone is invited back to England to hear from her brother-in-law of their imminent arrival.

This time they come in greater force, have adapted their tactics and gained immunity from the microbes that did for them before. Britain’s armed forces, though better prepared, still fight the last war and the Martians swiftly gain a foothold and press their advantage. Two years later landings take place all around the world, allowing Baxter to set more scenes in the US, but much of the book is taken up with how people in England adjust to life under the gaze of the Martians and efforts to strike back against them. Elphinstone becomes an unwitting agent of the government in its attempts to defeat the Martians in the same old way but is instrumental in invoking the power of the Jovians to rebuff the Martians – or at least to make them retreat to the Arctic.

All the familiar Wellsian touches recur, the heat-ray, the red weed, the Martians’ desire for the blood of their conquered foes. (I know this adds to the horror – and Baxter adds in some gruesome scenes to illustrate it – but it is extremely unlikely that human blood rather than flesh could be a prime food source. I find excessive harping on the efficacy of blood in magic rituals and the like, as here, risible.) Baxter makes more of the Cythrereans the Martians have brought from Venus than I remember Wells doing. A strange inconsistency was that despite the Martians targeting motorised transport it is still used later under their eyes.

Baxter’s use of a female narrator is, of course, a reflection of our times rather than Wells’s. In this regard the inclusion of the strongish female character Verity Bliss (who might once have been introduced solely as a love interest for Elphinstone’s former husband Frank Jenkins but actually has much more agency than that) is another nod to the twenty-first century. Baxter also references things about which Wells would have been ignorant, like the Schlieffen War – in the book still raging between the Empires of Germany and Russia – Craiglockhart Hospital, Porton Down, Stapledon, and Ataturk as an Ottoman representative. He has a certain RFC Lieutenant, William Leefe Robinson kill a Martian in an air attack on one of their machines and mentions Wells as the Year Million Man.

But I’m struggling to see the point. Did we need a sequel to War of the Worlds? Does it really tell us anything about ourselves now? Or is it about present day fears? As an illustration of the ills that plague us in Britain – and the Western world in general – I would have thought a story about unfeeling monied zombies bleeding us dry would be much more apposite.

I don’t blame Baxter for taking the project on; it’s an open goal after all and he does accomplish it rather well. And I suppose it’s entertaining enough.

Pedant’s corner:- I read an ARC (proof) so some of these may have been corrected in the final publication. Practise (as a noun, so practice,) “‘I am aware have called some of you’” (I am aware I have called some of you.) “Even the privileged few like myself who had advance warning of the new invasion, this coldly stated news, the reality officially confirmed, came as a dreadful shock.” (Even to the privileged few,) “meant for a comparative trickle commuting clerks,” (of commuting clerks.) “Frank already had an intuition that the percentage of survivors would be small, that the wounded they encountered from the periphery of the infall,” (that the wounded they encountered came from the periphery of the infall,) “Frank said as determinedly as we could” (as he could.) “‘But he’s had no time for his precious fishing that since he was called up for the reserves’” (no “that” required,) “as he was.,” (has an extraneous comma,) “my sister-in-had” (my sister-in-law had,) “the thousand-strong crew .” (should have no space between crew and the full stop,) scuttlebutt (a USian term, so an unlikely usage on a British warship in the 1920s,) Jenkins’ (Jenkins’s, which appears four lines later!) “the contents of the their kit-bags” (of their kit-bags,) “mirroring my own side by riddled with detail,” (mirroring my own side in being riddled with detail,) Ted Land (elsewhere always Ted Lane,) “‘That looks it came off a sewer.’” (That looks as if – or, That looks like – it came off a sewer’) “the next I remember I was lying in on green grass” (no “in”,) “sat on a low twig” (seated or sitting, but since it was a yellowhammer perhaps perched,) “‘I can always use an enthusiastic NCO’” (the British usage is “I could always do with an enthusiastic NCO”,) “supplies of antibiotics” (in the 1920s?) fit (fitted,) “we newcomers were been invited” (were invited; or, had been invited,) priel (prial,) an extraneous open quote mark, Chapter 23’s number and title were not in the larger font size of all the others, ”he based had his calculations” (he had based his calculations.) “Even now it’s hard to recall now” (has an extraneous now,) “”adjusting their positions, And Cherie saw them” (a full stop after positions or no capital A at and,) “from the gitgo” (isn’t it getgo?) “where the fires where” (where the fires were,) “had so nearly had befallen” (has one had too many.) “Straight after the Second War he plunged straight into the Basra conferences” (two straights in eight words.) “‘And he’s as careless of his health as ever he is,’” (as ever he was,) the earth (the Earth, many instances.)

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