Review: ‘The Massacre of Mankind’

It is a bold move to write a sequel to a novel that made history 120 years ago. In The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter has taken on the monumental task of producing a sequel to The War of the Worlds for readers who live in the age of Curiosity, the Mars rover. In 1897, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds set the bar for the yet-to-be-named genre of science fiction in the centuries to come, combining cutting-edge science with sensationalist fiction. The novel found renewed fame in 1938, with Orson Welles’s infamous US radio dramatization – an adaptation so realistic that it spawned the anecdote of listeners panicking, believing that Martians were really invading.

The claim that Welles’s dramatization caused mass hysteria has been recently debunked, but the idea that an adaptation of Wells’s work could believably be so powerful sets high expectations for The Massacre of Mankind. Stephen Baxter, however, is not new to such a challenge. Baxter (1957) is one of the UK’s most productive and prominent contemporary science fiction authors. Aside from having collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke on the A Time Odyssey series and with Terry Pratchett on the Long Earth series, he has already published a very successful sequel to a Wells novel. His breakthrough achievement, leading to several prominent science fiction awards, was The Time Ships, a sequel to The Time Machine published in its centenary year, 1995.

Baxter’s story of the new Martian invasion starts in 1920, seventeen years after the First Martian War. The UK has become a dystopian dictatorship: the Suffragette movement has been declared illegal, astronomy is under tight government control. In 1914, so soon after the Martian threat had been averted, the UK did not feel ready to enter another war, so the German invasion of France and Belgium was tolerated.

The narrator is a familiar face: the journalist Julie Elphinstone, the now-divorced former sister-in-law to Wells’s original narrator. The introduction of this fierce female voice sets the tone for the initial chapters, which are dedicated to underlining the conservatism and sexism of H.G. Wells’s narrative. Baxter’s protagonists are unanimously furious at their representation in the original narrative, thus allowing Baxter complete freedom to rebuild Wells’s characters from scratch. The depiction of the Martians, on the other hand, looks familiar. Sated as science fiction readers have become with depictions of aliens during the past century, Baxter manages to hold on to Wells’s Martians as mysterious and terrifying creatures. Although Julie gets close to them, they remain aloof, described vaguely, their intentions all too horrifyingly clear but their motivations unknown.

Those hoping to see Baxter repeat his success of two decades ago will be disappointed to hear that The Time Ships is a more accomplished Wells sequel than The Massacre of Mankind. Granted, Baxter undertook a more difficult task this time as, conceptually, The Time Machine lends itself much more easily to sequels written a century later. Its protagonist conveniently travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future; a hundred years after Wells we still have no clue as to what the future of life on Earth will look like. Similarly, the science of time travel, which in The Time Ships became the science of quantum mechanics, is still largely a mystery that continues to occupy the public imagination. The War of the Worlds, on the other hand, relies on the limited knowledge available in Wells’s time about Mars , and that planet has now been explored, mapped, dug into and driven on by robots with their own Twitter account.

For a work of science fiction, this provides an intriguing dilemma. Science fiction is a genre of extrapolation – taking a concept, an idea, an invention – and seeing how it will affect the world. This extrapolation, then, often extends into the future, or creates an alternate-history narrative. In The War of the Worlds, Wells took the existing science of his time and extended it into a near future in which the Martians would invade. In Wells’s time, the idea that Mars, and even Venus, were inhabited was not very unusual. A century and a half before NASA presented crisp high-resolution images of Mars, the astronomer Schiaparelli mistook natural features of the planet for straight canals. The canals were soon interpreted as having been constructed by intelligent beings. Building on this observation, Wells created an advanced society of parasitic Martians with high-tech spacecraft and terrifying Heat-Rays.

Cover photograph courtesy of the publisher.
Cover photograph courtesy of the publisher.

Baxter, writing a sequel for the 120th anniversary of The War of the Worlds, is faced with a difficult choice: if he uses current scientific knowledge, he has to admit that Mars and Venus are not inhabited by bloodsucking monsters with flying machines, and completely different from what we used to think they were like. If he uses the science of Wells’s age, it is obvious to the reader that this science is incorrect. Baxter, therefore, has built an alternate-history narrative on Wells’s extrapolation. For a contemporary audience, The Massacre of Mankind is set in an alternate past: no modern Orson Welles could adapt this novel to terrify its audience with a very real threat of a Martian invasion.

The reader knows from the start that when Julie explains that she is narrating horrors she has lived through, the promised ‘massacre of mankind’ is not accomplished as fully as the Martians might want it to be. The climax therefore hinges on the question of how and why this massacre could be averted. In The War of the Worlds, the saving grace was a creature barely known to science at the time: the bacterium. The Martians, having no immunity against Earthly bacterial diseases, soon succumbed after ingesting human blood. Having properly immunized themselves this time around, salvation needs to come from elsewhere. Unfortunately, Baxter, unlike Wells, does not draw upon science to find a weapon against the Martians. His solution draws less on human ingenuity and skill, replacing, in the end, Wells’s scientific vision with exciting escapism. But in a period when the events on our own world are threat enough, it is perhaps a reassuring thought that this novel suggests that at least we don’t have to worry about threats from another planet.

Kanta Dihal

‘The Massacre of Mankind’ is published by Gollancz, RRP £20 (hardback).

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