On the evening of Friday 20th January at Edinburgh’s Blackwell’s Bookshop on South Bridge, prolific science fiction author Stephen Baxter took time out from working on his current project, a two-part continuation of his long running Xeelee sequence, to introduce the crowd to his first novel of 2017, The Massacre of Mankind, authorised sequel to H G Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds, published the previous day.
In a discussion led by Andrew J Wilson, the local author and editor began the evening by reminding Baxter that he had once used Edinburgh as ground zero for the destruction of the Earth in Moonseed before asking why Wells continued to draw him back, having previously published The Time Ships inspired by Wells’ debut novel The Time Machine. Baxter explained that as a schoolboy in Liverpool fifty years ago he had grown up on the televised offerings of Gerry Anderson and Star Trek, and that his school had received a donation of “battered old clothbound science fiction book club editions” and that he had “just burned through them.”
Having grown accustomed to ongoing stories such as John Carter he had looked in vain for a second part to resolve the cliffhanger of The Time Machine but there was none, and although he firmly stated his belief that “it’s acceptable for science fiction to end with a question,” when, as an established science fiction writer himself many years later, he realised the centenary of the publication of The Time Machine was coming up he realised “if there’s any time to do a sequel it’s now” and resolved to do it.
That book having been well received, with the 150th anniversary of Wells’ birth this September and celebrations anticipated to commemorate the date in the town of Woking, the initial landing site of the Martians in that famous novel, Baxter felt it seemed appropriate to now revisit and continue that story.
“Even if the Martians didn’t come back it would change the way we saw the universe, but in my mind the Martians had to come back,” and return they do in The Massacre of Mankind with a strategy developed from the earlier defeat of their scouting mission, though he joked that with Mars not having experienced rain in millions of years they were unprepared for the effect it has on their deadly black smoke, knocking it out of the sky, and had the invasion started in Scotland it would never have taken root.
Researching the history of the two world wars for other novel, Baxter was struck by the similarities with what Wells had described years before, and with the current environmental crisis and the Martians fleeing a dying planet, the same pressures, the same conflicts, the story remains current. “One way or another, the world is going to change around us.”
Aware the many adaptations of the novel, George Pal, Marvel Comics, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg, and of earlier attempts at sequels, Baxter said he had enjoyed some of them, mentioning Sherlock Holmes versus the War of the Worlds, but felt “those were more illustrations of what I didn’t want to do,” and specified “I didn’t want to do steampunk, I wanted to do a period piece.” Of the endorsement of the Wells estate, Baxter said “what they want is a finished manuscript, so you just send it in and hope for the best. They didn’t have to endorse it but they did, which was nice.”
Mentioning the 1916 work Mr Britling Sees it Through as his favourite of Wells’ non-science fiction novels, set in the trenches of the Great War, Baxter described how Wells had in fact originally been pro-war, seeing it as “the great weal of mankind” which would then smash the mindset of militarism and lead to a new utopia, but having visited the trenches himself and seen the appalling conditions and suffering he was moved to write that novel, and that the continuing evolution of his ideas continued throughout his long working life.
Discussing the characters of The War of the Worlds, Baxter said “I did want to build on Wells’ characters. At first I had thought about setting off independently, but you want some link back to the original book.” There were marked changes between the original serialised version and the published novel, and that fragments of earlier drafts show that development even further, and so it is that the Artilleryman’s role changed significantly from the more organised figure who intended to persuade the narrator to undertake a suicidal attack on the Martians to the dreamer he became.
Commenting on the seeming discontinuity of the narrator’s stated intent to find his missing wife with his actual actions, following the Martians, Baxter firmly stated that Wells knew exactly what he was doing, portraying a fugue state where he loses three days. “He wants to magnify the threat of the Martians by showing the depths of the reaction, and showing this guy being shattered and traumatised is much more effective from that point of view than a suicide bomber.”
The Artilleryman, named Bert Cook in The Massacre of Mankind, is resentful at the way he was portrayed by the narrator, a caricature who was later mocked on film by Charlie Chaplin, is presented as a more complex character. “He finds ways to deal with the Martians and survive. He’s very cynical. He figures that if you’re a smart enough rat you can survive in the cage while all the other rats go into the incinerator.”
Also prominent is Julie Elphinstone, an almost peripheral character encountered by the narrator’s brother and who witnesses the Thunderchild incident by his side, whose position has now been elevated significantly. Asked why he chose Julie to become his central protagonist, Baxter described her, one of the very few named characters in the novel, as “a good, feisty Wellsian heroine. I’ve always liked her. She stuck in my mind. She’s not going to put up with being attacked by bandits on the road or even Martians. So twenty years later, she’s become a journalist, she’s fled an authoritarian Britain where the Suffragette movement has been banned. She’s a survivor as well.”
With Julie a more reliable narrator than that of the original novel, Baxter commented on that post-modern twist that “Wells was known to be ahead of his time, but in this he was really ahead of his time.”
Talking about Mars and the possibility of life, Baxter said the planet was “stranger than you think” and went on to say he felt “the chances of anything coming from Mars is a lot better than a million to one,” though he added the caveat “I’m a science fiction writer – I can speculate irresponsibly.”
Asked about his collaboration with Sir Arthur C Clarke on the Time Odyssey trilogy, he remembered the grand master with affection. “The great thing about Clarke, who I worked with when he was in his eighties, is he stayed really enthusiastic about new stuff. He never seemed to have any jealousy of younger writers.”
Revisiting Clarke for The Medusa Chronicles, his recent collaboration with Alastair Reynolds, a sequel to Clarke‘s award winning novella A Meeting with Medusa, Baxter said it had just come out of reminiscing with Reynolds about Clarke and that the ideas just came, the process being similar to how he and Clarke would collaborate, brainstorming every idea and following them down, but having known Clarke for ten years he confidence in the direction they went although he acknowledged it was “flavoured by Al‘s noirish tendencies.”
Moving on from Clarke, he described the “family tree” of British science fiction writers, with Wells and Olaf Stapledon collaborating on political projects, and that Stapledon knew Clarke having persuaded him to address the British Interplanetary Society, who then knew Baxter himself, the game of “six degrees of separation” for Baxter also stretching to Wells’ meetings with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill.
Asked about what he would have like to have been able to ask Wells about before writing The Massacre of Mankind, Baxter said he would have liked to have known more of Martian biology, though Wells’ essay Man of the Year Million did illuminate some of his thoughts on future evolution, though he went on to say that of all Wells’ great works of fiction, his founding of the Diabetic Association, his campaigning for social reform, his greatest contribution to humanity was “a common sense, minimal document,” his 1940 publication of The Rights of Man which laid the groundwork for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights less than a decade later.