“It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, the massacre of mankind.” So wrote H G Wells in chapter seventeen of The War of the Worlds, his classic 1898 novel of an invading force of Martians whose cylinders fell across the home counties of England, unleashing heat-rays mounted upon walking tripod machines which devastated all in their path, bringing the country to its knees within days and causing an exodus of the population.
His own work strongly influenced by the work of Wells, it is two decades since Stephen Baxter was granted permission by the estate of “the father of science fiction” to launch The Time Ships, the authorised sequel to Wells’ debut novel The Time Machine. Having recently worked with Alastair Reynolds on The Medusa Chronicles, authorised sequel to A Meeting with Medusa, the award winning novella by Sir Arthur C Clarke with whom Baxter also collaborated on the Time Odyssey trilogy, he now returns to Wells with The Massacre of Mankind.
The principal narrator is Miss Julie Elphinstone, formerly Mrs Frank Jenkins, wife to the younger brother of Walter Jenkins, author of “the Narrative” which has come to be the popular history of the first war, Miss Elphinstone and her sister-in-law having been rescued on the road by Frank when he chased off the ruffians determined to rob them of their carriage.
Britain is a changed place, the suffragettes banned and German troopers now standing guard outside Buckingham Palace, a consequence of the Schlieffen War when the Kaiser marched across Europe waging mechanical war on Belgium and France. Possession of an unlicensed astronomical telescope is an offence following the panics of the previous close approaches of Mars and Earth since the war, and astronomy is a science conducted under government secrecy.
Opening in March of 1920, the next perihelic opposition when the two worlds are in closest proximity is not for four years and it is believed that it if the Martians are to make a second attempt it will be then, but following the failure of their first offensive their tactics have changed, in the timing of the invasion and the sheer volume of cylinders. Despite the preparations made, the armies of man are almost totally overwhelmed in short order.
And so it repeats, the scenes of distress and panic as the cities evacuate and those remaining move to a military footing, but by the last days of that month London has fallen and within weeks the Martians have occupied Britain but not proceeded beyond, and as the population endures under siege it reminds of John Christopher’s The Tripods.
Written very much in the style of Wells, there is an enormous amount of foreshadowing which is heavy handed to modern eyes, and the title is somewhat misleading; within the Cordon of the landing sites the population is controlled but the Martians wish them alive, a self-replenishing source of nourishment, and there are collaborators, those who appease the Martians in return for a degree of fragile freedom, and inevitably also a resistance movement.
Those less familiar with the Narrative as written may be surprised by the minutiae referenced, points which are often overlooked in numerous adaptations expanded upon by Baxter, the budding reproduction of the Martians, their living food stores while in transit, the flying machines and the harvesting machines and their puffs of green smoke, much insight given by Walter Jenkins who has considered Martian psychology at length; where we fight over resources, theirs are even more scarce yet they have united as a species to harness what Mars has to offer; unlike humanity, they are unified of mind and purpose.
Walter’s history is tied with that of Wells, a former teacher who dreamed of utopias, but the seeds of his fragile psyche were in the Narrative, even before the damage inflicted by the war; it is only natural that afterwards, he should suffer from “shell shock,” here known colloquially as “Cook’s sweats” after Bert Cook, victim of a character assassination at the hands of Jenkins which he redressed in his own telling of the story, Memoirs of an Artilleryman.
With many of the celebrated impressions of Walter dismissed as a product of the proverbial “unreliable narrator,” the man himself is now confined to an asylum in Vienna under the care of Herr Freud, and Baxter uses this to address many of the Wells’ omissions, characters who are introduced then simply drop out of sight, so much flotsam swept down the river, and Baxter accounts for many of the oddities in the behaviour of both the Martians and Jenkins himself, ostensibly seeking his missing wife yet spending more time tracking and observing the invaders, illuminating the original invasion with insight into the motivations, methods and purposes of the Martians, apparently unconscionable and inhumane yet understandable and explainable in human terms.
Like Wells’ masterpiece, every aspect of the invasion and its aftermath is considered by Baxter, from the labour vital to fill the hoppers of the smelting furnaces which produce Martian aluminium from English clay to the roads which must be raised above the flooded plains, the Thames strangled by the red weed. Proceeding from the now superseded scientific understanding of Wells’ time such as the belief that Venus was a lush world of jungles and swamps, Baxter remains authentic to the voice and manner of his source and inspiration.
There are allusions to Wells’ most famous other work, those trapped in London becoming subterranean dwellers, a house within the Cordon where Julie finds sanctuary “as if from a romance of some distant future when our civilisation had decayed,” as well as to his life beyond the literary, Julie’s sister-in-law described as the “Fabian lady,” in addition to references to Wells’ contemporaries who concerned themselves with life elsewhere in the universe, Burroughs and Stapledon.
As the landings expand beyond Britain there are stories from around the world which emphasise the encompassing scope of the invasion but are variations on an established theme which add little additional impact, and reflecting one of Wells more tiresome habits the novel is often preoccupied with the arrangement of each locale, the mechanics of getting from one point on a map to another, becoming bogged down in logistics and travelogues.
Crucially, the resolution of the original novel was dazzling and innovative for its time but has been diminished by repeated emulation, and while Baxter avoids echoing that his own solution is not entirely satisfactory, but like Dracula, a narrative constructed from the very actions of those living it, The Massacre of Mankind involves the reader directly, events described as they are experienced by those who are doing the telling, fearful of the future, wary of the consequences of their actions and the actions of those from that neighbouring Red Planet, and ultimately it is a worthy sequel.
The Massacre of Mankind is published by Gollancz on 19th January