The Massacre of Mankind - Stephen Baxter ***
There have been many books 'inspired' by The War of the Worlds and many film versions, but surprisingly there has up until now never been a true sequel to H.G. Wells's seminal alien invasion classic. It's surprising because the conclusion of the original almost invites a response, certainly at least on the part of the Martians. Their invasion having failed over an unforeseen minor detail that had catastrophic consequences - the Martians being vulnerable to common earth bacteria relatively harmless to humans - you would think they would be working on a vaccine while they plan a new conquest of Earth, their need and determination to succeed now surely even greater than it was before.
"They learned the hard way, and next time will come prepared", one clear-headed voice observes in The Massacre of Mankind about the inevitability of another Martian attack, and activity on the red planet in 1920 just thirteen years after the First War indicates that just such an attack is imminent. Ten cannons have been observed, each firing ten shots, meaning that 100 cylinders are on their way to Earth this time, England again being the important centre for the invaders to overwhelm and destroy first. The title of this sequel, authorised by the H.G. Wells Estate, will no doubt alert the reader that the Martians are back and back in force, and if they now have immunity to the Earth's diseases, they will surely be invincible.
Stephen Baxter takes time however to establish that the people of Earth, and particularly England who suffered the brunt of the first attack, have also learned more about the Martians, but even so, they can still never be entirely prepared for the vastly superior technology that the aliens have developed over millennia. The opening section of The Massacre of Mankind also tries to establish a realistic alternate-world situation for the England where this second war of the worlds will take place. Inevitably, the first alien invasion would have had a significant impact on the direction of world affairs, and there are indeed some surprising differences in this post-invasion time-line.
In the years between the first Mars invasion, determined here to have been in 1907, and the imminent arrival of the second in 1920, the course of what would have been the Great War has altered. In what has become known as the Schlieffen War, England has joined sides with Germany to take France down fairly rapidly, but Germany is still waging an inevitably longer-term conflict on the Russian front. The women's movement hasn't developed greatly either in this time-line, with Suffragettes being classed as a proscribed organisation. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Brian Marvin, England is now a very organised and militaristic society, but perhaps necessarily so, considering what they have been through and what they expect to go through again. It isn't long before the realisation comes however that all their conventional military operational procedures are still completely inadequate to withstand the might of Martian technology.
What is significant about Baxter's choice of setting for a sequel is indeed the choice of period. The second invasion could easily have come fifty or a hundred years later, but Baxter chooses to have it take place with most of the original characters from H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds still in place. The original unnamed author of the original 'Narrative' (referred back to frequently here) is identified as Walter Jenkins, who unsurprisingly is suffering from what we would now recognise as Shellshock or PTSD and has retreated to Vienna to be treated by Dr Sigmund Freud. Our guide through the events in The Massacre of Mankind is his journalist sister-in-law, Julie Elphinstone, one of the few figures named in the original novel, the wife of his brother Frank. Also present here is Bert Cook, the artilleryman of the original novel, and Major Eric Eden, now retired, who was also cursorily mentioned without Jenkins really being aware of the role he played in fighting the first invasion. Both Major Eden and the artilleryman will again have an important role to play in the events to come.
The necessary adherence to H.G. Wells's original has its benefits but it also has a downside. We can enjoy the innocence of an alternate time-line that science has not yet ruled out where there is not only life on Mars but it is also revealed that the other planets are inhabited too. There's room within this to extend Wells's ideas, as well as inventively try to imagine the effect of the altered time line on the inhabitants of England. The alternative semi-fascist militarised Britain with Zeppelins is a fascinating and believable projection, but the treatment, in an attempt to retain some of the colour and detail of the original War of the Worlds, tends to mire the book in what now seem like very outdated ideas (and writing style) that appear to have little contemporary application.
The original War of the Worlds was certainly of its time, picking up on late-19th century colonial attitudes towards class, Empire and conquest, king and country, with a bleak outlook on the inhumanity of war and slavery of a people. There may well be a way of adapting that to a modern context, but Baxter seems to be restricted by the expectation to retain the character of the original with what ends up feeling like considerable padding and unnecessary analysis in his reconsideration and reworking of the original 'Narrative'.
Where Baxter does get to the heart of the matter in The Massacre of Mankind and find some universal relevance is in how, like its predecessor, The War of the Worlds could just as easily be called 'The Way of the World'. The horrors visited upon humanity by the Martians are in reality not all that different from what humanity itself has done to its fellow humans. Writing The War of the Worlds in 1898, HG Wells might not yet have seen the slaughter of two 20th century world wars (although he would live through them), but his understanding of conflict, war and conquest is evidently based in an acute awareness of human nature and behaviour, and the grim realisation that new technology will only lead to more efficient ways for humans to enslave, kill and destroy each other.
Baxter includes references to The Heart of Darkness and Dante's Divine Comedy that align Wells's vision to other explorations of humanity at the edge of the abyss, but himself sums up the essence of this thinking in one neat passage where he describes "the unbearable inevitability of science, and intelligence, and Darwin's chill logic" (exploited here by the Martians) to seek advancement, but in the process bringing about the destruction of the very qualities that make us human. Baxter might not advance significantly on what Wells managed to achieve (and really, judging by how often it is still used as a narrative twist in SF, no-one has yet bettered the ending of The War of the Worlds), but while remaining recognisably within Wells's world, he does scale it up in a way that its warning - the massacre of mankind - is still clear to a modern-day readership.
The Massacre of Mankind is published by Gollancz on 19th January 2017
The Massacre of Mankind - Stephen Baxter ***