Stephen Baxter, The Massacre of Mankind (Gollancz, 2017, 453pp, £8.99)
Reviewed by Graham Head
Stephen Baxter’s sequel to H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), published 120 years after the novel’s serialisation in Pearson’s Magazine, takes as its premise a second, more comprehensive attack by the Martians. Following directly on from Wells’s story, it accepts all of the material paraphernalia of The War of the Worlds – the cylindrical spaceships, heat ray, ungainly tripods, deadly black smoke and red weed – and mankind again fails to match the Martians’ superior technology. Baxter dates Wells’s invasion to 1907, and his narrative is set a few years later, in the early 1920s, at the time of the next planetary opposition.
Baxter provides names for characters that were left anonymous in the earlier story, including Wells’s narrator, who becomes Walter Jenkins, ‘the great Chronicler of the First War’. The ‘slender, dark woman’, the unnamed sister-in-law of Mrs Elphinstone, becomes Julie Elphinstone, a courageous, divorced, female reporter and the main narrator of Baxter’s novel. Brian Marvin, the dictatorial leader of Britain who establishes military rule when it becomes clear a second attack is imminent, was a brigadier-general in the original. Following the suggestion of Patrick Parrinder in Foundation 77, Baxter’s Jenkins is shown to be an unreliable narrator, with the result that nearly all of the characters mentioned in his story complain about how they were misrepresented. Julie objects to being called a ‘girl’ in Jenkins’s narrative, while to the Artilleryman (here named Bert Cook), he is a ‘pompous, over-educated toff. I should’ve sued him.’ However, Baxter does allow Jenkins to defend himself against the unjustified claim that the original narrative had a deus ex machina ending.
Baxter includes sly references to subsequent re-workings of The War of the Worlds, as when he mentions Grover’s Mill in New Jersey, the landing site of the Martians in Orson Welles’s 1938 radio dramatization, and includes a nod to Edison’s Conquest of Mars, Garrett P. Serviss’s pulp serial from 1898 that was written in response to The War of the Worlds. Baxter also references other works by Wells: the scientist Wendigee, who in The First Men in the Moon (1901) picks up Cavor’s signals from the moon, here advocates signalling to Mars to initiate peace talks, while elsewhere Julie boards the river-cruiser, the 'Lady Vain', whose shipwreck begins The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Her journey, through a maze of Frisian sandbanks, echoes Erskine Childers’s 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands. Wells himself appears peripherally as the ‘Million Year Man’ while there is even a passing nod to the TV series Downton Abbey, set during the same period, when Elphinstone meets the Dowager Lady Bonneville.
As he notes in his afterword, Baxter’s novel is an alternate history, with the Martian invasion as the Jonbar point. In this new version of the past, the Titanic survives the collision with the iceberg because it is built using Martian aluminium; the First World War becomes the ‘Schlieffen War’; and Charlie Chaplin’s iconic character is no longer the ‘Little Tramp’ but the ‘Little Sojer’, being based on Bert, to his annoyance. Jenkins recovers from ‘ray shock’ at Craiglockhart in Scotland, the real hospital where many World War I officers were treated for shellshock. He is then transferred to be treated (inevitably) by Sigmund Freud. A German corporal who may be Hitler appears, as do Stern and Hetherington, early British pioneers of the battle tank, in a section that echoes Wells’s 1903 story ‘The Land Ironclads’.
All of this is amusing and similar in procedure to many other alternate histories, including Baxter’s own Anti-Ice (1993), and there is careful skill on display in the interweaving of all these narratives and biographies. However, when taken in combination, this research-heavy mass of detailed references to multiple fictions by Wells and others, and to our own known history, risks becoming rather overwhelming, distracting from the story of the second Martian invasion and from Baxter’s characters. The web of intertextuality at times becomes the main point of the story, relegating everything else to second-place.
Trapped in these complex webs, many of Baxter’s characters seem two-dimensional, although there are moments when he tries to do more with them. Unlike Wells’ narrative, which takes a mordant joy in the destruction of commuter-belt Surrey but remains intentionally uninterested in the characters that witness this destruction, Baxter does try to create a little more space for his characters to breathe. Thus, Julie becomes aware of her own behaviour and her misreading of other people, when her sister-in-law Alice reveals herself to be a Fabian and far more capable than expected: ‘Are human beings only one thing? Yes, I was terrified that day of flight, scared out of my wits, but that isn’t me.’ Unfortunately, this is not a lesson that most of the narrative appears to have learned; many of the characters do only have but one note, they are just ‘one thing’. And when Baxter does reach for something more, the effect is often overshadowed by everything else going on in the story.
The end result is a somewhat ungainly novel, with recurring weaknesses in both structure and pacing. To give one small example, Julie travels across Europe and England to meet up with Bert in Martian-occupied territory, after a long and arduous journey that occupies nearly a third of the novel. This odyssey enables Baxter to reflect in some detail on the changes wrought about in his new history, and on the military tactics of both sides. However, after the end of this long labour, when the demands of the plot require it, we find that Bert’s wife and baby child can be easily whisked back to safety by Zeppelin, past the Martians and over much of the same terrain, in a couple of short paragraphs that are quite jarring in their brevity. The reader is left wondering why the narrator couldn’t have simply arrived by the same means and concludes that the main point of her long journey was indeed the sightseeing.
Echoing Wells’s original, much of the action takes place in England, although Baxter does expand this somewhat to mainland Europe and the United States. When the Martians’ worldwide attack finally begins in earnest, the focus remains primarily on their invasion of the West alongside a flurry of very brief chapters that provide snapshots of their incursions in other parts of the world. Although this does give some sense of the global reach of the invaders’ plans, it all feels quite perfunctory. It serves paradoxically to reinforce the extent to which the invasion, and by implication the novel’s notion of ‘mankind’, is seen almost wholly from the perspective of Western civilisation. It is also telling that at no point in the scenes set in the West, not even in America, does a person of Black or Asian heritage speak directly in this novel. Julie briefly encounters some Indian troops, and there is a comment to the effect that the English are now getting a taste of their own medicine, but no individual speaks. This creates the unfortunate impression that this novel is somewhat less aware of the impact of European colonialism than Wells’s original. There is admittedly some brief discussion of the ‘morality of empire’, comparing the Martian invasion with the British genocide of aboriginal Tasmanians, but even this gets subsumed into a reflection on English class structures.
In summary, Baxter’s novel dovetails with Wells’s original and plays, often wittily and with skill, with multiple narratives and a resulting reimagined history. But this comes at a price, both structurally and thematically. In particular, the notion of ‘Mankind’ embodied in the novel is concentrated mostly in the white, industrialised West, which suggests that it might have benefited from more questioning of which, and whose, alternate histories were being reused in this story of the second Martian invasion.