The Massacre of Mankind review: HG Wells under attack from the clone
Stephen Baxter’s sequel to ‘War of the Worlds’ is ‘hard’ sci-fi taken to incredibly dull lengths
"The Aliens Grabbing the Vicar", a 1905 illustration of the novel "The War of the Worlds" by Henri Lanos. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
The Massacre of Mankind
Some 120 years after the publication of The War of the Worlds, HG Wells’s estate has authorised prolific British hard sci-fi novelist Stephen Baxter to write a sequel. No small order: the original is one of those cultural monoliths that looms so large that the average reader will have to erase memories of Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 movie and Orson Welles’s 1938 radio dramatisation in order to see it with clear eyes.
And that 1898 novel is a peculiar enough article. Compared with Victorian visionaries such as Shelley or Stevenson, Wells’s prose can seem wooden and his characterisation cardboard-thin (although he did invent fiction’s first paranoid survivalist, the half-crazy artilleryman).
What distinguishes the novel is its deceptively everyday setting: sleepy Surrey. And the prevailing atmosphere of realism, that this is really happening, means The War of the Worlds remains the barometer by which all extraterrestrial invasions are measured, from V to Independence Day to Arrival.
The Massacre of Mankind is set in 1920, some 13 years after the first Martian attack, and is narrated by Julia Elphinstone, the Suffragette sister-in-law of the original’s protagonist, Walter Jenkins (now in Vienna under the care of his therapist, Sigmund Freud). Walter calls Julia in New York with grim tidings. Explosions have again been spotted on the surface of the Red Planet: the Martians are returning. Julia is summoned home to an England which, in her absence, has become a grim military state.
Philosophy and technology
So far, so promising. Baxter, a Wells authority who holds degrees in mathematics and engineering, has previously written a sequel to Wells’s The Time Machine and collaborated with Arthur C Clarke. He should be a safe pair of hands for this material. In a post-Cloverfield world, we need speculative writers who are invested in hard data and informed hypothesis. Sci-fi is still the only realm in which storytellers seriously address the intersection of philosophy and technology.
However, as his novel moves through its baggy midsection, it becomes clear that Baxter is far more adept at factual research than plot, and his characters are mostly location-hopping shop dummies spouting explain-y dialogue. The War of the Worlds was a classic “scientific romance”; The Massacre of Mankind is less speculative fiction thatn a first World War period piece, closer to a Sunday night BBC drama, with Martians replacing the Hun.
In this alternative history, army officers still gather in country houses for cigars and brandy and chatter about the latest film stars, their dialogue peppered with waxed moustache jargon, all “biffing” and “bally” and “balderdash”. Worse, many of the set-piece battles between humans and Martians are relayed through second-hand sources or flashback/foreshadowing devices, blunting the narrative’s impact.
As well, there are no real character relationships to speak of; it’s a book of landscape descriptions and wartime dioramas. The reader often feels trapped in a classroom with an elbow-padded geography teacher:
“Caves in middle England are ‘solutional’: that is, the product of running water acting on rock that is already in place. On Mars such spectacular effects of plentiful water, so obvious on the Earth, are unknown. Save for the odd volcanic formation, caves must be an exotic mystery on Mars – but not on the earth, indeed not in Buckinghamshire.”
Later, Baxter outlines the workings of an Edison-invented bomb (named the “explosively pumped flux compression generator”):
“If you have a magnetic field, and surround it with a conductor – say, a band of copper wire – and then you contract that band, the magnetic flux through conductor, contained by the wire, will stay the same strength – but its intensity, you see, the density of that power, as it is squeezed, must become much higher.”
This kind of prose might be par for the course at an HG Wells conference, but a novel in which the author ignores even the most basic writing workshop directives (exclamation marks and clunky adverbs everywhere) will surely try a reader’s patience.
In fairness, Baxter exploits to good effect the notion of England as a vanquished nation colonised by Martians, with quislings and collaborators selling out kinsmen who are then used as human slushies for the sustenance of alien forms. But the denouement is so hastily dispatched that readers will feel badly short-changed on their 400-page investment.
All told, The Massacre of Mankind is a hollow experience, capturing the logos but not the muthos of its predecessor.
Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River, published by Faber.