There have been lots of ‘unofficial’ sequels to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. So much time has passed since the Godfather of Science Fiction single-handedly invented the alien invasion sub-genre in 1898 that many authors have adopted a laissez-faire attitude to the great man’s work, pitting his Martian invaders against everyone from Sherlock Holmes to comic-strip gladiator Killraven. However, until this point, there has never been an authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds.
As the vice-chairman of the H.G. Wells society, author Stephen Baxter is in a better position than anyone to write the first official sequel to The War of the Worlds. Best known for his world-building hard sci-fi novels, Baxter has always been happy to take sidesteps, co-authoring the A Time Odyssey trilogy with Arthur C. Clarke, the Long Earth trilogy with Terry Pratchett and writing the Doctor Who novel The Wheel of Time. If H.G. Wells were still with us, I’m sure he’d be champing at the bit to co-author a book with him, but since Mr Wells is long gone, this is the next best thing – and it expands upon his ideas in such a way that this is a sort of co-write.
Named after a quote from the original novel, The Massacre of Mankind starts in 1920, approximately 13 years after the first Martian invasion. Astronomers have long feared that the invaders would try again when the planet Mars is next in opposition to Earth and sure enough they do. But they have learned their lessons since the first invasion and made changes, both biological – building up a resistance to the germs that proved their undoing in the first instance – and tactical – dispatching an opening salvo of unmanned cylinders to create a massive earthworks behind which their actual invasion force can land. The invasion once again starts in Britain and the armed forces have made preparations for a second attack, some more successful than others.
The narrator of The Massacre of Mankind is Julie Elphinstone, (ex) sister-in-law of the Journalist from the original novel, for the purposes of this novel named Walter Jenkins. She was a minor character in the original novel but since that time she has divorced Walter’s brother and become an independent woman, working as a journalist predominantly in the USA. Dire warnings from Walter, now aged and emotionally damaged by his experiences in the first war, bring her back to England in time to witness this fresh invasion. A lesser author than Stephen Baxter might have blindly adopted the reportage style of H.G. Wells’ original work, but journalism had moved along by the 1920s and writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were taking real events and spinning them into novels, so this is the form that Julie Elpinstone’s account of the second interplanetary war takes. ‘She’ also brings in the accounts of other survivors around the world (in much the same way as Walter Jenkins related the account of his brother’s exploits), as this is a much more global war than the first.
When H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, he was writing about the near future, but The Massacre of Mankind is, of necessity, an alternate history. There are many big historical events that we know to have taken place between 1907 and 1920, but how would those have been affected by the aftermath of a Martian invasion? Events in Yugoslavia in 1914 do not spin off into a world war, rather triggering a localised conflict between Germany and surrounding nations. Battered and bruised by the Martians, there is the strong implication that Britain sided with Germany in that conflict and lost some of its sovereignty as a consequence. The proto-fascist Prime Minister Marvin is wiped out early on in an attempted display of bravado against the Martians, but Winston Churchill lives on, leading the resistance against the invaders.
What’s interesting about the invasion in The Massacre of Mankind is that it is an occupation rather than a genocide. The narrative takes place over a number of years, during which the Martians build a stronghold in the British Isles, allowing much of the population to survive, cowed and helpless, as an ongoing supply of ‘food’. Life in other parts of the world goes on as normal, in a very clever reflection of the way that we, in real life, regard wars that are taking place on the other side of the planet. There’s also a build on something that was hinted at in Wells’ novel; that this is not the first time the Martians have done this. They bring with them submissive beings believed to be from Venus and Jupiter, previous conquests of the Martian war machine.
About three quarters of the way through, the ongoing plot of The Massacre of Mankind seems to shoot off at tangents as Julie relates the experiences of several other survivors as the Martian invasion becomes worldwide. These are all individually very brief and introduce characters that will never occur later in the story. I have to say that this is my least favourite part of the book; it distracts from the main narrative and goes on for way too long. The only significant diversion is the description of what is going on across the Atlantic; America is totally unprepared for the Martian invasion. Baxter cleverly reasons that without World War I to bolster its forces, the US military would be little more than a superior organised militia who hadn’t really fought a significant war since 1865, and their leaders have arrogantly believed that the Martians wouldn’t bother with them. With the help of the inventions of Thomas Edison, they are able to fight back, but even they are eventually consumed by the might of the Martian war machine.
The resolution, when it comes, is ingenious and not at all the sort of thing that you might be expecting. The book even teases you with a red herring solution to the Martian problem that eventually goes nowhere. Neither is it a pat victory for Mankind; the Martian assault has ceased, but what of the Martians themselves? The final couple of chapters are wonderfully tenses as the reader, much like the human race in the novel, is on tenterhooks to discover the full facts. Once again, it’s not an ending that a lesser author would have selected and Baxter wisely avoids the cheap trope of setting the narrative up for a sequel. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a cup brimming with originality – Baxter at no point takes the obvious route.
Is this the book that H.G. Wells would have written if, by some miraculous means, he had still been alive at the age of 151? Possibly; it’s heavy with politics and social commentary and, when all is said and done, it promotes the Utopian ideals for which he stood. Perhaps Mankind is not painted in such glowing colours, but in the end we do the right thing… or at least we’re headed in the direction of doing the right thing. If there was ever a third book of The War of the Worlds saga, I can think of no better author than Stephen Baxter to write it – but I don’t think there should be. The Massacre of Mankind is a satisfying resolution to the world that Wells created and I’d much rather see it left at that.
This edition of ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ by Stephen Baxter was published in paperback by Gollancz Books (2017)