MARS ATTACKS – AGAIN:
‘THE MASSACRE OF MANKIND’
Book Review of:
‘THE MASSACRE OF MANKIND’
by STEPHEN BAXTER
(Gollancz, 2017, ISBN 978-1-473-20511-6)
‘But who shall dwell in these worlds if they
be inhabited?... Are we or they Lords of the World?
... And how are all things made for man?”
(Kepler, quoted in the preface to ‘The War Of The Worlds’)
Following Wells’ pioneering example the human race has been regularly inundated by fictional alien invasions, not only from Mars, but from all points of the galaxy, and beyond. There have been two major movie versions of the seminal tale, first from George Pal in 1953, enhanced by Chesley Bonestell’s evocatively atmospheric matte paintings. As a schoolboy already familiar with Wells, I was sufficiently mesmerised by the movie to overlook its location-switch to America, and even the condescending religious platitudes inserted as a sweetener to mid-West sensitivities, in direct contradiction to Wells atheistic Darwinian intentions. The second film, in 2005, from Steven Spielberg’s digitally-tweaked DreamWorks, with Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, reinstates Wells tripod war-machines and red weed, while further switching location from America’s west to east coasts.
Although neither of them bears much resemblance to the novel, both extract sufficient fragments to vindicate their apocalyptical vision. The only previous attempt at an actual sequel was a two-season 1988 US/Canadian TV-series, based around the premise that the aliens from the 1953 movie were not dead, but simply comatose, to be accidentally reactivated by unwitting terrorists in time to create new global mayhem. Meanwhile, there’s been a plethora of related media elaboration projects, one of the most intriguing being ‘The Space Machine’ (1976), a Scientific Romance conjured by Christopher Priest, which cunningly links predatory Martians with a nod at Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ (1895) which now logically shifts across the solar system through space as well as time. Baxter himself devotes a chapter to listing other inputs he used as precedents for his work, both fictional, and academic. There’s a lot there for him to draw from.
But, back to origins, Wells’ astoundingly vivid writing first resonantly captures his ‘Remarkable Story From Woking’, with the abrupt intrusion of unearthly horror into the touchably familiar lost Home Counties realm of paperboys, publicans, tobacconists and the horse-drawn traffic on Horsell Common, Chobham Road, Weybridge, and Amersham. The full realisation of the enormity of what’s happening dawns only slowly. There are only sceptical newspapers, no social media to link cosy gas-lit communities. So that outside the immediately affected disaster area, life goes on blissfully unaware, apart from casual gossip and speculation. Even as panic spreads it’s rife with rumour and misinformation, although ‘it was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.’
As he explains in his ‘Afterword And Acknowledgements’ chapter, ‘The Massacre Of Mankind’ is very much a alternate history, one in which Wells’ Martian invasion of 1907 is a recent memory. By brisk mid-March 1920 there are convincing newly-diverged timelines. The Titanic survived its destined iceberg collision through being reinforced with retro-engineered high-grade Martian aluminium. And the narrator travels from isolationist New York to Liverpool as part of a convoy on the Lusitania. Baxter’s writing is a little more knowingly self-aware. His steam-punk world avoided the mass-slaughter of Mons and the Somme, but with its Martian-devastated ‘Surrey corridor’ Britain is knocked out of international politics. ‘Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal’ – excepting the Blitz, of course.
That this is a parallel continuum – another ‘Long Earth’?, sprung not from our world, but the worlds as they were perceived to be at Wells’ time, is further evidenced, not only by the Martian ecology, but by the Cythereans of Venus, and the distant Jovians. As in the nebular hypothesis of solar system origins, the outer planets cooled and solidified first, hence are progressively older the further they are from the sun. So their inhabitants are more evolved. Except Pluto of course, which had yet to be discovered and given its erroneous planetary status!
First, a message conveyed by crackling trans-Atlantic cable from Walter brings the various characters together, taking the opportunity to complain to each other about how their roles were misinterpreted in the original ‘Narrative’. As he prepares for an American lecture-tour with Prof Schiaparelli, the artilleryman Albert Cook accuses Jenkins – and by implication, HG Wells, of being a ‘pompous over-educated toff’. There are also accusations of his misogyny, although Wells regarded himself as a fellow-traveller with the liberated ‘New Woman’ (as in his ‘Ann Veronica’ 1909) – within the limits of his own social frame of reference, even if that meant little more than taking advantage of guilt-free Free Love. Stephen Baxter scrutinises the text for hints and slight suggestions to weave and develop into logical new configurations. The artilleryman’s curious evolution is all anticipated by Wells’ ruminations when he meets ‘The Man On Putney Hill’. He then extracts a single phrase – ‘one, Major Eden, was reported to be missing’ from ‘War Of The Worlds’ Book 1 Chapter 8, and expands it into the character Eric Eden (a name ‘Eagle’ fans will also associate with ‘Dan Dare’!). The cast later reconvene in the private Ottershaw observatory where Wells describes his narrator first glimpsing the ominous flashes on the surface of distant Mars.
With the continuity links meticulously established, what follows, despite the militarisation instigated by Marvin’s regime, despite massive troop-mobilisation and near-totalitarian civil defences, the Martian’s return turns out to be less a war and more as the title suggests – a massacre, as fifty-two Martian cylinders impact in central England, within the Chiltern cordon, and instantly commence their mechanised slaughter. Eric Eden is on the defensive King’s Line. ‘Under a lurid, smoke-laden sky’ there are support waves of German bombers – Gothas and Giants, with multiple engines fixed to their biplane wings to resemble the ‘Wings Over The World’ spectacle from the visionary HG Wells/Alexander Korda movie ‘Things To Come’ (1936). But they fall as much victim to Martian heat-rays as the Fyrd, the unit taking its name from the Anglo-Saxon militia that Frank joins, and with whom he becomes stranded behind Martian lines.
As Horror-writer Simon Clark discovered when writing his excellent sequel to ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ authorised by the John Wyndham estate, it is not enough simply to replicate the events of the original novel. In order to maintain the shock-effect, the threat-level must escalate. Hence ‘The Night Of The Triffids’ (2001) has giant sixty-foot-tall Triffids inundate Manhattan. So too for Stephen Baxter. Despite their more ancient civilisation the Martian technology seems not much more advanced than its human counterpart. George Pal’s war-machines hover on contra-grav rays, and have force-field shielding capable of withstanding H-bomb blasts. Yet Baxter’s armoured fighting-machines can be brought down by concentrated artillery, or by a lucky shot, by German incendiaries or the New York Edison Flux-bomb… and they have only their lethal heat-beams and Black Smoke. Wells’ battery brings a war-machine down in Shepperton, with early twentieth-century weaponry. His narrator’s brother watches the ironclad ‘Thunder Child’ smash two Martian tripods off the Tillingham coast. So how would the Martians fare against the Shock And Awe of twenty-first-century drone-surgical laser-guided strikes?
And the text is immaculately genre literate. The strangely flooded Misbourne landscape is tilted into surreality by infestations of red Martian weed and basking Venusians, as in ‘a romance of some distant future when our civilisation had decayed and its remnants were slowly subsiding into a weed-choked marsh.’ And Bert who embraces the apocalypse, is also JG Ballardian in that he rationalises that ‘it’s not a phase, it’s not a destination. It’s an end.’ While Olaf Stapledon’s fictional fantasia of ‘happy flyers’ in Venus’ dense steamy clouds seems an obvious reference to the doomed winged humans of his ‘Last And First Men’ (1930), albeit through the lens of Svante Arrhenius speculations in his ‘The Destinies Of The Stars’ (1918).
At over twice the length of its progenitor, Stephen Baxter’s ‘The Massacre Of Mankind’ is an immensely inventive, relentlessly innovative, consistently entertaining novel that never once fails to fulfil its remit. Written as a history of the Second Martian War, ending – as in the ‘Things To Come’ movie, with a new global federation based in Basra, Iraq, the reader is aware from the outset that the invader’s nefarious schemes will not succeed, and that the Deus ex Machina in some way involves the sigils branded into planetary surfaces. Yet the Martians are not entirely vanquished either. So, just as the original HG Wells ‘War Of The Worlds’ has a cliff-hanger ending, so does its sequel, emphasising as Wells does not, that invasion from Mars is more than interplanetary conflict, it’s an irreversible evolutionary watershed. Awareness of other life-forms within the solar system compels a fundamental shift in human perception. Nothing will literally ever be the same again. In our own continuum robotic probes crawl the arid Martian surface hunting microscopic inhabitants, or even fossil evidence that such microbial life may once have existed, seeking exactly that kind of knowing.