Thursday 24 May 2018

SF Novel: Stephen Baxter 'THE MASSACRE OF MANKIND'


Book Review of: 
(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’) 

The original HG Wells ‘War Of The Worlds’ of 1897 has a cliff-hanger ending. It’s very much a first season closer. The invading Martians are thwarted, not by any human agency, but by terrestrial bacteria. The equation remains unresolved. The Martians are still there on dying Mars, driven by the same imperative to escape the slow extinction of their world. The Earth still their only viable target, at each close opposition orbital pass. To Wells, ‘to carry warfare sunward is indeed their only escape.’ It invites a sequel.

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. 

Today, at a time of overkill prequels, sequels, remakes, pastiches and re-boots, a follow-up novel – authorised by the HG Wells estate, is an obvious option. With no-one more qualified to do it than Stephen Baxter. He’d already performed conceptual magic in his authorised sequel to ‘The Time Machine’, with ‘The Time Ships’ (1995) expanding and complexifying the original novella into realms of astonishing wonder. Born 13 November 1957 in Liverpool, he’d purportedly applied to be an astronaut, hoping for a jaunt to the MIR space-station, but got turned down. Instead, he turned his hand to early try-out fiction, which would be subsequently published, until his “Something For Nothing” launched him into the ‘Interzone’ continuum (no.23, Spring 1988) as a significant new talent. Unlike much contemporary Sci-Fi which merely uses Space Opera settings and accoutrements for entertaining action adventure and dynastic epics, he retains the mind-wrenching ability of stretching ideas, which was once the characteristic motivator for speculative fiction, while convincingly exploiting the new relativistic possibilities of the quantum multiverse.

He’d made other forays into Wells’ terrain too, by including Cavor and the Selenites in “The Ant-Men Of Tibet” (‘Interzone’ no.95, May 1995), then through the beautifully retro pages of “Columbiad” (collected from 1996 ‘Science Fiction Age’ into his 1998 short-story collection ‘Traces’). To Baxter himself the latter represents ‘a collision between my meditations on the fate of the modern space programme’ with ‘my work on Wells and Verne’, by melding elements from Jules Verne’s ‘From The Earth To The Moon’ (1865) with Wells himself, who visits the Florida Space Canon launch-site just as a second projectile is approaching a very-contemporary arid Mars. Until his taster “The Martian In The Wood” appeared on the webzine ‘’ (August 2017).

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.’

Attempting to reach his wife evacuated to Leatherhead, travelling through zones of stark devastation, the narrator encounters an artilleryman and a timorous curate, as his brother rescues two Elphinstone sisters-in-law, when their pony-chaise comes under thuggish attack. Then he meets the fatalistic artilleryman again, on Putney Hill who claims ‘I went for the Martians like a sparrow goes for man.’ He’s the cunning realist who more clearly that anyone else sees ‘cities, nations, civilisation, progress – it’s all over. The game’s up. We’re beat.’ Until the Deus ex Machina that ends the invasion. In his ‘Epilogue’ Wells speculates on the likelihood of further attacks. Maybe the opening lines about ‘intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic’ who ‘regarded the Earth with envious eyes’ are familiar only from Jeff Wayne’s unlikely musical, but Stephen Baxter takes things beyond that cliff-hanger ending. Into second season events.

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. 

Instead, a ‘rather shabby non-aggression’ pact with the Kaiser has allowed Imperial Germany to become ascendant in Europe, already facing-off Russia in the Schlieffen War, and increasingly influential in the UK. While a right-wing coup – following the assassination of PM Campbell-Bannerman and a quasi-legal 1911 election, is predicated on a state of martial law preparatory to new incursions from our red planet neighbour. Oswald Mosley-style PM Brian Marvin has his biography authored by Arthur Conan Doyle, he has ‘Secretary Of State For War’ Winston Churchill and Lloyd George in his cabinet, and bans suffragettes as proscribed agitators. While Baden-Powell organises Junior Sappers to cleanse ‘the national moral character.’

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!

HG Wells appears in the Baxter novel as the author of ‘The Man Of The Year Million’, the utopian ‘Great Narrator’ who dreams of ‘golden cities of the future.’ While the Wells novel – which first appeared as a ‘Pearson’s Magazine’ serial (April to December 1897) bears a dedication to ‘My Brother Frank Wells, This Rendering Of His Idea’. Now, that great first-person chronicler of the Martian War, ‘the man who first wrote the history, with some degree of eloquence’ – unnamed as a ‘literary affectation’ in the book itself, is newly named as Walter Jenkins. And the First Martian War has left psychological effects that go beyond the devastation of London, in trauma and broken relationships unanticipated by Wells himself. Jenkins, divorced from (previously unnamed) Carolyn, is in Vienna undergoing treatment from a therapist called Freud. Baxter’s new narrative takes a number of contributing voices drawn together from observers around the world, but is female-centric, focused around Julie Elphinstone, the thirty-two-year-old divorced wife of Walter Jenkins’ younger brother, Frank, first encountered in Wells’ pony-chaise attack. ‘None of us are story-book heroes’ she counters. Yet it all ties in like Lego.

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?

Yet ‘the Martians have tweaked the design.’ They have obviously devised biohazard shielding, for the novel’s second section is ‘England Under The Martians’, a very English affair, with life going on in a semblance of normality within the occupied cordon, as the rest of the world continues nervously unaffected. Julie undertakes a covert mission to carry an ‘archaic killer’ into ‘the Martians dark empire on the earth’. The setting details seem authentically of the period, with immense trench-works – no Maginot Line across France, but gouged into the English countryside in a vain attempt at containment. With Ironclad ‘Land Leviathan’ secret weapons.

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).

It remains so English a disaster – until a second wave of Martian cylinders makes the war global. From a lavish Long Island ‘Great Gatsby’ end-of-the-world party. Then to Los Angeles, as in the George Pal movie. To Melbourne through aboriginal eyes – ramming home Wells’ colonial metaphor ever more nakedly. And a Peking that is not yet Beijing.

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.


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