Thursday, February 23, 2017

'The Massacre of Mankind' by Stephen Baxter

23 February 2017

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” 

So, famously, begins HG Wells’ novel ‘The War of the Worlds’. Given the worryingly apocalyptic potential for world events in the opening months of 2017, I thought I would cheer myself up by reading ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ – Stephen Baxter’s new authorised sequel to ‘The War of the Worlds’ (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Nathalie Buscombe). There seems to be a particular vogue for authorised sequels at the moment, such as Anthony Horowitz’s excellent Sherlock Holmes novels ‘The House of Silk’ (reviewed here in January 2012) and ‘Moriarty’ (reviewed here in January 2015). Stephen Baxter does a great job of paying tribute to Wells’ original novel, while taking the story of mankind’s encounters with creatures from another world to the next level.

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said … but still, they come”. And then they came back. Thirteen years after the Martian invaders of 1907 were wiped out by the Earth’s bacteria they have returned – and this time they are better prepared. But what I found most fascinating about ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ was not the aliens but the resulting alternative history of mankind. By imagining what lasting effects the 1907 battle with the Martians would have had on the world, Baxter has a lot of fun creating a parallel reality. With many similarities to Philip Roth’s portrait of a world in which Nazi Germany wins the Second World War with the support of the USA ('The Plot Against America' reviewed here in September 2006), ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ starts in 1920 with the British and German allies victorious in the European war that followed the Martian invasion. The Titanic has survived its collision with the iceberg because its bow was reinforced with Martian aluminium. And Charlie Chaplin has achieved worldwide fame through playing ‘The Little Soldier’ - a character modelled on the British artilleryman famous for fighting the Martians in 1907.

I also enjoyed the meta-fictional construct of this sequel, in which the first-person narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds’, Walter Jenkins, has become famous for his account of the original conflict but is now hated by some of his friends and family for how he inaccurately portrayed them in his narrative. This echoes the second part of ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes (reviewed here in January 2012) in which the knight and his squire frequently encounter people who have read the earlier volume and are familiar with their history. Stephen Baxter also manages to throw in a reference, after Martians arrive in America in 1922, to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey – the landing site of the Martian invasion in Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio version of ‘The War of the Worlds’.

‘The Massacre of Mankind’ is a meticulously crafted homage to HG Wells. It reads like it could have been written in the period it portrays and, although the plot feels a little slow at times, it is a very impressive and intriguing counter-history of the early decades of the twentieth century.



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