Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind

The Massacre of Mankindby Stephen BaxterCrown, 2017The copyright for H. G. Wells' seminal 1898 science fiction novel The War of the Worlds expired at the end of 2016, and its famous story of an ill-fated Martian invasion of England no sooner entered the public domain than an “authorized” sequel appeared: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter, a veteran sci-fi author who'd already written a sequel to Wells's The Time Machine. In this new book, fourteen years have passed since the Martian invasion. “By the toll of a billion deaths,” War of the World's narrator portentously announces, “man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers.” And no matter who those comers might be, the least likely candidate as Massacre opens is those sorry old Martians:

“Actually, I would say that serious military thinking has argued against another invasion. After all, their first shot was a hopeless attempt. The Martians couldn't stand the different atmospheric pressure, they couldn't stand the difference in gravitation, our bacteria finished them off – them and their red wheel. Hopeless from the start.”

Wells wrote his novel in the midst of Mars mania. In 1877, Mars and Earth had been so close in their orbital alignments that astronomers had locked onto the red planet with extra enthusiasm, and one of those astronomers, Giovanni Schiaparelli, had made extensive descriptions of the surface features of Mars, including striations he called caneli. Twenty years later, American astronomer Percival Lowell took this idea and ran with it, writing Mars, Mars and Its Canals, and Mars as an Abode of Life to capitalize on the idea of an exotic, inhabited neighbor in the solar system. “He saw Mars as a dying world whose inhabitants had built the canals to irrigate their icy deserts,” wrote Brian Aldiss, tartly adding, “It was an attractive picture, mistaken only in its view of the planet as dying, inhabited, and irrigated by canals.”The Massacre of Mankind features worlds within worlds within worlds. Not only is that dying, dangerously inhabited Mars imagined by Lowell a fundamental assumption of this novel, but so is Wells's book, which famously describes an entirely lopsided fight between the primitive humans of Edwardian London and the ruthless, technologically advanced invaders from Mars. And Baxter adds yet another world: the England of his novel is one that never fought the First World War but rather a more limited, less apocalyptic conflict called the Schlieffen War. As the novel begins, memories of both the Martian War and the German War are part of the collective Western consciousness.The fact that the Martian War is still on everybody's mind gives Baxter the leeway to trowel in quite a load of exposition into a story that's basically The Martian War, Take Two – but most readers of The Massacre of Mankind (now enjoying its American publication with a boisterously fantastic cover by Justin Erickson) won't mind, considering how consistently interesting Baxter is at doling out the science undergirding his science fiction:

I was never an astronomer, but since the Martian War we had all picked up a little about the dance of the planets. Mars and the earth chase each other around the sun like racing cars at Brooklands. The earth, on the inside track, moves faster, and periodically overtakes Mars. And it is at these moments of overtaking, called oppositions (because at such instances the sun and Mars are at opposite poles as seen in the earth's sky), that Mars and the earth come closest to each other. But Mars's orbit is elliptical, and so is the earth's to a lesser degree – that is, they are not perfect circles. And so this closest approach varies in distance from encounter to encounter, from some sixty million miles or more to less than forty million – the closest is called a perihelic opposition. Again there is a cycle, with the minimal perihelic approaches coming by once every fifteen years or so: in 1894, and then in 1909, and again in 1924 …

When the Martians attack again, their victories are swift and brutal. Earthlings have had fourteen years to reverse-engineer the Martian technology left over from the first attack, but it does them precious little good against their redetermined celestial enemies. The heroes of the book – Walter Jenkins (in Baxter's handling, he was the narrator of the Wells novel), his sister-in-law Julie Elphinstone (here considerably fleshed out from the paper cut-out character she was in the original), and a cast of plucky Earth people, are devastated and left to scramble for new ways to save their home world. And along the way, Julie finally gets to meet the enemy:

And so I faced the Martian, at last. I had seen pictures; I had read accounts, including my brother-in-law's. I had not been so close to any Martian before, save for the pickled specimen they had put in display in the Natural History Museum … It gazed back at me now with those huge, oddly bright eyes, set in that enormous smooth head with the disturbing, lipless beak of a mouth – a head fully four feet across. I knew there was a logic in this strange morphology.

The plummy melodrama of the moment is universally applied throughout The Massacre of Mankind, which is an even more thoroughly enjoyable pastiche of Wells than Kevin Anderson's 2012 novel The Martian War. Thanks to Baxter's authoritative chattiness, readers don't need to have read The War of the Worlds in order to love this sequel, authorized or no. H. G. Wells has never been so enjoyably and reverentially honored; bring on the Invisible Man sequel as soon as possible!