Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind

1 Mar

The Massacre of Mankind

-Stephen Baxter

It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.

-The War of the Worlds, CH17

stephen_baxter_massacre_of_mankind-gollancz_cover-628x955

The War of the Worlds has spawned many sequels and spin-offs, ranging from books loosely connected to the original (and largely unauthorised by HG Wells’ estate) to a surprisingly good musical and a pair of awful movies that would have sunk without trace if someone hadn’t stuck the WOTW title on them. Many of the book sequels are set elsewhere – the original invasion was confined to Britain – or include elements that reshape the original story beyond repair. I still smile when rereading Edison’s Conquest of Mars or Sherlock Holmes War of the Worlds, both of which had a distinctly pulpy atmosphere.

The Massacre of Mankind – the title comes from the above quote in the original book – is the first genuinely authorised sequel to the classic. Somehow, I managed to miss it’s arrival until I saw it in a bookshop (who says that traditional bookshops are dead). And yet, when I saw it had been written by Stephen Baxter, I hesitated to buy a copy. Baxter has some good books – Voyage, Titan, Moonseed – but many of his later works failed to strike a chord. So I borrowed The Massacre of Mankind from the library and read it overnight.

Truthfully, I am left with rather mixed feelings.

Roughly fifteen years after the original invasion, the world is very different from real history. Britain is a fascist state (the government is highly militaristic, while liberals and suffragettes have been banned), Germany crushed France in a quick war and is currently engaged in a brutal war with Russia, America is doing its level best to ignore events on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. Walter Jenkins – the narrator of the first book – is either a hero or a crank, depending on who you ask; many of the other characters from WOTW have also suffered from post-war life. This dismal turn of events is made worse by the arrival of a second wave of invaders from Mars, who establish a foothold on Britain before carrying out other landings across the globe. Humanity seems doomed, both directly and indirectly, until someone works out a way to force the invaders to back off.

Rather confusingly, the main body of the story is told in first person by the heroine – Julie Elphinstone, one of the sisters who met the original narrator’s brother (Frank) and escaped England while HMS Thunder Child fought the Martians. (She later married him and then divorced.) This wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, but the book veers from Julie’s perspective to several others around the world. Wells did this himself, of course, yet he limited it to three chapters; Baxter, arguably, overdoes it. Personally, I would have told the story strictly in third-person. The narrative structure actually robs the book of some of its tension.

There is much to like in the book, as it develops. The aura of a fascist state pervades pre-invasion Britain – Julie is nearly arrested, returning to Britain, for her former membership in the suffragettes – and the problems of being a woman in a man’s world are neatly detailed. Both humans and invaders have developed new pieces of steampunk-style technology between the wars, ensuring that the alien invaders – although they still have a substantial advantage – do not have it all their own way and take quite a few glancing blows.

Wells did not, of course, take much of a look at conquered Earth. Baxter attempts to remedy that over the course of the invasion, allowing Julie to venture into occupied territory. Some humans have managed to find a way to co-exist with the aliens, trading blood for safety in an accommodation that chills Julie to the core. Others try to fight, while still others attempt to collaborate. I was surprised by one of the collaborators – the former artilleryman from the original book, the same one who had planned to build an underground society and eventually wage war on the invaders. But then, Baxter actually foreshadows it by having him seen, in-universe, as a joke … thanks to Walter Jenkins’s account of the invasion.

Many of the details are impressive, including a great many in-jokes. The artilleryman argues, perhaps correctly, that the human race is being systematically engineered by the invaders – on one hand, he’s reached an accommodation with them; on the other, he fears that he will be eventually killed himself for being feral. Other moments, particularly in New York, draw to mind the movie versions of the original book. And, perhaps, Harry Turtledove’s World War books. (Baxter likes playing with his alternate history, as quite a few real historical characters appear in the books – Churchill, perhaps, being the most notable.)

And yet, the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory. Humanity does not beat the invaders – indeed, the introduction of the modified Red Weed to Earth’s ecosystem may spell doom for humanity even if the invaders themselves are destroyed. Instead, Jenkins manages to find a way to signal aliens on Jupiter and ask for help … which works, surprisingly. The war comes to a semi-stalemate, with the remainder of the invaders hiding at the poles while the Red Weed continues to spread …

In some ways, this matches Wells’ view of the universe and evolutionary biology. The older planets were the ones further and further away from the sun. Mars is therefore older than Earth and Jupiter is older still, allowing the natives to be much higher up the evolutionary scale than the denizens of either Mars or Earth. (Venus is younger – and, apparently, occupied and enslaved by Mars.) This does not explain why Jupiter did not invade sun-wards itself, although one of the characters in the books speculates that Jupiter may be far beyond any need for material sustenance.

But this is unsatisfactory in many respects. There is no successful attempt to communicate with the invaders, beyond very limited collaboration. (The artilleryman likens it to a farmer talking to his sheepdog.) Baxter makes no attempt to take us inside the alien minds – unlike David Weber and Steve White, who successfully represented a very alien mindset in their Bug War books (In Death Ground/The Shiva Option) – and we learn little new about the enigmatic invaders, save for a striking willingness to risk much to save their fellows. Nor is there a successful strike (although one is planned) that ends the war by exterminating the invaders on Earth. The unsatisfactory stalemate that ends the book is … unsatisfactory.

This is oddly problematic. WOTW, in some ways, looked at the question of what you do when facing a vastly superior foe. (Unlike in the movies, humanity did do some damage in the original book.) Wells did not present an answer – he ended the story with a Deus Ex Machina that tied in with his conception of the universe. Baxter, too, does not present an answer. Those who argue that a Guilt-Free Extermination War is an awful concept are right, but so too is the prospect of losing. Baxter shies away from this and, while one may quibble about the rightness of fighting such a war, humanity was not offered a choice. The Earth-Mars War has only two possible outcomes, absent a game-changer. We destroy them or they destroy us.

Baxter would have had to make many choices when writing this book. Some ring true, others do not. Going with the solar system Wells and his fellows knew – water on Mars, jungles on Venus – works, even though we may question its value given how much we now know about Mars. Choosing not to have Edison develop super-tech (although Edison does put in an appearance) or to have humanity learn to understand the alien tech also rang true – 1900s Britain was not advanced enough to understand the basic principles of alien science. (This leads to a genuinely neat moment when alien weapons refuse to fire on aliens.)

Developing the post-war world … I don’t think that worked so well. Many details don’t quite ring true. The first invasion might have been limited to Britain – leaving the rest of the world untouched – but it would have caused a massive economic disaster. Germany might still rise to power, yet would the Kaiser choose to fight a long war knowing that a renewed invasion might come at any time? Would Britain really turn into a fascist state? Would America neglect its army when the ocean no longer provided protection?

And really, would the invaders continue to regard us as nothing more than livestock?

Given the high expectations this book was bound to raise, it is perhaps not a surprise that it doesn’t quite meet them. And yet, it is nowhere near a complete failure. Baxter did well, I think. Others may disagree.

Overall, four out of five stars.

Advertisements

3 Responses to “Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind”

  1. shrekgrinch March 1, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

    I find Scott Washburn’s books on the post-WotW genre some of the best. What I like most of the series so far is how well developed the Martian characters are as well as their technology being easily recognizable to anyone today who follows current & pending technological progress trends.

    The Great Martian War: Invasion!
    by Scott Washburn
    Link: http://a.co/f3VDIYc

    The Great Martian War: Breakthrough
    by Scott Washburn
    Link: http://a.co/i67HMaB

  2. shrekgrinch March 1, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

    Yo Chris. My comment is stuck in moderation hell because I posted two links in it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: