Before reading Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind, the sequel to H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, I decided to read Wells’ novel again after 21 years.
I’m glad I did.
My initial claim, that English civilization is destroyed in the course of a long weekend, is glib and deceptive. The novel does not take place over a bank holiday weekend, and English civilization is, of course, not destroyed. The narrator of the book presents a history for a nation that still survives. However, the main action of the novel does occur starting Friday, when the Martians first use the Heat Ray, and goes through Monday when the Martians attack London. British society dissolves into a mob temporarily.
I’d also forgotten that part of the book is taken from the unnamed narrator’s brother, Frank. It is Frank that flees London when the Martians approach and whose experiences provide the memorable line: “It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.”
And this time I picked up on the apprehension, what we might term “post-traumatic stress disorder” the narrator is left with at the end of the story. Of man, the unnamed narrator says about the invasion:
. . . it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence …
But the scars of memory are not just on general humanity. The narrator says he no longer loves to look at the night sky.
Looking at London, he no longer sees it the same:
I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body.
I also wonder if the flooding from streams and rivers caused by the Martian red weed were partially inspired by Richard Jefferies’ After London and its giant lake in central England after the fall of industrial civilization.
This one came from NetGalley, and, of course, I jumped at the chance to review it.
Review: The Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter, 2017.
You still ain’t seeing it clearly. The Martians, you know, would say they are doing us a favor. Lifting us up, as if we made a chimp smart as a college professor. And who’s to say, by their lights, they are wrong? And – pain? What of it? You clever-clogs keep telling me the Martians are above us mere mortals. Perhaps, with their heads detached from their bodies, they are above pain as above pleasure. And what need they care about the pain they inflict on us? And more’n we care about the pain of the animal in the slaughterhouse – or the tree we cut down. To recoil from this is hypocritical – d’ye see?
That’s Bert Cook, merely called “the artilleryman” in Walter Jenkins’ Narratives of the Martian Wars. Jenkins is the man we know as the unnamed narrator of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Cook isn’t the only one to complain Jenkins misrepresented him in his account of the 1907 Martian invasion. That’s the year Baxter, after consulting the astronomical clues in Wells’ story and Wells scholars, places the time of Wells’ novel.
Julie Elphinstone, the narrator of this novel and a reporter presenting us a history of the Second Martian War, isn’t too pleased with Jenkins’ depiction of her either, but at least she got a name and ended up married, briefly, to Jenkins’ brother, the Frank who supplies the London detail in Wells’ novel.
Walter’s history lead to fame and fortune and important government connections in an England that has militarized after 1907 in preparation for another invasion. (It’s also made the private ownership of telescopes illegal to clamp down on panic and stock market manipulation.)
But Walter’s increasing detachment from life and human society after the war irks Frank. Walter’s account ends with him holding Carolyne’s hand after they are reunited when the Martian invasion ends, but they didn’t stay married.
Baxter’s novel is many things: a thorough and complex mining of story resources from Wells’ novel, an alternate history, a continuation of Wells’ commentary on English society and colonialism, a story of war and occupation and collaboration, and a commentary on Wells and his legacy. It’s also a family story and not about Julie’s relatives but the human family and even the family of conscious life in the solar system.
Baxter alters Wells’ setting to bring in intelligent Jovians. (Martians landing on Venus gets mentioned at the end of Wells’ novel.) As he states in the book’s interesting afterword on scholarship and literature that fed into his story, Baxter used the obsolete “nebular hypothesis” theory of the solar system’s formation which had the most outlying planets as the oldest and, therefore, the civilization and power of the Jovians bests that of the Martians who best us.
In Baxter’s novel, the massacre of mankind doesn’t, ultimately, refer to just dead bodies struck down by the “black smoke” or “Heat Rays” of the Martians. It is about the massacre of man’s soul.
The story opens in 1920 on the eve of the Second Martian War.
Walter, with his access to government secrets on more launches of cylinders from Mars, tells Elphinstone, Frank, Bert Cook, and British Army officer Eric Eden that a new Martian landing will take place.
Cook, a celebrity after writing his Memoirs of an Artilleryman; Eden distinguished by actually spending some time in a Martian cylinder during the First Martian war, and Frank, now a medical officer in England’s home guard, the Fyrd, rush to the projected front. Julie goes to take care of her one-time sister-in-law.
A militarized England may have developed a defense plan, even salvaged Martian materials and weapons, but the Martians have learned too. No slow emergence from their cylinders, no opportunities given to be annihilated by a massed British response. They quickly overcome British resistance, and Julie and her sister-in-law end up as refugees in France, a France occupied in 1914 by the Germans in the Schlieffen War. This universe’s version of World War One still continues in 1920, and Russia and Germany (with covert British aid) are still battling it out.
Two years later, Juliet is recruited by Walter for a diplomatic mission to end the war of the worlds. Walter, like his friend Ogilvy the astronomer, one of the first in Wells’ novel to be killed by the Martians, thinks communication is possible between the man and Martian.
But the British government has other ideas, namely a weaponized version of what ended the First Martian War: bacteria lethal to Martians.
On the brink of another Martian landing, Julie is infiltrated into the Cordon, Martian-occupied Britain with the help of Eden.
There she meets Frank and Verity Bliss, an heroic, clear-sighted, volunteer nurse. They and others in scattered settlements live by permission of the roving Martian fighting machines. Man, to Martian, is a combination rat, ant, and beef on the hoof. They are only worth killing when they use some forbidden piece of technology, get underfoot or their blood is needed.
But, if the accommodations these people have made with the Martians disturbs Julie, it’s nothing compared to Bert Cook’s.
Far from the ineffectual blow-hard depicted by Jenkins, this Cook is a cunning, a far-sighted survivor whose detached views on humanity’s place in the cosmic order and its moral consequences form a sort of dark shadow to Walter’s.
It is this section, which includes a look at the humanoid Martian and Venusian foodstock the invaders brought with them and Martian experiments on human society and the reason for those experiments, that is the most memorable and powerful part of the book besides its concluding two chapters.
The mechanism of the climax was a bit unconvincing, if logical in terms of theme and the background Baxter established.
I think at least one of the chapters depicting the Martian landings in North America, Africa, Australia, and Asia could have been struck though most contribute to Wells’ theme of comparing European and Martian colonialism. The afterword confirms that some of them were also inspired by another War of the Worlds’ sequel, the Kevin J. Anderson-edited anthology War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches. (There are several hat tips to early science fiction writers throughout Baxter’s story.)
Those are minor quibbles. Baxter has not only paid close attention to his source material but written a compelling story both disturbing and poignant.
Definitely and highly recommended for admirers of Wells’ original novel.
Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)
A favorite phrase of the lit-crit crowd, academics looking to pad a CV, and pretentious bloggers is “interrogating a text”.
It’s an absurd phrase and evokes an absurd image.
“Formally questioning or examining” is the definition for “interrogate”, but “interrogating” sounds so much more important. It has the frission of danger and power. It’s hostile and aggressive and essential. That’s why we interrogate criminals and terrorists and spies and wayward employees.
The difference is those subjects of interrogation are all living, not static. One does not interrogate a corpse because a corpse does not respond to the questions. Forensic accountants examine accounts. They don’t interrogate them.
Likewise, a work of literature is, apart from quibbles about textual variants, static, dead, unchanging. It’s a corpse to examine and analyze, not “interrogate”.
“Interrogating a text” brings to mind images of some vaguely personified text with electrodes on its crotch. After a session with its master lit-crit interrogator, it eventually screams and blubbers the truth. Strangely enough, for those who use the term, this will usually be, “Yes! Yes! I support the power structure that … “ or “Yes! Yes!. I see my false consciousness now!”
Of course, continuing with that image, how can the interrogator be sure they aren’t being lied to by the text or their own self-interest and delusion.
Still, Baxter kind of does interrogate a text by embodying Wells’ novel in Walter.
More than once, Julie calls Walter the “Unreliable Narrator”. It’s not just that many people he described in his history object to his portrayal. He kind of lies to himself.
In an early scene in Baxter’s novel, a psychologist meets Walter in 1916 and notes several things about him, the Wells’ text made flesh.
First, Walter’s account is not like others of the First Martian War. It lacks
Churchill’s stiff-upper-lip boys’-story heroics, or … the self-aggrandising of the likes of Albert Cook.
Walter has written an account of “psychological affliction”. He says Walter is suffering from “Gun-dread. Cannon fear. Shell-Shock.”
Second, he notes Walter described himself as a “man of exceptional moods”, in particular exceptional detachment. Yet he is a man who wrote of utopias before the war. (I’ll come back to how the personas of Wells and Walter converge and diverge in the novel.) That detachment from individuals shows in his killing Nathaniel the cleric. Walter claimed the act was not premeditated. Is that true? Did the Martians really drive him to it? Or was it a sign of callous and calculated expedience?
Third, Walter keeps running towards the Martians and danger. Curiosity overcame his dread. He may talk about how he sought his wife Carolyne after the Martians’ landing, but he went looking for her in the opposite direction and towards the Martians.
Fourth, another symptom of Walter’s breakdown and post-war mental problems is his three-day fugue of wandering the English landscape towards the end of Wells’ novel.
Walter is not Wells personified. In Wells’ novel, there is a reference to a “facetious but provocative essay” called “The Year Million Man” and its writer. That writer was Wells.
Yet, as sidelined as he is at novel’s beginning and not possessing the influence of Walter, that facetious essayist comes into his own after the Second Martian War when he helps create a “Federation of Federations” and its constitution and a “declaration of human rights”. That’s clearly Wells in his utopian mode and mirrors the influence he wished he would have had. Wells and Walter are divergent.
But there is a merging of Wells and Walter in the chapter significantly called “An Unreliable Prophet”. After the revelation that the Martians have not left Earth, have not given up their attempts to colonize it and are even altering its atmosphere, Walter councils appeasement and acceptance that the Martians won’t leave and can’t be made to. But “ . . . it must be, of an orderly kind.”
And Walter rather admires what he perceives the trajectory of the underground Martian civilization: living off Earth’s heat after a dying sun, synthesizing food out of minerals, holding all property in kind, having no privacy, and keeping the records of their civilization in their telepathic brains.
It’s a version of Cook’s dark observations that the Martians, with his aid, are breeding and selecting for a new kind of colonial subject: passive, disloyal to their kind, and simply food on the hoof. But, they also may be human chimps to Martian college professor.
The Narrator and the Artilleryman both have visions of the massacre of mankind that are not a massacre of individual human bodies but humanity’s soul.
Cook’s collaboration with the Martians is self-interested and pragmatic. He does aid Julie’s resistance to the Martians when he thinks it will be effective and there is little risk to him. However, his main goal is the preservation of his self, his mate, and his child.
Walter’s ties to humanity are even less. He is divorced, childless, and something of a loner. Walter obsesses about the Martians and their possible return and meaning for mankind.
In the novel’s epilogue, Walter admiringly talks about the Martians. To kill the Martians, he argues, is a akin to a barbarian burning a library since the Martians are telepathic and their cultural knowledge exists in living brains.
Juliet replies that
these big-brained librarians of yours came to our earth, and slaughtered us, and drank the blood of children.
Walter returns to his Woking home at the end of the novel just as he does in Wells’ novel. Julie, commenting on its spartan accommodations, tells Walter he’s not a Martian yet, not as invulnerable to physical discomfort.
And, tellingly, there is now another merger of Wells and Walter when Julie says “I scarce believed a word he said any more. But they were such beautiful words.” That, I would suggest, is a common reaction now when reading Wells’ the social critic and would-be architect of utopia.
At the very end, Walter’s inhuman detachment and inability to choose his own species over the Martian invaders seems to wane when, for the first time after their divorce, Carolyn and Walter speak to one another. The final line of Baxter’s novel echoes Wells’ when Carolyn and Walter join hands. But it is not an exact replay. Walter reaches for a telephone to speak to Carolyn. He is still less connected to humanity than he used to be.
Baxter’s novel evokes the two world wars of our 20th Century. First the military tactics and weapons used in the Second Martian War and on the Russian Front and mostly based on real weaponry or proposed weapons of the time. Second, life under the Martians feels like Europe under the Third Reich. This is particularly true in the scenes inside the Cordon with its analogs of Marquis resistance and Vichy collaboration.
Baxter has often written “recursive science fiction” and other science fiction authors besides Wells are mentioned here: Jules Verne, Olaf Stapledon, and, I suspect, C. S. Lewis. There is also a passing reference to the first sequel to The War of the Worlds: Garret P. Serviss’ Edison’s Conquest of Mars.
One minor inconsistency between Wells’ and Baxter’s novel is that the 1907 invasion starts in June, but Wells’ novel clearly states August. Baxter acknowledges the inconsistency in the afterword.