Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • File

Sunday, September 10, 2017 1:00 am

All's well that ends Wells

'Sequel' to 'War of Worlds' nods slyly to original masterwork

reviewed by Michael Dirda

At the close of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” the Martian invaders are all dead, having succumbed to the bacteria that infest our planet and against which they had never built up resistance. While something of a surprise ending, Wells had nonetheless prepared the reader for it with various clues, starting with his opening sentence:

“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 scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

Despite the unexpected failure of what was probably just a scouting party, would Mars, a dying and depleted planet, simply abandon its plans for conquest? Wouldn't those “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” continue to regard our Earth with the same envious eyes and, slowly and surely, draw up new plans?

Such is the premise of Stephen Baxter's “The Massacre of Mankind” – the phrase appears in Wells' original novel – and, though a bit too long and loose-limbed, it is a highly enjoyable work of homage and extrapolation. The action, which begins in 1920, moves right along. Baxter's chapters are short, sharp shocks, and he cleverly reuses many of Wells' original characters.

For example, the unnamed narrator of Wells' book is revealed to be Walter Jenkins, now the best-selling author of the “Narrative of the Martian Wars” and a sufferer of post-traumatic stress syndrome. That shrewd Cockney survivalist – aka “The Man on Putney Hill” – now bears the name Bert Cook, and his adventures among the aliens have been sensationalized in “Memoirs of an Artilleryman.” Miss Elphinstone – the revolver-wielding heroine of the flight from London – turns out to have married and then divorced the narrator's brother Frank, and she now works as a freelance journalist. Though Baxter's global perspective shows us the effects of the Second Martian War on dozens of combatants and civilians, Julie Elphinstone will be his main viewpoint character.

The 1920 of “The Massacre of Mankind” isn't the one we know from history. Gen. Marvin – who knocked out one of the Martians' fighting machines in the original novel –has built on his popularity to become the right-wing leader of England. Most significant, Germany roundly defeated France in the “Schlieffen War” and is now engaged in a prolonged conflict with Russia.

In the seven years since the original 1913 invasion, Walter Jenkins has been obsessed with the possibility of a second Martian attack, much to the despair of his psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud. As befits a strong militarist, Prime Minister Marvin has duly organized a massive, well-trained army eager to blast to smithereens any of those bug-eyed monsters, long before they can set up their tripodlike fighting machines and deadly heat rays. This time, however, Mars launches not 10 but 100 cylinders, and the first 50 are essentially atomic bombs meant to clear the landing area.

I won't say more about the course of the invasion itself, but the result is, as Baxter titles his book's second section, “England Under the Martians.” After relentless mass destruction, the conquering aliens consolidate their forces within a 20-mile-wide circular perimeter in Buckinghamshire. People trapped inside this cordon must survive by their wits, many living like characters in a “Road Warrior” movie. Bert Cook, once again, comes into his own.

Meanwhile, Julie Elphinstone – intrepid reporter, unwilling emissary of Walter Jenkins, secret weapon of the military – travels from England to France to Germany, through the sewers of London, and, finally, into the very heart of the Martian redoubt. There, Julie learns that these vampiric, bloodsucking aliens are altering Earth's climate and ecosystem to resemble those of their own planet; they are even starting to manipulate human evolution, planning to turn humans into docile, Eloi-like cattle. Can things possibly get any worse for Earth? Of course they can: More Martian cylinders begin to rain down on all parts of the globe.

Throughout “The Massacre of Mankind,” Baxter regularly offers intertextual winks to readers who know their Wells. Referring to his unheeded warnings, Walter Jenkins grumbles: “I told you so. You damned fools” – these are the very words that Wells proposed as his own epitaph. Various episodes echo elements of “The Time Machine,” “The Land Ironclads” – Wells' visionary short story about tank warfare – and “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” The great writer himself is referred to, with mock disdain, as “The Year Million Man,” an allusion to Wells' youthful article about future humans as eggheads with attenuated bodies and limbs. Baxter even obliquely nods to Garrett P. Serviss' “Edison's Conquest of Mars,” an actual 1898 pulp serial written in response to “The War of the Worlds,” and then goes on to mention Grovers Mill, N.J., made famous as the landing site in the 1938 radio dramatization – the panic broadcast – of Wells' novel.

In 1995, Baxter published “The Time Ships,” an award-winning sequel to “The Time Machine.” As a science-fiction writer, he obviously likes to work on a grand scale. Still, his new Wellsian pastiche contains too many battle scenes and too many characters, most of whom make only a fleeting appearance, while the big reveals don't always surprise as much as they might.

Despite these flaws, at least 90 percent of “The Massacre of Mankind” remains a lot of fun – and I haven't even said anything about the humanoids from Venus!

Michael Dirda is a book reviewer for the Washington Post.