“Authorised by the HG Wells Estate”, trumpets the cover of Stephen Baxter’s War of the Worlds sequel. Since Wells’s works all came out of copyright in 2016, this is not a legal requirement on behalf of the publisher; nonetheless, the imprimatur is fitting. I can’t think of another living writer more deserving of the “official heir of Wells” tag than Baxter. Indeed, this isn’t the first time he has written a Wellsian sequel. His 1995 novel The Time Ships expanded the universe of Wells’s slender The Time Machine (1895), turning the original’s linear to-and-fro into a foliating mesh of alternating timelines. The Massacre of Mankind is a more straightforward exercise in rerunning its source text’s storyline. The Martians are back, and this time no microbe can stop them. They’re reheating their heat rays, and trying again with the tripods. A shattered Britain, still trying to piece itself together from the first assault 14 years previously, has fallen under the sway of a quasi-fascist dictator. Things do not look good.
Baxter rolls up his sleeves and gets stuck in. He has great fun winding back science to 1899 levels, reinstating canals on Mars, space travel by giant cannon and so on. The story roams around the whole world, and Baxter also chucks in hairy water-dwelling Venusian humanoids and mysterious super-intelligences living on Jupiter. But the main strength of The Massacre of Mankind is its tightly gripping storytelling. Since this is a novel that basically repeats in expanded form the narrative trajectory of the original, it’s impressive how tense Baxter makes things: the foolish overconfidence of the human defenders and the ghastly inevitability of the Martians’ triumph.
The intertextuality gets a little tiresome – there are a great many cameos by famous people, and quite a few science fiction in-jokes – but the story never loosens its hold. It’s Baxter’s best novel in a long time, and this may be because it reads like a genuine labour of love. As well as all the in-universe fixtures and fittings, the style is a clever pastiche of Wells. One character is woken in the night by the sound of planes overhead: “aircraft … he recognised the humming of the big screws”. In occupied England, the protagonists come across a “smashed train”: “the locomotive’s boiler had been disrupted by the caress of the Heat-Ray. Freight coaches lay on their backs like tremendous cockroaches, upended.” The civilised delights of Edwardian catastrophe are all present and correct.
A few puzzles remain. It’s not clear why the Martians, having soundly defeated a combined English and German army on English soil, then dig in for several years, rather than immediately moving on to subdue the rest of the planet. It is speculated that since they come from a planet where water is very scarce, our oceans and seas represent insuperable barriers. But we discover Martian tripods are quite at ease walking under water; plus the aliens have whole fleets of flying machines. One suspects that Baxter just fancied writing a book-length middle section set in an England-versus-Mars variant of the first world war, complete with a gigantic trench excavated by the defending Brits, battleship-sized tanks and daring forays into enemy territory. And very ripping tales this portion is too.
Still, since eventually the invasion does go global, the interlude feels a little supererogatory. The third act cycles through a rather breathless series of set pieces: tripods march through Germany (we briefly meet Corporal Hitler), China (can Sun Yat-sen see them off?), Australia (the Martians explode Melbourne library, which seems pretty unsporting to me) and into North America, where Edison is building marvellous machines to combat them. The reader wonders how, or indeed if, the invaders will be defeated this time around.
At the risk of sounding like a pedant, I must record one disappointment. There is a fundamental problem of Wells’s original conception that Baxter doesn’t solve: how could the Martian war machines walk on three legs? Try it with any tripod you may have around the home and you’ll see. To move any one of the three legs means lifting it off the ground, and that leaves the whole top-heavy structure wobbling on the two legs that remain. You end up shuffling round cautiously in a circle – or falling over. An invasion that relied on such technology would be less Armageddon and more Keystone Cops.
I’m being obtuse, I know. The point of the tripods is not practicality. Rather, they work as effective symbols of alien-ness: a species that never invented the wheel and instead made giant machines to mimic their unearthly physiology. And the fact that Martian society and culture are based around threes makes a reader wonder: will Baxter venture a third and final volume to this extended Wellsiad?
Adam Roberts’ latest novel is The Thing Itself (Gollancz). The Massacre of Mankind is published by Gollancz. To order a copy for £16.14 (RRP £18.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
This article was sourced from http://newsvictoriabc.com