Book review: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

The Massacre of Mankind is the second time that Stephen Baxter has revisited one of the many worlds of HG Wells. In 1995, he wrote The Time Ships – a sequel to The Time Machine. I haven’t read Time Ships, but War of the Worlds is a different beast, and one that is perhaps the most popularised of all HG Wells’ works. As a novel, it has been revisited many times since its release (all the way back in 1897). It’s still a very popular book, and one that many fans regard as Wells’ greatest literary achievement.

It’s been 14 years since the Martians invaded middle England. The aliens have become history. Remembered, feared, but also gone. There are some, however that warn of the invaders’ return. Those concerns are well-founded, because come the next opposition, the Martians return in force. The original invasion was nothing more than a scouting mission. This time, the Martians want nothing less than complete control of the Earth. This is not a war. This will be the massacre of mankind.

So, putting it bluntly, the bar is high with this one. But have no fear: Baxter succeeds in creating a fascinating extension of Wells’ original work. It is both a sequel and a reimagining. Science is wound back to our understanding as it was in 1897, with canals on Mars, and a habitable Venus. That was a clever but necessary decision: this is an official sequel, not a correction of the original. The novel references many of War’s cast, but equally it takes most aspects of the story in a new direction. In many ways, this is an alternative history. The Martians find an England subjugated by (or at least an ally of) the Germans, for example. We encounter many historical figures along the way; woven into an alternate tapestry in which the Martian threat is just one of many.

The writing style also deserves comment. Wells’ prose was sharp and lean, but Baxter doesn’t try to replicate this. His work is more descriptive, the result of a very different protagonist. Anyone who has read Baxter previously will know that he’s capable of intertwining science and storytelling in a seamless way. Massacre is no exception.

While it retains the same feel as War of the Worlds, Massacre is broader, wider and deeper than War. That, however, is also Massacre’s greatest fault. This sounds incredibly obvious: but this isn’t just a remake of War. In tackling a wider plot, and painting this on a bigger canvas, Massacre is a very different novel. The invasion of Massacre is worldwide. This latter aspect of the book was probably the weakest. The sudden POV shifts were a little grating for me, when ultimately we all know how each directed invasion will go: nation is invaded, humans lose, next location.

Some readers may find Massacre’s third act – and ultimate resolution – a little jarring. Much like the original War, the plot is wrapped up by a deus ex machine which isn’t as inventive as that of the original novel, but is certainly comparable. Wells’ use of this storytelling technique was unique and shocking; some might find Baxter’s conclusion not quite so effective.

Ultimately, though, Baxter does a fantastic job with this sequel. If you’re a HG Wells or Stephen Baxter fan, I think that you’ll enjoy this novel very much.

(For further reading on The Massacre of Mankind, take a look at this article about Baxter’s writing process.)