PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount

Only the bravest– some might say most foolish – writers would choose to pen a sequel to one of the great classics of science-fiction literature. Surely some books are unimpeachable works of fiction whose story is so roundly told and whose world is so perfectly formed, that they don’t need the ignominy of a return visit decades later by writers who can’t help but bring their own twenty first century sensibilities to ideas which sparkled and shone with the innocence of the times they were written in (and for)? We need only think of Simon Clark’s execrable Night of the Triffids which utterly misunderstood the point and thrust of John Wyndham’s glorious Day of the Triffids to appreciate how ill-advised an idea it is to tamper with genre classics. But then there’s Stephen Baxter’s exquisite, occasionally mind-blowing The Time Ships, a 1995 sequel to HG Wells’ The Time Machine which show us that, if it has to be done, this is the way to do it.

Fortunately, the omens are good for The Massacre of Mankind, the official sequel to Wells’ War of the Worlds (and sanctioned, like its predecessor, by the late author’s estate) as Baxter is on board again. The prolific author brings his prodigious imagination to the concepts created by Wells over a hundred years ago and where The Time Ships occasionally boggled with its extraordinary inventiveness, Massacre of Mankind is, by and large, a more restrained affair. It’s some fifteen years since the Martians blazed their way across space to Earth and ignited the first ‘war of the worlds’ and, in what’s clearly an alternate-Earth timeline, mankind has moved onwards and upwards, using salvaged Martian technology to benefit the human race which still, despite the hardships it has endured, has a propensity for fighting in and amongst itself.

But anxious eyes are watching the stars. Our new narrator – Julie, the sister-in-law of the original story’s hero, now named Walter Jenkins, receives a telephone call from Walter (presently residing in Germany) who has a grim warning; Earth and Mars are, as they were fifteen years before, at a cosmic position advantageous to the Martians should they chose to launch another assault upon the world. The Armed Forces are discreetly mobilised and the human race prepares for the worst. But the worst is even worse this time. The Martians arrive en masse in their devastating cylinders, flattening towns and villages and emerging from their pits in the heat ray wielding tripods with far more haste than during their first invasion, and quickly set about demolishing London and occupying, at first, Southern England. But even as a slightly long-winded and tenuous plan is hatched to bring the Martians down for good some time later, thousands of cylinders are launched from Mars and they begin to fall to Earth all around the planet…

Stephen Baxter has written a gripping, page-turning adventure novel bristling with imagination and which doesn’t stray a million miles away from the tone and style of the original. There are concessions to a modern audience, of course, not least in its feisty female heroine and numerous descriptions of heat ray victims vaporised and incinerated, flashing into fire and one memorable sequence in which a young victim of an explosion has been flung across a room against a wall where he has simply burst open. Nice. Elsewhere there are vivid and exhausting set pieces depicting the relentless march of the tripods and the ferocious firestorm they unleash upon city after city as the narrative broadens and we travel to Australia and India to witness the fall of Man. Deep in the heart of the Martian occupation of England our heroes – a richly-drawn, colourful bunch – witness the horrors of ‘the drips’ where terrified human prisoners, living blood banks, are held captive by the alien invaders. Baxter creates a genuine sense of dread and repulsion with some stomach-churning images of doomed humanity trapped and desperate in Martian pits with no hope of escape, awaiting a pitiful, painful death.

There are some longeurs in the narrative, however, where Baxter becomes slightly self-indulgent with his cast of characters who sometimes take a little too long to get to where you really want them to be but ultimately The Massacre of Mankind is a terrific, powerful, hugely-readable novel which in no way disgraces the original and is a fitting, worthy and highly-recommended final end – perhaps – to the greatest intergalactic conflict in science-fiction history.


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