One of the classic rules for creating a sequel is to go bigger than your predecessor: to introduce more mythology, expand the geographical setting, or bring in more characters. Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre Of Mankind, the HG Wells’ Estate-authorised sequel to War Of The Worlds, does this, and builds out from Wells’ claustrophobic narrative to produce something entertaining and expansive.
There are all sorts of pitfalls to be found when following on from a story as beloved and as influential as War Of The Worlds, not to mention from an author with the distinctive clipped British style of Wells. But Baxter already has one authorised Wells sequel to his name (The Time Ships, following The Time Machine), and doesn’t attempt to mimic or play down the previous text.
Instead of continuing directly with Wells’ narrator, he transfers the story to a female protagonist, Julie Elphinstone, who appeared in the brother’s narrative in War Of The Worlds. Wells’ unnamed narrator becomes Walter Jenkins, a sideline character who happened to write a best-selling, non-fiction memoir of the First Martian War, much to the chagrin of those featured within it.
It’s 14 years later, and Elphinstone is a Stateside journalist intent on a successful career when she is called back to Europe by ex-brother-in-law Jenkins. He believes the Martians are gearing up for another invasion, and the human race begins to prepare as much as possible, but in the event they are swept easily aside. Jenkins accurately predicts that the Martians will have adapted to the agent of their first defeat, the humble bacteria, and come up with another plan to defeat the second global invading force.
The globalised narrative works well when connecting the sequel thematically to Wells’ novel, particularly the Darwinian ideas of survival and adaptation that Wells plays with. Here, humans and Martians are pitted against each other in a classic struggle for existence, fighting not only over their environment as the Martians look to expand across the solar system, but also over their bodies, as the horrific purpose of humans in the invaders’ plan becomes more apparent. Chilling moments of quiet horror are mined from this clash, as well as the more rollicking adventure story style that Baxter adopts.
There are moments when Baxter’s desire for detail in his alternate post-Martian history slows the pace down somewhat, but it’s never long before the plot whirs back into action again. The section in which he moves around the world to different countries for different experiences of the invasion is excellent, offering a united human involvement. Elphinstone is also a great protagonist, battling not only the Martians, but also the men around her to be taken seriously as a woman.
Baxter’s wider perspective is a welcome expansion of the War Of The Worlds story, and one that delights in exploring the transformed paths that a post-invasion 20th century world might take, as well as the capacity for humanity’s will to survive.