Sunday 18 February 2018

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells; and The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

I first (and last) read The War of the Worlds at least half a century ago, but still recalled the basic plot and the outcome – although not much else. I was prompted to read it again by the emergence last year of a sequel, "authorised by the H. G. Wells Estate": The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter. So I decided to read them one after the other.

I'm sure I don't need to say much about the plot of WoW. The scene is set in the first paragraph with some of the best-known writing in SF:

"No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were 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 affairs they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water…… Yet across the gulf of space, minds that to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."

Thus began the Martian invasion, with several massive steel cylinders fired at Earth and landing in southern England. At first this was not taken too seriously, the humans being confident that the massive surface gravity of the Earth would immobilise creatures used to Mars's much lighter pull. But while people looked on in curiosity, the Martians assembled towering, tripedal war machines armed with destructive heat rays and, later, poisonous gas projectors, and proceeded to destroy all opposition until they were suddenly and unexpectedly defeated.

The story is told by an anonymous narrator (hardly any of the characters are named), an educated man but otherwise ordinary, who observes the first landing and the major events which followed. He becomes caught up in the panicked mass evacuation of the area as the truth about the invasion emerged, and plays no part in the war against the Martians, being simply focused on survival. The utter helplessness and despair of people faced with such a disaster is well portrayed. The story is obviously dated in some respects – little was known about conditions on Mars at that time, and how living things could cope with the acceleration and deceleration forces involved in being fired from a huge gun and then slammed into the Earth on arrival is not considered – but it is still a gripping read today and well deserves its classic status.

I was struck by a certain familiarity in the writing, which might put the story into context. I have recently read a fascinating book: Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749 by I. F. Clarke (second edition, 1992) which describes how future wars have been treated in fiction since such stories were first written. One novella which is given special prominence is The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, by G. T. Chesney, published in Blackwood's magazine in 1871 (and still available – I recently bought a copy). This was a year after the Franco-Prussian War in which the French, regarded as the greatest Power in Europe, were easily defeated by the Prussians, who in 1871 formed the core of a united Germany, clearly a huge new factor in European politics. Many stories about a future war between the British and German Empires promptly emerged, those written in Britain almost invariably predicting an easy British victory.  Chesney was an exception; a colonel in the Royal Engineers, he knew what war was like, and he wrote his story with the intention of jolting into action a government which had been running down the armed forces to save money. Chesney also turned out to be a very good story-teller, and his account of the successful German invasion of England from the viewpoint of a British volunteer soldier was gripping and realistic; the courage and enthusiasm of the volunteers was shown to be useless against the professionalism of the Prussians. The story was a huge best-seller and it seems more than likely that Wells read it at some point (it was first published when he was five). The panic, lack of information, confusion and errors of Chesney's account are remarkably similar to those in WoW. And while Wells did conclude with the failure of the invasion, this was not achieved by force -  the British military were swept aside by the Martians.

Now we come to The Massacre of Mankind, set fourteen years after WoW. One clear difference of approach with the passage of time is obvious in the length of the two books: WoW is just under 200 pages, MoM over 450; but then, the sequel covers a wider field as we shall see.

The first half of MoM can be summed up as "more of the same": the Martians make a second attempt at invading Earth, and this time both sides are much better prepared (although accepting how the Martians manage to overcome their previous difficulties requires a rather large suspension of disbelief). In the meantime, the UK has become a militarised state in reaction to the invasion and has Germany as an ally, but has avoided getting involved in the European war which is grinding on in the background. Most of the main characters from WoW reappear, although with different degrees of significance in the story, and all are given names. The narrator of WoW, Walter Jenkins, has become famous due to the publication of his account of the 1907 invasion, but he has only a secondary (although ultimately still significant) role in MoM; he is suffering from shell-shock, and there is a rather amusing analysis of his personality as revealed in his book, in an interview with his psychoanalyst. The narrator is now Julie Elphinstone, who had a peripheral role (as "Miss Elphinstone") in WoW. In the intervening years she has married and divorced Frank Jenkins, Walter's brother whom she met in WoW. As in the original story, while the narrator's voice is the first-person one we hear throughout, some chapters are written in the third person to describe events for which the narrator was not present but was relying on reports from others.

I was amused to note that one of the technical issues in WoW – how the Martians survived such a violent landing – is retrospectively explained by reference to retro-rockets being fired just before impact. However, the description of Martian seas and canals, plus its thin but breathable atmosphere, are left intact (well, they more or less had to be or the story would have made no sense). In fact, Baxter evidently decided that he might as well double down, and transforms Venus into a habitable planet as well, albeit very hot and wet. Then he goes for broke and involves the mysterious inhabitants of Jupiter (these are not spoilers – they are flagged up very early in the story).

In the second half of the story, the plot increases in complexity as Martian landings take place in major cities around the world. Meanwhile, the narrator becomes involved in a plan to undermine the invading forces, who are establishing themselves in a redoubt in southern England and practicing selective breeding of humans in order to domesticate them as a food source.  As in WoW, MoM ends with the defeat of the invasion, again by unexpected means which I found a lot less plausible than in Wells's story.

Baxter has some fun with some of the historical figures who appear in the story. Churchill features, of course, and H. G. Wells is referred to a few times (without being named) as "an odd, bouncing sort of fellow with a squeaky voice, but full of ideas". A more obscure example: mention is made of a courageous attack by a fighter pilot on one of the Martian war machines; the pilot is named as William Leefe Robinson, who in reality won the Victoria Cross for his successful attack on a German Zeppelin in September 1916. There are other cultural references buried in the story, doubtless including a lot more than I spotted, but one I did notice was the scene in the German Frisian Islands, the setting for The Riddle of the Sands – Erskine Childers' great spy/sailing adventure first published in 1903.

So, to my conclusions.  The War of Worlds holds up very well; obviously, the writing style is rather dated in some respects but it is still a gripping and original drama. The Massacre of Mankind is much more difficult to evaluate. Baxter has tried to match some of the style of the original, and succeeds in making the transition quite seamless. It is evident that he has been very thorough in researching the historical background of the period. The considerable increase in page count allows more attention to be paid to characterisation as well as for developing a much more complex and detailed plot, which takes the story into very different areas. Readers should also note that a number of loose ends are left at the end of MoM, practically inviting further sequels. 

Was it worth writing? Many will feel that WoW is a perfect story as it is, with no need for a sequel. On the other hand, it is reasonable to ask the question: given that their world is dying, would not the Martians make a second, more determined, attempt at an invasion? And what might happen then? To conclude: I enjoyed reading both books, but would not argue with those who feel that Wells's classic tale should stand alone.