When H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1897, the story of a Martian invasion lodged in the cultural imagination as a possible chronicle of catastrophic things to come. Sci-fi master Stephen Baxter faces a formidable challenge in writing an authorized sequel: How might he turn the original readership’s plausible belief in a war between sister planets into a necessary suspension of disbelief for 2017 readers?
As author of collaborative multinovel epics with Terry Pratchett and Arthur C. Clarke, Baxter has the credentials for the task. The thrill of reading The Massacre of Mankind arises from the monumental scope and wild literary conceit of Baxter’s continuation of the story. I would blasphemously suggest an analogy between Scripture (Wells) and Talmud (Baxter): For every scene, every character, every theme in Wells’ account, Baxter provides copious commentary, filling in Wells’ narrative gaps, inventing an entire alternative history for Europe and the world at large, proposing what must have happened after the trauma of a first interplanetary invasion and during the onslaught of a second. (Spoiler alert! In Baxter’s sequel, there’s no World War I, but there remains an uncanny shadow effect of that indelible disaster.) It’s a family affair, too: The ingenious narrator is the sister-in-law of Wells’ original narrator, Walter Jenkins. The feminist edge is delightful and profound. Julie Elphinstone not only tells a broader tale than the hapless and unreliable Jenkins; she actually helps save the world.
There was another reason why Wells’ original story hit a nerve. The tale of a superior technological power (Mars) overwhelming a more primitive civilization (Earth) was a barely disguised allegory for the depredations of the British Empire. The essential truth of The War of the Worlds is that it is not only a possible history; it is the inevitable, tragic fate of all civilizations. Baxter hits the same nerve, and then some.