The Cannons of Mars: A Review of The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

Over one hundred years later and the Victorian era has never quite left us.  There is an innate fascination in the West with the fashion, the language, the dichotomy between upper and lower class, and the general scientific aesthetic.  This is the era which brought us Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein’s monster.  This is also the period which launched the alien invasion literary craze with an extraordinarily well-known serialization.  The War of the Worlds was written and published by H.G. Wells in 1897, and later made even more famous by Orson Welles in 1938, believed to have caused a panic in the United States for it’s realistic portrayal of an alien invasion.  All this to say, The War of the Worlds is timeless.

Which makes it very strange to write that today’s review is about the sequel.  The Massacre of Mankind, published in 2017, on hundred and twenty years after Wells’ original first captivated the world.  The original has been re-imagined and adapted a tremendous number of times, as recently as 2017 in the form of an opera performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.  In 2005, Tom Cruise starred in a film adaption.  In the 1950’s, the first film adaptation was released.  However, these were all still The War of the Worlds.  It may seem strange for Stephen Baxter to write the sequel now, but we are in the age of sequels.  Maybe The War of the Worlds was overdue.

The Massacre of Mankind is an experiment in revitalizing the Victorian style of writing.  The book manages sound like it was written a hundred years ago, both in how characters speak with one another and the narration itself.  Since the novel is written like it’s predecessor, a character chronicling events long after the instance, the narrator will occasionally mention something which has not happened yet only to put it off to the proper time.  A weird quirk for a modern reader, but an extremely common literary device of Victorian authors.  Most importantly, the book feels like it was written in the era, while leaving behind the aspects of writing which can turn modern readers off to Victorian literature.  Gone are the run-on sentences, the odd punctuation, the confusion between apostrophes and quotation marks.  The book feels Victorian, and that is what really matters in the end.

The plot of The Massacre of Mankind is anything but simple.  Over a decade has passed since the Martians invaded England.  The world has changed in incredible ways as the British Empire cannibalized Martian technology and adapted their materials for our use.  Because of this alternative history, World War 1 began late, with Germany easily conquering France and beginning a protracted war with the Russian Empire.  Communism never began as a movement, the United States is still very much a semi-isolationist frontier, and many locations around the globe never adopted the names they are known by today.  Finally, though, the Martians return in much greater force than they did before.  The armies of the Earth are decimated and, while there is a resistance, there is no victory.  The Martians begin to colonize the planet, engineering the atmosphere and vegetation to their needs.  These are not Hollywood Martians, either.  They are the Other, and the characters spend much of their time puzzling over what, exactly, they want.

The novel sees several characters from the original story returning, but our hero is not the same person.  Previously unknown, but given the name Walter Jenkins, the narrator of the original is revealed to be unreliable here.  We meet his wife, his brother, the soldiers he encountered, and they all tell slightly different tales of that First Martian War.  However, this novel is told from the perspective of Julie Elphinstone, Walter’s former sister-in-law.  No longer a side character, a Victorian damsel in distress, Julie is truly allowed to breath and become her own person in these pages.  There is still the shadow of Walter Jenkins’ Narrative, as The War of the Worlds is known in this book.  But it is Elphinstone who is able to turn the tide of the war and ensure mankind’s survival.

The book is, of course, not without its negative elements.  No novel is perfect.  A little too much of the Victorian remains.  A tinge of sexism, although that is shown as a remnant of the era, slowly left behind as the story creeps deeper into the twenty-first century.  At one point, Elphinstone describes a Venusian visitor as a “noble savage.”  Baxter’s alternative history also denies women the vote using the guise of martial law declaring suffragettes illegal.  They come to their senses by the end of the novel.  Weirdly, there is a couple sentences defending The Daily Mail.  In Baxter’s book, they are one of the few voices of truth in an otherwise state-controlled media.  It is certainly possible this is meant to be satirical but, even so, the inclusion is strange.  One of the few times the flow of the narrative is interrupted.  Overall, however, the good tends to outweigh the bad.  Read in the right mood, these Victorian remnants are just that.

The Massacre of Mankind is not a short book.  Nearly five hundred pages, it covers roughly twenty-five years.  Yet, the novel flows in a way most Victorian literature does not.  It does not feel long.  A reader will finish each chapter wondering what happens next, how will Julie Elphinstone survive this newest Martian encounter?  How will humanity survive?  How will we learn from these encounters and use these experiences for the better?  For as much as the novel is pulp, it is also interested in asking more thoughtful questions about the nature of humanity and empire.  After all, the United Status was conquered.  The Earth is simply the next frontier for Mars.

The Massacre of Mankind can be found online, in store, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 14 days

Next on the list: Aaru, by David Meredith

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