Massacre of Mankind impressive but overly long sequel to H.G. Wells classic

by G. Robert Frazier

Before I sat down to read Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind (Crown, $27) – the sequel to H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds – I decided to reacquaint myself with the original. I’m glad I did.

Massacre of Mankind
The Massacre of Mankind
Stephen Baxter
Crown, $27
ISBN: 978-1-5247-6012-0

Yes, stylistically it is a little stale. There’s hardly any dialogue, but the story still holds up. Hey, that’s why it’s a classic.

Wells managed in just a couple hundred words to weave a shocking narrative of mankind’s first interaction with an alien species. The story moves at breakneck pace and is nothing short of terrifying as the Martians march all over England in their pursuit of total annihilation and conquest.

I was eager to see the tale continue with Baxter’s follow-up, which was fully authorized by the H.G. Wells Estate. Baxter, as you may know, is a multiple award-winning  author in his own right, having received the Locus Award, the Philip K. Dick Ward, the British Science Fiction Award, and the John W. Campbell Award. He has been nominated numerous times for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Hugo Award. Who better to scribe an official sequel to the greatest martian invasion story ever told?

And, for the most part, no one can argue with that.

Massacre is a fitting continuation of the original saga, right down to Baxter’s uncanny ability to capture Wells’s style to the letter. In a way, it’s as if Baxter is a reincarnation of Wells. So far, so good.

Wells’s original narrator, Walter Jenkins, returns after fourteen years with a warning that another martian invasion is imminent, and it doesn’t take long before the first Martian cylinders begin to make their arrival. As before, the Martians quickly begin their conquest of earth, subjecting any opposition to its lethal heat rays and deadly black smoke.

Better yet, the story doesn’t just regurgitate the invasion. Instead, it expounds and expands and enhances upon Wells’s original in new, exciting directions. The earth has cherry-picked through the Martians’ leftovers from the last invasion, using what it can to enhance its own technology. There are real-life characters added to the mix, such as Winston Churchill. There are Venetians, who are slaves to the Martians. There are more direct encounters with the Martians themselves outside of their war machines. And there is betrayal from within, as some people cooperate with the Martians in order to prevent their own annihilation.

There is action on both sides of the Atlantic, as we see the fight for earth take on a truly global scale with war fronts in not just England, but New York, Los Angeles, Australia, Germany, and India.  The cast of characters increases exponentially as well.

And, perhaps, that’s where this book ultimately begins to unravel somewhat. The huge scope of Massacre and shifting points of views and locales, while recreating an impressive scope, diminishes the emotional journey of our lead character. Whereas WOTW largely focused on Jenkins’ own experiences, Massacre darts from one character to the next with almost reckless abandon.

As a result, Massacre, unfortunately, becomes a mashed-up mess. Just as it is building steam with one storyline, we’re yanked halfway across the globe to another situation and another cast entirely. While that does build suspense and anticipation to get back to the initial storyline, the effect is somewhat jarring and unsatisfying. It makes you, as a reader, yearn for the simplicity that Wells embraced in the original. (Did I mention that Massacre clocks in at nearly 500 pages?)

The ultimate question is whether Massacre will become a classic in its own right, or whether it will only serve as a footnote to the original. As with all things, time will tell.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this honest review.


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