Sometimes you take a chance on a book. Maybe you don’t know the author or its science fiction, a genre that’s notorious for being mediocre at best and atrocious at worst.
Or maybe it’s a sequel, a sequel to a story originally published in hardcover in 1898.
Those three things could turn anyone from any story out there. But despite those concerns, you go in with an open mind and you’re pleasantly surprised.
That’s the situation with The Massacre Of Mankind by Stephen Baxter, a sequel to H. G. Well’s sci-fi classic The War of The Worlds.
Authorized by the H. G. Well’s Estate, The Massacre of Mankind picks up 14 years after the Martian’s failed first invasion.
Society has changed since the first invasion. Scientists reversed engineered some bits of Martian gear and made technological advancements. England, where most of this story takes place, has become an authoritarian state constantly preparing for another invasion.
The Massacre of Mankind follows Julie Elphinstone, a journalist and survivor of the first Martian invasion.
Most of the story is in the first person as if Elphinstone is cobbling together a memoir or novel. Other characters experiences are included but they’re framed as an interview or a retelling of their journal.
Despite being in the first person, the protagonist isn’t the focal point for the whole narration. The author balances her thoughts and actions with observations of bigger events and more interesting characters.
Elphinstone does a good job showing fear can change a country. For years, England had been prepping for the Martian’s return The military and police forces increased in size. More infrastructure was created for moving weapons and troops around the country. Even civilians wore government issued gas masks and revolvers.
Despite all the preparation, the Martians made quick work of the English resistance.
It isn’t until after the invasion and England’s subsequent two-year occupation that Elphinstone becomes a key part of the story. Government officials task her with communicating with the invading forces. Elphinstone learns this is a ruse and she was used as an unknowing pawn.
The Downside of First Person
Since The Massacre of Mankind is narrated from Julie’s point of view, we know she survives the second invasion. Also, the narrator drops hints well in advance of some characters fate.
It makes sense that Julie would drop these hints into her narration. But it is a gamble on how it will impact the reader.
One one hand, you’re reading passages about the doomed characters, wondering if this is when they’ll get written out of the story, keeping your interest. At the same time, when events do transpire, the scene loses some power since it was expected.
Good Pace But One Big Speed Bump
The story moves along at a good pace with well-placed breaks sprinkled throughout the first two parts of the book. But becomes sluggish in the third part.
Up until this point, Massacre focused on a few characters and their experiences. We don’t know them as well as the narrator, but they are not flat.
In the book’s third part, Baxter breaks away from the main story. We are taken around the world by single serving characters whose sole function is witnessing invasions in different parts of the world.
Since we already saw the British invasion in the first few chapters, you know what to expect in these chapters. They’re described in a simpler way, but each entry is a lather, rinse, repeat scenario.
I had two thoughts about these chapters. First, I thought these sections could have been condensed or introduced in a casual mention by an already established character.
But after a few nights sleep, I wondered if the current telling was the only way for Baxter to show us these invasions. Our narrator is a journalist in the 1920s and it makes sense she would include other people’s perspectives for a more well-rounded account.
There could be something else here.
The world was somewhat fragmented before the invasion. The Germans overtook France after a series of wars. England sided with the Germans, ignoring their alliance with France. The United States used the breaking of the treaty as justification for isolationist foreign policy at the time. After invading France, Germany turned its sights toward Russia with mixed results.
Wars start over differences. Differences in ideas or access to resources. By showing different people reacting the same way the author could have been subtly sliding in a small anti-war message.
It’s a possibility, but I don’t think that was the goal of these smaller entries. I’m going with my previous thought. The multi-national stories are there because it makes sense for the narrator to include them.
So, at the end of the day, what do we have with The Massacre of Mankind?
The story can keep your attention, but it isn’t capturing many readers outside those who already like science fiction. People who love their novels with neat, tidy endings won’t be thrilled as the story ends with a few loose ends.
These loose ends could set up a third story or stay unanswered if this is the last time the Martians attack the world H. G. Wells created so long ago.
But even though we can assume the story’s outcome by the chosen point of view, you can burn through The Massacre of Mankind if you’re more interested in how another invasion happens and not why.
The Massacre of Mankind will be available in the United States on August 22.