unknownThe Massacre of Mankind
Stephen Baxter
Gollancz, 464 pages
Essay: Duncan Lunan

Online Exclusive. 

Shortly after I reviewed Luke Rhinehart’s Invasion for Interzone, contrasting it with The War of the Worlds, comes the return of the Martians. Like Stephen Baxter’s sequel to The Time Machine, The Time Ships, this sequel to The War of the Worlds, is authorised by the H.G. Wells Estate. After reviewing the novel for Interzone felt there was still much to say about this novel. I felt an essay coming on, and this is it.

Stephen Baxter attaches names to Wells’s characters, for the first time. The Artilleryman is Bert Cook – within the Martian enclave, he becomes ones of the collaborators that he foresaw , and his attempts to organise resistance under that cover are as futile as the Journalist predicted. He is Walter Jenkins, and in nods to Jeff Wayne, his wife is Carolyn (but never ‘Carrie’) and the Curate (not Parson) was Nathaniel, whose killing still haunts him. Wells’s critics have deduced that the Journalist’s marriage had failed before the invasion and his narrative is unreliable – here everyone objects to how ‘The Narrative’ portrayed them, and his brother is aptly called Frank (try not to think of Jerry Cornelius). Development of those themes brings this novel to a well-handled conclusion, but there is much more to discuss.

Illustrating my Man and the Stars (1974), Ed Buckley suggested that on an Earth-like planet we should settle an offshore island the size of Britain, to control and contain any dangerous life-forms. In The War of the Worlds the Martians do just that, to control and contain us. Baxter offers two different rationales: they think we have a world government, as they do, and London is its Solis Lacus, a nerve centre which they can behead. Also, like the US Navy SEALS, when they return to Earth, their first priority is to retrieve their fallen.

Researching his unpublished sequel Martians, the late Chris Boyce concluded that TWOTW was set, not at its publication in 1898, but at the close Martian opposition of 1909. Baxter puts it at the previous one in 1907, and the sequel two oppositions before the next close one, in 1920. Boyce had Britain already under martial law after a coup early in the century, and continuing nearly a hundred later in case the Martians return. Baxter has it happen after the first attack, led by a General Marvin, and continuing under Churchill through 1936. Possession of an astronomical telescope is forbidden, to prevent false alarms and panics; meanwhile the dome of St. Paul’s remains unrepaired after a glancing hit from a heat-ray, but the ruins of the Houses of Parliament have been demolished and replaced by a brutalist military HQ which proves no more defendable than its predecessor.

There’s a theory that Great Powers lose wars because they try to refight the previous one: the First World War as a reprise of the Peninsular War and Crimea, the Maginot Line as a retry with super-trenches, Vietnam as an updated Blitzkrieg. England is prepared for rapid mobilisation in response to the next strike, which we see coming, to overrun the Martian cylinders before they can be opened. Unfortunately the Martians see that coming, and their first cylinders are dummies, creating a ring of Barringer-scale impact craters in which we lose half the army in a moment. Surviving units converge on the occupied cylinders landing within the enclave, but this time the Martians blow the end caps off them and get the fighting machines out before our attacks can be mounted. They then walk all over us just like before, and repeat the tactics around the world over the next 24 hours – taking Grover’s Mill in the USA as a nod to Orson Welles, but advancing on New York from Long Island. At first they’re comparatively restrained, sparing civilians, but as they advance into the cities the “Ulla!” bloodlust takes over.

Compelling as their victories are, I started to get irritated with how easy they were having it. This is 1920, not 1907 as Wells foresaw it in 1898, and there was a lot of technology which could have been used to good effect, even without the leg-up which the Martians had given us and the spur to invention and development which the threat of their return should have been. I kept thinking of The Dawn of Magic, aka The Morning of the Magicians, where Jacques Bergier describes how amazed he was by the electronics in the aircraft which took him back to France after four years in a German prison camp, and the pilot’s casual conversation about long-range missiles and other things which previously had been the stuff of science fiction. Eventually he jokingly asked about nuclear energy and the pilot replied, “We’re not allowed to talk about that.” Here, 13 years have passed, but the only major innovation seems to be that guns are pulled by motor vehicles instead of horses.

Wells hinted that there had been a battle in the North Sea which was won by the European navies, when the Martians tried to cross. The Admiralty did have the option of a superior fire-control system at the onset of World War I, which they opted not to use, with dire results at Jutland (Anthony Pollen, The Great Gunnery Scandal, 1980). Chris Boyce and I had planned a collaboration, prevented by his untimely death, in which it was used and explained the victory. Baxter allows the Martians to cross the sea floor and occupy the Dogger Bank, from which they command the North Sea. There are pleasing echoes of The Riddle of the Sands in our attempt to get past them, but we waste our opportunities and lose much of the Navy in the attempt. It’s not explained why we don’t infiltrate by the routes of World War 2’s ‘Shetland Bus’ – indeed in this novel Scotland might as well not exist, except for a mention of Scapa Flow, and there’s no counterpart to Churchill and Eisenhower’s real-life plans for Glasgow and Prestwick if Hitler had invaded southern England.

In my Man and the Stars, I was specifically thinking of The War of the Worlds when I wrote that ballistic weapons such as artillery could prove effective from behind hills which line-of-sight weapons like lasers and heat-rays can’t shoot through, or from over the horizon. Baxter mentions that, but his military don’t use it effectively, letting the warships get within the three-mile effective range of the heat-ray, while the Martians’ mobility allows them to shield themselves with it against incoming shells. But even if they can move underwater to get there, how fast can they wade in the average 40-foot depth of the Dogger Bank? There’s no mention of depth-charges on the way there or minefields when they arrive, nor of submarines or aerial torpedoes, both available in 1920 to attack them on site. Even against more conventional bombardment, I felt Baxter was relying too much on the flexibility of the heat-ray – stopping low-tech projectiles with high-tech defences isn’t that easy, as was proved with Patriot missiles against Scuds. Yes, on their tripods it’s hard to land direct hits on the Martians, but what about proximity fuses? And if the Martians can explode every incoming shell, why don’t we fire shrapnel?

After the Thunder Child demonstrated what even an unprepared warship could do, could we not have restarted building Civil War vessels like the Monitor and the Merrimack, low in the water and with sloping sides to deflect heat-rays? We’ve copied the Martians’ aluminium armour (it saves the Titanic) – but with the head start the Martians gave us in 1907, and high pressure to come up with defences against the next attack, could we not have achieved Shuttle-tile insulation and mirrored armour? For air attack, what about bouncing bombs – explosive ones might be detonated, but solid ones should get through, especially if the heat-ray is actually an infra-red laser as Baxter tells us in the notes. I’m far from sure one of those could do everything claimed for it, even though it’s fusion-powered and doesn’t need recharging. It seems to have an incredibly fast system of focussing, but even so, smoke screens would reduce its efficiency, if not block it altogether. Going back to cannon-balls, with no explosives to detonate, the vicious technique of chain-shot should be pretty good at bringing down tripods – and in this particular situation, many of the same techniques could be used on land.

Even when our troops have time to dig in, the Martians can fire over the tops of the trenches and other emplacements. Machine-gun fire is ineffective against the advancing tripods, but with tracers and concentrated fire, can’t they take out the heat-ray projectors? The Martians have no other weapons except Black Smoke, and once the heat-ray is out, the hoods of the war machines are basically slow-moving aircraft on legs. The machine-guns should be backed up by anti-aircraft guns, which were under intensive development by 1920 in our world. Artillery should be much further back and guided by forward spotters, among whom sharpshooters could be even more effective at knocking out the heat-ray projectors. Come to that, I wouldn’t back a war machine against an ambush by Sharpe’s ‘chosen men’ if they had armour-piercing bullets – and especially not in hill country, because both projector and hood would be much easier to hit if you were on a level with them, and mortar fire from comparatively close cover would be more effective than long-range artillery – and for that there could be TV spotting and even radar, if Tom McArthur and Peter Waddell’s Vision Warrior, the Secret Life of John Logie Baird (1986), is to be believed. As for the ground troops, the failure to protect them against the heat ray is inexcusable.

Archimedes is claimed to have set ships on fire just using sunlight reflected from polished bronze shields, and trained troops flashing sunlight from hand-held reflectors could be deadly, as Arthur C. Clarke demonstrated in his story ‘A Slight Case of Sunstroke’. Mirrored riot shields, with built-in parabolic sections and with Herschellian wedges to aim through, could give the Martians their own back in no uncertain fashion. For advancing against heat-rays, the Roman soldiers’ tortuga (tortoise) should be back in vogue.

When the Martians can take out artillery shells in mid-air, attacking them with aircraft at low level is a waste of resources – so why do we do it? Even in the First World War, zeppelins conducted bombing from 17,000 feet, and the range of the heat-ray is only three miles. By 1920, when aircraft already had transatlantic range (as witness Alcock and Brown), surely we would go for altitude and high-level bombing? Silvering the undersides of aircraft and airships would protect them (excluding the inflammable aluminium-based paint of the Hindenburg). Releasing chaff from the first stick of bombs dropped would scatter the heat-rays, improving the chances that the next bombs would get through, and cluster bombs would get round the problems of accuracy and the Martians’ mobility. Even using aircraft at low level, but staying out of range, wire-guided rockets would not be a big stretch from the anti-Zeppelin rockets of World War One (which has been fought in this novel, as a smaller-scale conflict between Germany and France).

If none of this had been thought of, or worse, it had been thought of but not acted on – then the complacency and prejudices of our military leaders would be the Martians’ strongest allies. Come to think of it, that’s just what did happen in the naval gunnery scandal; but after the bloody nose which the Martians gave the military last time, you would think that more serious thinking and preparation would have taken place.

From the insights of a prisoner who saw most of the Martians’ operations from the inside in the first attack, it appears that they have telepathy – their much-mentioned hooting is only to attract attention. But the discovery that they have a crystalline egg embedded in their back brains leads to the idea that with biological modification, they can communicate directly with their machines and with one another as if by thought. If you’ve read about the World War Two ‘Battle of the Beams’, for instance in Most Secret War, British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945, by R.V. Jones (Hamish Hamilton, 1978), the possibilities for disrupting the Martian operation leap out at you. The British attempt to use captured heat-rays is a total failure (“Undone by a safety catch!”). In the USA Edison’s electro-magnetic pulse bombs work, but Edison is an old man, there are too few of them, too late, and there’s no effective follow-up. That really highlights the issue: it’s 1920. OK, Wernher von Braun is only 8 years old, but R.V. Jones is 19, Barnes Wallis is 33, John Logie Baird is 32, and they all know when the next close opposition’s going to be. Where are they, who are they working for, what are they doing?

It’s made clear throughout that the second Martian invasion is no more successful than the first, despite the initial victories worldwide, once England is taken – even though the Martians are masters of bio-engineering and have immunised themselves against terrestrial bacteria. There’s an attempt to re-infect them using a special strain carried by Julie Elphinstone, Frank’s estranged wife – the plan to get her infected blood into the Martian food-chain is a very long shot, but knowing how ruthlessly Churchill fed false information to the Germans via young SOE volunteers, one might guess that it wasn’t the real plan, and probably she wasn’t the only carrier sent, as she believes. Given the heavy losses incurred in getting her into the enclave, the authorities seem remarkably complacent when she refuses to complete the mission. But if other ‘typhoid Marys’ are sent in, it doesn’t work.

Although this novel is set in the ‘old Solar System’ of Lowell and Arrhenius, what brings comeuppance to the Martians this time won’t surprise readers of The Medusa Chronicles, Stephen Baxter’s recent collaboration with Alastair Reynolds, developing Arthur C. Clarke’s classic story. When frustrated the Martians don’t leave, but retreat to the Arctic and go underground, Morlock-style. We should be able to cope with that: in our world, Barnes Wallis’s Tallboy and Grand Slam ‘earthquake bombs’ were developed less than ten years after 1936.

The threat the Martians pose in 1936 is a neat inversion of the ‘air-weed’ from Clarke’s The Sands of Mars, and won’t surprise those who remember Fred Hoyle and John Elliot’s Andromeda Breathrough. It’s something the biologists at Porton Down probably could cope with, more effectively than their attempt to re-infect the Martians themselves. Stephen Baxter isn’t striving for surprise: the novel is written from a post-1936 perspective and those developments are signalled well ahead.What we can predict is that the uses he’s made of them, in conjunction with The War of the Worlds characters and story-line, will keep the H.G. Wells Society happily occupied in debate for years to come.