“Four hundred and fifty pages that would have been better spent elsewhere” – The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

tmomsbLet’s start with the exciting stuff. Stephen Baxter’s latest novel is a sequel to the classic War of the Worlds, commissioned by the estate of H G Wells. It takes place fourteen years after the original and brings us back into contact with many characters that fans will be familiar with. And it promises us an unrecognisable world, altered by the presence of Martian technology. So why don’t we list just a few of the things we might expect from the follow up to such a leading light in the science fiction genre, and one with as exciting a title as The Massacre of Mankind:

  • Excitement
  • A fast paced plot that twists and turns
  • Breathtaking passages and tension that takes you to the edge of your seat
  • Alien creatures that will fill you with fear and intrigue in equal measures
  • Characters you’ll care for, rooting for them to overcome this attack from outer space
  • And, of course, some kind of ‘massacre of mankind’

Sounds like something you could get on board with, right?

Well unfortunately, almost all of these things are missing from what should have been a standout book of the year. Because of a plot that meanders, there is rarely a moment in which the pulse rises. Because every little detail, impressively researched as it might be, has to be explained over paragraphs and chapters instead of in neat little sentences, almost all of the moments that promised high drama are stretched out for so long that they feel flat and motionless. A prime example comes when the Martian ships first land on earth, and we hear of these landing from so many perspectives that we’ve lost interest before the ships hit the soil. If you took a breath for the whole of one of these passages, you’d be blue before you were a third of the way through.

And the aliens, who should of course be the stars of such a story, are almost completely missing from the narrative. Other than a section where we meet the Martians’ slaves from Venus, the space monsters are just abstract background noise controlling ships that float in the distance.

Perhaps most unforgivable of all, though, is the failure to make the reader care about the characters and the lack of diversity in a cast that is supposed to represent ‘mankind’. For Stephen Baxter, it seems that the only people that matter in a ‘massacre of mankind’ are the elite. We are treated to various characters from the upper classes, meaning that all the destruction and drama we witness is happening to a world most of us can’t imagine in the first place. And to make this even worse, there are various attempts to portray the downtrodden and citizens from countries other than the UK and US that are almost invariably stereotyped, and often come pretty close to being offensive. And, of course, we are eventually spared from any real ‘massacre of mankind’. The whole of humanity, saved by a few posh folk!

Any Cop?: There’ll be an audience out there for this book, I’m sure. For this reviewer, it was four hundred and fifty pages that would have been better spent elsewhere. Do yourselves a favour and read the original. Even a couple of hours with the often criticised Tom Cruise movie would be a better option.

 

Fran Slater

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