Review: The Massacre of Mankind

The Massacre of Mankind
The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I know Baxter has a brilliant scientific mind and a vivid writing style, which makes this masterpiece all the more special: where HG Wells set his War of the Worlds in the future, with science yet to prove the assumptions of the day, Baxter has set The Massacre of Mankind in the past: not only do we tell stories completely differently now, we also know the science is incredibly wrong.

Yet somehow, he suspended my disbelief and made this book breathe with life. How tough, to write in a similar style to the original (evidently tremendous!) at the same time as having to believe the sun is made of coal and our solar system is heavily ‘peopled’ by aliens.

Baxter has updated the technology of the time, but only as far as the learnings from the First War would have allowed. He’s maintained the narrative: that fresh-out-of-colonialism arrogance, that certainty-of-class of the time, the voice reminiscent of listening to stories told by our grandfathers: ponderous and detailed, yet almost dispassionate.

So a word of warning: if you want the dramatic action of depressing world-wide destruction, then you should be reading Baxter’s Flood or Moonseed. If you’re after the type of world-wide destruction that’s strangely uplifting and positive, you should be reading his Evolution.

But this book, people, this book is set in 1920 and written from 1939. It’s going to need you to adapt and play your part to enjoy it to the fullest. Our imaginations have to work harder than they’re used to: instead of his usual style of painting a full picture and immersing the reader, Baxter instead describes the picture and makes us fill in the colours.

But it’s worth it! Because then you get to experience the real gem: Baxter’s alternate history. A martian landing in 1907 will of course change history as we know it, but maybe it doesn’t have to be dramatic and sudden: a European war still starts in 1914, but it’s called the ‘Schlieffen’ war and the Americans don’t become involved, thus remaining relatively unskilled at world policing; concentration camps and a ‘lightning war’ are of Martian origin; and a panic still ensues after a radio broadcast of an excerpt from a ‘trashy’ novel, but this time the humans panic is all the more real after experiencing the real thing.

This would make an excellent (tremendous?) conversion to film so long as Hollywood could be trusted not to make it overly flashy. The slow yet inevitable burn is Baxter’s trademark.

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