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Sci-fi author Stephen Baxter on his War of the Worlds sequel, The Massacre of Mankind

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Mar 25, 2021, 10:00 AM EDT (Updated)

In this dizzying digital age of sequels, prequels, and spin-offs, it's almost inconceivable that there was never an official authorized sequel written to H.G. Wells' 1898 masterpiece of alien invasion, War of the Worlds.

Although rumors abounded that Wells might pick up the pen again and return to the rampaging extraterrestrial tripods, it sadly never happened. Now, 119 years later, award-winning British science fiction writer Stephen Baxter has written The Massacre of Mankind, a brilliant second act to the seminal sci-fi novel, crafted with the full blessings, approval, and cooperation of the Wells estate.

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Many of us fondly recall the Wells novel from high school English literature classes, Orson Welles' infamous 1938 radio dramatization, the well-loved 1953 feature film directed by Byron Haskin, or Steven Spielberg's 21st-century version starring Tom Cruise, and it's about time those tentacled creatures made a return voyage to colonize our precious planet.

Baxter, a member of the Wells Society and writer of The Long Earth series along with Terry Pratchett, the Time Odyssey collaborations with Arthur C. Clarke, and his far-future series, Ultima and Proxima, here chronicles the horrifying events of the second wave of London intruders years after the first Martian cylinders dropped onto Horsell Common in 1907.

Through exhaustive research, including access to the actual hand-corrected Wells drafts and manuscript, and a profound respect for the source material, Baxter has crafted a superb follow-up to one of the planet's most famous fictional fantasies.

Before we get into the interview, here's the official synopsis:

It has been 14 years since the Martians invaded England. The world has moved on, always watching the skies but content that we know how to defeat the Martian menace. Machinery looted from the abandoned capsules and war-machines has led to technological leaps forward. The Martians are vulnerable to earth germs. The Army is prepared. So when the signs of launches on Mars are seen, there seems little reason to worry.

Unless you listen to one man, Walter Jenkins, the narrator of Wells' book. He is sure that the Martians have learned, adapted, understood their defeat. He is right.

Thrust into the chaos of a new invasion, a journalist -- sister-in-law to Walter Jenkins -- must survive, escape and report on the war.

The Massacre of Mankind has begun.

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Advance into our riveting interview below with England's grandmaster of pure sci-fi, and tell us if you intend on securing a copy of The Massacre of Mankind for some late summer reading as it rolls out in bookstores and online retailers nationwide today.

How did this sensational sci-fi project first come about?

I had already done one Wells sequel, The Time Ships, sequel to The Time Machine, published in 1995, and always hankered after doing another, especially The War of the Worlds (WOTW), as it has an obvious hook for follow-ups. The Martians were fleeing climate collapse on their own planet; they had to come again. And the time was right, there were big Wells anniversaries coming up, the man’s 150th birthday last year, and the 120th birthday of the book itself this year. The Wells estate approved the project, and it was all systems go.

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Credit: Grant Regan

What can readers anticipate in The Massacre of Mankind?

It is meant to be a direct development of Wells’s book, the characters, the nature of the Martians, even some of the settings. How would Britain and the world change after the first invasion? How could we cope with a second? I thought that was what I would be most interested in as a reader, and a way to explore Wells’ deeper themes – such as colonialism, the experience of warfare.

Did the Wells estate give you any special restrictions or suggestions on how to proceed with the famous novel's sequel?

No, all they want you to do is to be respectful to their ancestor. The book is an homage, not a pastiche.

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Did the prospect of filling the shoes of the great H.G. Wells come as a daunting or exhilarating challenge?

Well, after Time Ships I got involved with the "Wellsians," an international community of scholars and fans; I am a vice president now of the H.G. Wells Society, and have given talks and papers on his work. The work and the man are equally fascinating. So I was well prepared. More exhilarating than daunting!

When did your research as a Wells historian begin, and what was your introduction to his fantastic fiction?

I think my first introduction to Wells was the 1953 movie, showing on TV when I was a kid. H.G. Wells to me was a brand, a guarantee of good stuff. Then I first read his great books aged about 12 at school – which was when I first thought there ought to be a sequel to The Time Machine! As I said, I got more into the scholarship after The Time Ships was published.

Has Hollywood optioned your novel for a feature film or TV series adaptation?

There has been interest but nothing signed yet. You never know!

Are you a fan of Byron Haskin's 1953 or Steven Spielberg's 2005 cinematic interpretations of War of the Worlds?

Yes, of both. Both were very well made, and both get the basic point of Wells’s novel: It’s about the invasion of the homeland, reinterpreted for their different eras – the Cold War in 1953, post-9/11 in 2005. If anything, the 2005 version is truer to the spirit of the book, the humans are pretty helpless, even if the threat isn’t necessarily from Mars!

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What were some of your techniques used to keep Wells's late-19th-century rhythm, vernacular, and tone, yet also retain your own style?

I used a narrator similar to Wells’. Julie Elphinstone is in Wells’ book; she lives through the second war and tells the story like a historian a few years later – just as Wells wrote it. But I researched the literature of the 1920s when my book was set – F. Scott Fitzgerald for instance – for the right period feel, a couple of decades after WOTW.

There's a clear opportunity in War of the Worlds for a sequel, with the unnamed narrator predicting a second invasion. Why wasn't a follow-up ever attempted?

There have been plenty! The very first was by an American journalist called Garrett P. Serviss, who published a sequel in 1889 called Edison’s Conquest of Mars! Edison was the Tony Stark of his day, I guess, a super-genius, super-rich hero. And I think the American readers thought the British response had been a bit feeble, so they send over a fleet under Edison to deliver some vengeance on Mars. Great fun!

Besides Wells, who were some of the most influential sci-fi writers for you?

As a kid, Olaf Stapledon, who knew Wells and wrote great cosmic sagas, and Arthur C. Clarke, who knew Stapledon, in turn. And I worked with Clarke! So I have about three degrees of separation from Wells that way. But I did meet one old man who knew Wells himself.

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Mars has a special allure for writers, filmmakers, poets, and artists. What is the red planet's attraction, and why has War of the Worlds endured?

Mars is the only planet whose land surface we can see with telescopes, aside from the dead Moon. And it has ice caps and weather that you can see from Earth, so it is easy to imagine it is full of life, like Earth. Even now we are still looking for life on Mars, the NASA probes. I think WOTW has endured because of the link with Mars, and it was so compelling in predicting the terrible mechanized wars of the 20th century, and because it’s still a great read!

What's your escape plan if the Martian cylinders fall and the tripedal engines of war start marching?

Do what the artilleryman did and go hide in the storm drains or the London subways. And call Edison! Or maybe Doctor Who.

Any plans for chronicling a third Martian attack?

Not for now, but you never know. And we end up with Martians surviving on Earth after the second war!

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