Stephen Baxter on Continuing the Legacy of H.G. Wells


Cover detail from The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter, courtesy of Penguin Random House

No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that by now I would be sequelizing H.G. Wells once again…

The Massacre of Mankind isn’t my first foray into Wells sequels. It’s now over twenty years since I published The Time Ships (1995), a sequel to Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). I was inspired by a lingering memory from my young-reader days of being frustrated at the tantalizing ending of Wells’s great book – what happened to the Time Traveller after he left for the future a second time? In fact I spent some time looking for a sequel Wells never wrote. And as 1995 approached, the centenary of The Time Machine, it occurred to me that it would be a good moment to try my hand at my own sequel. I figured I couldn’t be the only frustrated follower of the Time Traveller, and so it proved. To write that book I heavily researched the background to Wells’s novel, and tried to carry forward the style he had deployed. But I did have Wells’s Time Traveller venturing into a future, such as featuring a different Second World War, which Wells in 1895 could not have known – but which his older self would later experience.

I came at Massacre with a quite different background. I’ve stayed in touch with the Wellsians – the international community of Wells scholars – since The Time Ships, which they received very kindly when I presented a paper on the book at an academic conference to celebrate The Time Machine in 1995. So I know a lot more about Wells now than I did 20 years ago. In fact, these days I’m a VP of the H.G. Wells Society. In 2016, for Wells’ 150th birthday, we held two events in Woking, the setting for The War of the Worlds. The first was an international conference where I was one of two keynote speakers, and the second a terrific event, an unveiling of a new statue of Wells, attended by many of his descendants, whom I got to address and meet. Given copyright changes the Wells estate didn’t have to endorse Massacre (as they had The Time Ships), but they did anyhow through good will.

Once again I’ve tried to use the literary techniques Wells deployed in his original. I have a narrator who lives through the events of a new invasion, writing with a historical perspective some years after the events. I’ve developed my sequel from the deeper themes in Wells’s book – essentially mankind’s new place in a crowded and complex cosmos. But it’s also informed by the World War I centenary years we’re going through. Wells’s book famously contains prophecies, or warnings, of the great mechanized wars of the twentieth century – and there are occasional hints of an awareness of contemporary tensions between Britain and Germany – and my sequel features a different, post-Martian Great War.

But, studying the book, I was struck how carefully a very young Wells had also predicted another horror of our age: shell shock – even though the term itself would not be coined and medically defined until 1916, twenty years after Wells’s novel was published. He rewrote his book through several drafts, in fact, bringing out the effects of that condition on his narrator. And again I followed that up

Massacre was hugely enjoyable to work on, with fascinating research leading up to an Art Deco orgy of Martian destruction around the planet. I did largely try to send the Martians to locations I’ve actually visited, such as Melbourne and Berlin – and that is why, in traditional invasion-movie fashion, the Martian cylinders had to fall on Manhattan …