Mars attacks – 1920 style

I recently read Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind, the official sequel to H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Illustration for War of the Worlds by Warwick Goble, 1897, for Pearson’s Magazine (Public domain, via Wikipedia).

Back in the day there were a fair number of unofficial sequels to Wells’ classic – mostly involving the intrepid Brits inventing spacecraft and heading off to Mars to give those rotten old Martians a jolly bit of what-oh. Teach you to attack the top dog in the solar system, by jingo! Yorker! And, of course, the intrepid adventurers – smoke still drifting from the muzzles of their ray-Enfields, would be home in time for tea. (A while back I happened to be in Weta Workshop’s store, the Weta Cave, and spotted such a thing – a Grordbort Pomson 6000, wonderfully made in resin, metal and so forth, but figured that if I was going to spend $1000 on a ray gun, I’d want one that actually worked…)

What most of the period sequels to The War of the Worlds missed was that Wells was engaging in social commentary, principally the Battle of the Shangani river of October 1893, where a small British force used five Maxim guns to slaughter about 1500 spear-wielding Matabele out of 6000. A week later, 6000 more Matabele attacked another British Maxim-gun armed force, this time with a loss of 2000. Even in the age of social-military imperialism, that was too much; commentators erupted across Europe about the injustice. Hilaire Belloc summed it up in The Modern Traveller: ‘Whatever happens/we have got/the Maxim gun/And they have not.’

Into this jumped Wells, who wondered what might happen if a superior technology decided to stomp across London. The resulting novel was quite short and a scathing social commentary about the nature of British imperialism of the day.

The sequel is far longer. Baxter is an exceptional author. The resulting book carries a sly commentary on modern trends, coupled with a pretty good rendition of 1920s society on both sides of the Atlantic. Baxter’s also added a kind of scientific gloss to the heat ray, an infra-red laser, which he quite correctly describes as looking like a camera. I don’t think the energy delivery he’s depicting is physically possible – he was portraying the heat ray as being capable of swatting down incoming shells, implying an amazingly high flux – but hey… Plus side is that he’s faithfully used the ‘solar system as imagined in 1900’ model for the setting – you know, watery primitive Venus, desert ancient Mars and so on. I won’t add spoilers other than to point out that his early twentieth century portrays a fascist world – a ‘what if’ where the Martian invasion tripped Britain into a George Orwell-style police dictatorship.

Something like this (minus the Martians) nearly happened in any event – we forget how close the world came, during the First World War and certainly in the two decades afterwards – to being dominated by totalitarian dictatorships, variously of the fascist and communist flavours. Democracy was definitely on the back foot.

The other thing that stuck out about Baxter’s sequel – or maybe it’s just me – is that a few years back a Canadian company produced The Great Martian War, a mockumentary in the style of the BBC’s The World At War (1973), which riffed on Wells’ ideas but portrayed an invasion in 1913 in which humans finally fought back with First World War technologies – early tanks, biplanes and so forth. It was presented with ‘interviews’ from ‘combatants’, CGI effects mixed with genuine 1914-18 footage, and some reconstructions.

Reading Baxter’s descriptions of 1920-22 military technology – which was that of the late First World War and included a 100-foot long tricycle tank that had actually been on the drawing board – all I could think of was the mockumentary. Here’s the trailer:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018