About The Author
Stephen Baxter is the pre-eminent SF writer of his generation. Published around the world, he has won awards in the UK, US, Germany and Japan. He has written more than 20 novels, published in more than 20 languages and has recently written the 'The Long Earth' novels with Terry Pratchett.
His latest book, The Massacre of Mankind, is the authorised sequel to H G Wells' classic The War of the Worlds in which the Martians have returned to finish the war...
Exclusively for Foyles we talked to Stephen about the first time he encountered H G Wells, playing with history and why he chose to have a female narrator.
Questions & Answers
Do you remember the first time you read The War of the Worlds?
I do remember watching the 1950s movie on Saturday afternoon TV as a kid in the 1960s – my first exposure to Wells. And I’m pretty sure I first read The War of the Worlds aged about 12, in 1970, in my school library. To which somebody had donated a wonderful set of old SF Book Club hardbacks, everything from Asimov and Clarke to van Vogt and Wells, my imprinting on written SF.
How did this project come about, and how long did the novel take to write?
I could say it took about 25 years! Or nearly 50, maybe. As a kid I’d always been frustrated by the open ending of The Time Machine – what happens to the Time Traveller when he goes off to the future a second time? I spent some time looking for a sequel Wells never wrote. And so I wrote my own, The Time Ships, published in 1995 for the book’s 100th anniversary. That was commissioned by my then editor Malcolm Edwards, and we discussed more sequels then. And more recently it was Malcolm who suggested doing the War of the Worlds sequel about now – Wells’s 150th birthday was last year, the book itself is 120 years old, it’s the 100th anniversary of the First World War . . . I started working on it over three years ago, but all my book projects are long and overlap.
Given the iconic status of The War of the Worlds did you find the project daunting?
Less so than The Time Ships for me because I’ve stayed in touch with Wells studies since then – I’m a VP of the HG Wells Society now. So I think I understand Wells better, have access to better sources of material – like early drafts of The War of the Worlds. I did my best to develop the sequel mostly from the themes and ideas in the original, as Wells composed it. It’s most daunting when the book is released and I wait for the reviews!
There are lots of historic events that have been slightly altered in the book, was it fun playing with history when constructing the novel?
Yep, and I thought it was essential. Wells’s narrator thought human destiny would be transformed, and so it is in the long term, but really I thought that in the short term the sensation of what was a localised event would fade quickly. Wells hints at tensions with Germany in The War of the Worlds, and so a different kind of World War I plays out. It was fun pitching zeppelins and tanks against the Martians, though.
I have always thought that science fiction is the best way to provide a social commentary. What do you think H G Wells was trying to say about his world when he wrote The War of the Worlds?
I think he was pointing out how limited a view most people have of the cosmos. We think we’re lords of creation; we’re living on a mote in infinity out of which unimaginable perils can wipe us out. He was making the same kind of point in The Time Machine. In a number of his novels, like In the Days of the Comet, he imagined some epochal disaster shaking us up and causing us to found a new, better society. Which is what the narrator hopes for at the end of his book. But his lasting prophecy was of course about mechanised warfare, the sheer horror of unleashing advanced technology on a helpless civilian population – the speed, the scale of the destruction. The Martian attack was more like World War Two in a way, rather than the first war.
Why did you choose a female narrator for this novel?
Wells’s narrator was a shell-shocked, wounded survivor; he was an interesting figure but would have been a very flawed narrator. Whereas Miss Elphinstone, as she is called in The War of the Worlds – she got away on the Thunder Child – was only a minor character but quite a vivid one, fighting off bandits on the road out of London. Also much younger than Wells’s narrator. And as a woman she comes up against the prejudices of a society that turns reactionary in adversity – the suffragettes are outlawed, for instance. So she has a good story of her own.
Are there any other books, given the opportunity that you would like to write a sequel to? Are there any authors you could imagine penning a follow up to any of your works?
I’d like to try a sequel to Stapledon’s The Star Maker! A saga of infinite cosmoses – how do you follow that? As for sequels to my own stuff, I’d rather see a good movie or comic adaptation I think – an imaginative reworking of the ideas.