The Book Festival’s Bosco Theatre is a creaking, wind-battered structure temporarily erected on George Street to ease some of the burden placed on the grounds of Charlotte Square during August. It is a venue more suited to hosting music or stand-up comedy than low-key author interviews, and exterior noise constantly assailing the theatre from nearby generators, drunken revellers and inclement weather frequently threatens to drown out the featured speakers. This is a particular issue with an author as softly spoken as science fiction luminary Stephen Baxter, but so interesting is his talk about writing The Massacre of Mankind, an authorised sequel to H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, that we in the audience are happy to strain our ears.
Ken MacLeod’s guest selection thread at this year’s Book Festival has been a welcome celebration of genre writing in a fiction programme otherwise dominated by ‘literary’ novelists, and MacLeod himself seemed genuinely excited to introduce Baxter and talk about his continuation of Wells’ classic invasion narrative. As a child, Baxter said, he’d devoured the work of classic science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, but always had a special place in his heart for Wells. Having already written an authorised sequel to the The Time Machine in 1995, Baxter felt that there were enough story threads left at the end of The War of the Worlds for him to attempt something similar.
Likening the alien invasion of Wells’ original story to Columbus’ first forays into the Americas, Baxter said that The Massacre of Mankind was largely inspired by the history of the Spanish conquistadors, those who came after the initial discovery of a new world. Drawing on supporting characters and unfinished stories from The War of the Worlds, Baxter said that his aim was to continue Wells’ often under-appreciated critique of colonialism, and to emphasise that, due to the cooling of their planet, the martians should really be treated as climate refugees.
Such multifaceted thinking is the mark of a great science fiction writer, and one of Baxter’s closing comments was a reminder of how much thought has gone into The Massacre of Mankind. The Victorians, he said, would not have been that surprised by the existence of extraterrestrials, as before the development of high-powered telescopes it was simply assumed that there must be life on other planets. Nowadays, human beings have become so used to the idea of being alone in the universe that an encounter with aliens would be far more shocking. It was a sobering and profoundly insightful thought.
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