Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
November 2017

Title: The Massacre of Mankind
Author: Stephen Baxter
Publisher: Crown

Moshe Feder, in reviewing Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships (1995), a sequel to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), wondered whether there was a term to describe a sequel that one author writes to another’s work, and coined a wonderfully apt phrase for that purpose: the “tributary sequel.” Fast forward two decades to Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind (2017), and once again we have a Wellsian tributary sequel at hand, this time following on from H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897). The Time Ships was a remarkable achievement, praised enthusiastically by reviewers and readers upon publication, with Feder himself calling it “one of the finest of that kind ever done” and “worthy of the original.” Has Baxter managed that stupendous feat a second time?

A careful reading of his novel suggests he may not have set out to. While The Time Ships introduced a plethora of cutting-edge scientific concepts and a marvelously cosmic expansion of the original’s scope, The Massacre of Mankind adheres much more closely to the ideas and scale of The War of the Worlds. It is a near-future, planetary-bound account written in unassuming prose. After a few chapters of stage-setting, Baxter unleashes a second great Martian Invasion in 1920 (in relation to the first’s 1907). Besides some technological advances, the novel’s only real concessions to modernity may be its nods to Freud and its depiction of the original account’s narrator—previously unnamed, now Walter Jenkins—as “unreliable.” This allows Baxter maneuvering room to reveal depths in Wells’s story, previously only implied, and to develop the psychology of the characters Jenkins portrayed more realistically than Wells did, attributing their simplicities to Jenkins’s rather than Wells’s myopia.

The plot of Wells’s original story can be summarized thus: the Martians came, they conquered, and were vanquished by Earth germs. Its significance resides not in this plot but in its themes and its then-innovative application of mock reportage to chronicle far-out events. Regarding the former, the text itself neatly encapsulates one of its primary concerns by telling us that “our views of the modern future must be greatly modified.” In other words, we must reconsider our place in the scheme of things. Wells himself described his early scientific romances as “an assault on human self-satisfaction.” Robert Crossley, in his insightful and concise book-length study (1986), refers to the War of the Worlds’s emphasis on “a Darwinian consciousness of finitude, transience, and the uncertainty of survival” (p. 9), speculates that it may be Wells’s “most relentlessly Swiftian castigation of human sentimentalism” (p. 18) and concludes that “in the end, the romance is about demoralization” (p. 49). Regarding the manner of its telling, Crossley notes that “Wells’s fiction has a distinctive style that grows out of his determination to seek and present the reality lodged within fantastic occurrences” (p. 17) and elsewhere refers to this as “a pseudo-documentary technique” (p. 61). Joseph Conrad captured this notion beautifully when he called Wells’s “O Realist of the Fantastic.”

Baxter’s chronicle shows us how Jenkins—and others—have profited from their accounts of the War, while also suffering from what we might call PTSD. The leftover Martian cylinders are studied and history is altered from what we know in all sorts of interesting ways (for example, the Titanic, reinforced with Martian-grade aluminum, is “almost wrecked”), while England becomes a Germany-allied, incipiently totalitarian state, heavily propagandistic and ready for war.

The protagonist of The Massacre of Mankind (incidentally, a phrase that appears in Wells’s original, and pleasingly mirrors the original novel’s alliteration) is the no-nonsense suffragette journalist Julie Elphinstone, ex-wife to Walter Jenkins’s younger brother Frank. Through her eyes we see how the first War has left deep scars on England’s psyche and how it has radicalized its politics. She herself becomes a central plot element during the second War, though I won’t spoil the particulars. Her narration is mostly detached but believably human—at one point, for instance, she comically exhorts herself to be more analytical. Despite the several hundred pages we spend in her viewpoint, however, she fails to become a memorable character. Some of the secondary characters tend to steal the show, though often (e.g. Book III, Chapter 8) the resolutions of their arcs are anticlimactic. Then too Julie foreshadows the eventual turn of events too heavily and far too soon, and then absurdly withholds it from the reader (Book II, Chapter 5) while sharing it with another character so we can be kept in “suspense” for another hundred or so pages. Since the main dramatic tension has already been deflated by our knowledge that Julie will survive to piece together the chronicle we’re reading, this additional switch-and-bait feels gratuitous and at odds with some of Baxter’s other more thoughtful choices. It also segues into a series of unfortunate chapters, set in various world locales and introducing a whole new cast of perforce perfunctory characters, that do little to up the stakes or engage our interest. Things do pick up at the end, with a clever coda that returns us to the central Wellsian demoralization.

Throughout its 450+ pages, Baxter demonstrates a staggering knowledge not only of Wells’s novel but of its attempted continuations by other hands and its critical exegeses over the years. His smooth integration of these elements into his story is to be commended, as is his imaginative discipline in extrapolating from Wells’s outdated science in a way that is believably wrong. There are countless nods to other historical characters, and as is often the case in such affairs, allusions to Wells himself as a character. There is no questioning Baxter’s deep affection for the source material on which he’s riffing, nor the insight with which he’s internalized its effects on our own literary history. And he stays true, with some expected embellishments, to Wells’s themes and journalistic approach.

Perhaps this ambition to replicate Wells points to one of the book’s risks. Unlike The Time Ships, a tributary sequel that sprang up vertically through the aeons and toyed with vast ideas far beyond Wells’s, Baxter has here produced a horizontal tributary sequel that placidly flows alongside the first. He’s essentially written a book not of our time, but of Wells’s time, deliberately and lovingly anachronistic. The skill of this retro-faithful approach is perhaps the novel’s most intriguing feature. Whether it will be enough to carry the ordinary reader through its incident-laden plot and panoply of lightly-developed characters will depend on the reader’s penchant for built-in obsolescence.

Title: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017
Editor: Charles Yu
Series Editor: John Joseph Adams
Publisher: Mariner Books

If you enjoyed the first volume in this series, or the second one, you’ll want to pick up this one too. Its overall quality is just as high. While each volume-specific editor has left his or her own unique imprint on that year’s offering, John Joseph Adams curates the initial eighty stories from which the final twenty are chosen, so there’s a consistent commitment to excellence built in to the premise of this editorial process. And by consistency I don’t mean sameness: Adams searches far and wide, in and out of genre, to come up with diverse stories that do different things in various impressive ways. Charles Yu, in this case, has then filtered this wide-ranging material to a smaller subset of still wide-ranging material which is now nevertheless more aesthetically and thematically linked. Karen Joy Fowler’s selections in last year’s book tended toward the oblique and formally experimental; Yu also appears to relish textual games, though on the whole the stories he has selected, despite the cleverness of their approaches, tend to be more immediately accessible and overtly concerned with contemporary issues. One might say that Fowler cherishes the artful ellipsis, while Yu allies himself more with the exclamation mark—as long, that is, as it’s been reflected in a funhouse mirror.

As I did last year, I’ll begin with my five favorites, stories on whose strength alone I think the anthology recommends itself. A. Merc Rustad’s “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door” is a poignant, lovely tale that illuminates how maintaining continuity with ourselves as we age involves maintaining a connection with the fantasy worlds we visited when we were at our most impressionable. The cost of severing such links is devastatingly high. (The theme of personalized portal worlds appears again in Jeremiah Tolbert’s heartfelt “Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass,” which eloquently asks whether the distance between where we think we want to be and where we are is as large as we imagine). “The Future Is Blue” by Catherynne M. Valente creates a vividly realized, fully lived-in post-floods world through engrossing sensory detail and allusive specificity; Valente’s tonal virtuosity, and her proclivity for linguistic and cultural inventiveness, serve this hard-hitting chronicle about the most hated girl in Garbagetown, and why she bears that title, extremely well. Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0” made me both groan and laugh out loud. Constructed as a viciously inward-spiraling choose-your-own adventure, it explores future medical treatment and coverage with savage, unrepentant mordacity: “In the clinic, as in life, decisions that seem important are often ultimately meaningless.” Dale Bailey’s “Teenagers from Outer Space” is a complex meditation on the warts of history and how an unflinching gaze at our circumstances may push us utterly, irrevocably beyond them. Finally, Brian Evenson’s chilling “Smear,” deceptively simple in its telling, is notable for being composed of almost as many questions as it is statements; various layers of uncertainty—perceptual, ontological, metaphysical—become embedded in an unforgettable image related to a crewmember accidentally roused from cryonic sleep and build to a striking final line.

Other stories that struck a chord with this reader include Greg van Eekhout’s “On the Fringes of the Fractal”, which satirically—and Socratically—pierces the bubble of contemporary societal homogenization, championing the uniqueness of stains in an otherwise perfect system; Dale Bailey’s “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” which expertly transitions from factual recapitulation to explosively intimate confessional; Alexander Weinstein’s melancholy “Openness,” which pitches security against intimacy and shows how both may become losers in such a conflict; and Debbie Urbanski’s unsettling tale of immigration gone wrong, but not in the way you might think, in “When They Came to Us,” a kind of masterfully deadpan and subtle upgrade on that classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

My selections may admittedly place me at odds with many readers. N. K. Jemisin’s Hugo- and Locus-finalist “The City Born Great” is told with great vigor, and literalizes a powerful metaphor, while Joseph Allen Hill’s meta-(meta?) fictional “The Venus Effect,, also popular online, cuts to the quick with its recurrent and unavoidable tragic outcome of racial violence, illustrating not only current injustices but the very shortcomings of the literary tropes we often deploy to alternately escape or nominally explore such injustices. I admire these stories, but they didn’t grab me in the same way some others did; you may find your experience diametrically opposed to mine, and more power to you. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that there’s strong work here by Alica Sola Kim, Nisi Shawl, Peter S. Beagle, Nick Wolven, Leigh Bardugo, Helena Bell, Genevieve Valentine and E. Lily Yu, many of whom I’ve praised elsewhere (and some of whom I’m grateful to have encountered for the first time in this volume). I suppose most readers these days aren’t easily offended, but I think it’s worth mentioning that many of this year’s stories trade in strong language and graphic imagery. Fortunately, the way they’ve been arranged prevents the kind of desensitization that might otherwise begin to set in. So read out of order at your own peril—but know you’ll be rewarded whatever course you follow.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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