Collections of short stories are a mainstay of science fiction; they come in many guises; year’s bests, newcomers, stories based on a theme (apocalyptic, military SF etc), translations and anthologies inspired by past greats.
This collection of stories falls into the last category as all stories are inspired by H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and, more specifically, how the events of that book affected life in Britain, at the turn of the 20th Century, after the failure of the Martian invasion.
War of the Worlds arose from a discussion Wells had with his brother Frank about the impact of British imperialism on indigenous Tasmanians. Invasion literature was popular at the time and Wells work can be seen as a commentary on evolutionary theory (Wells was taught by T.H. Huxley, a major advocate of Darwinism), British Imperialism and Victorian fears and prejudices.
Ian Edginton, the editor of this collection, was attracted by the lack of hero in the original book. The protagonist was an unnamed ‘everyman’. As Edginton points out, the protagonist ‘had a day job’.
Edginton has previously written a comic book, called Scarlet Traces, in which Martian technology was ‘reverse engineered’ to serve the British Empire.
The first story is by Stephen Baxter, whose own book ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ was released in 2017 as a sequel to War of the Worlds. Baxter’s story is entitled ‘Going up the blue’, which is a reference to the blue gel that soldiers are immersed in to protect them and provide oxygen in flight to Mars. The British Empire is taking the fight to Mars in a show of jingoism and hubris. The main protagonists are two women, Diane Simms and Bea Currie; the viewpoint switches between Operation Stumps, a battle with the Martians and a future in which the outcome of the battle is examined and a sinister secret revealed.
‘Something sweet in the superstitions’ by I.N.J. Culbard is a well constructed tale of an American door-to-door salesman hawking knock-off Martian technology. Trying to escape his past he seems only to succeed in losing his pride.
‘The Martian Waste Land’ by Adam Roberts features T.S Eliot, who is told by the government that he is in demand with the Martians. He is also told that his modernist poetry could literally be lethal to the Martians and is asked to carry out a recital for the greater good of the Empire. However, there is a case of mistaken identity. Roberts story is farcical and funny.
Emma Beeby is a comic-book writer and author. Her story, ‘The Menagerie’ is an exciting tale about a young Scottish girl, Coira and her toddler brother, Brodie. Their parents run a pub and are fighting English oppression of Scotland at night. Coira has made toys and other gadgets out of found Martian technology, some of it still dangerous. Coira’s relationship with her little brother is touching. Beeby crams in a lot of action in a limited environment.
‘Voice for a Generation’ by Nathan Duck, takes as it’s theme the Martian invasion of Venus that was hinted at in War of the Worlds. Wilf is a Venusian boy whose family of refugees is living in Birmingham in 1967. Wilf and his family experience prejudice and racism. Wilf also feels stifled by the expectations of his family which severely limit his ambitions. This has the feel of a 1960’s ‘kitchen sink’ drama.
Mark Morris’ ‘Spitting Blood’ is a gothic horror featuring ‘Dune’ like giant worms as well as flesh-eating zombies.
‘The Mechanical Marionette Mob’ by Maura McHugh (that’s some serious alliteration!) tells the story of Belsa who operates a mechanical puppet show with her associate Waldo. Belsa is highly talented in the use of Martian technology for making robots and prosthetic limbs. Waldo’s respect and love for Belsa is, he feels, not reciprocated. Belsa is approached by a lady called Gisela and her associate Eldon who wishes to get Belsa’s help in making life-like robots as playthings for rich clients. Belsa refuses and both she and Waldo are put in mortal danger. As well as War of the Worlds, this story also takes in the vivisectionist themes of Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. This is a multi-faceted and absorbing story.
This is a good collection of stories in which the writers have clearly had fun and addressed issues that might have followed the Martian invasion of Britain. Many of the themes still seem current, such as alienation caused by modern technology, discrimination and fear of outsiders. This is a recommended read.
Scarlet Traces is released by Abaddon Books in September.