Stephen Baxter Meet the Author


Stephen Baxter

James Naughtie talks to Stephen Baxter who has taken on the grand task of writing a sequel HG Wells's classic story The War of the Worlds.


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Now it is time to speak to Steven Baxter, who has taken on the huge

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task of taking on a sequel to HG Wells' War of the Worlds.

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You have to be brave to write a sequel to a novel by HG Wells,

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But Stephen Baxter has done it for the second time.

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Having taken on the story of the Time Machine more than

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20 years ago, he has now written The Massacre of Mankind,

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which is the story of the return of the Martians

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after their defeat in Wells's classic story,

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Stephen Baxter, maths and physics teacher turned author is one

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of our best-known science-fiction authors with more than 40 books to

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his name has also collaborated with Arthur C Clarke, no less,

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Now he takes on one of his biggest challenges.

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Well, they always intended to, I think.

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The first expedition, as we know, failed.

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There is so much they didn't anticipate - the bacteria on the

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They didn't anticipate resistance, I don't believe.

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We did manage to down a few artillery shells and so forth.

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Didn't really expect the conditions of the Earth.

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Wells says they were baffled by seeing ships in the sea,

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I think the first expedition was like Columbus.

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He gets over the Atlantic and has no idea where he is or what he is

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What followed that is the conquistadors, more purposeful

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and they know what they want and how to get it as well.

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So it is a story not just of fear on Earth, the sense

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of impending doom, it is the story of mutual incomprehension.

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Rather like the story of the Americas, I guess.

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But the Martians are on a kind of different

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They treat us as livestock, basically.

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Awkward livestock that is liable to attack

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you if you're not careful but livestock.

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As with animals, they are loyal to each other, they come back

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to each other and save each other when they are wounded and so forth

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and what they are trying to do is save the race from a catastrophe

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You talk in terms of Wells in terms of enormous respect,

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obviously, but a kind of affection for his vision.

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Well, he was the father of science fiction, I think

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If he had done nothing else that would have been massively

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But he did all sorts of other things.

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He was a big figure in the world and I

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think after his death we've rather forgotten that.

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He was a massive public figure all the way through to

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Very popular in the First World War, accounts of

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the true condition of life in the trenches and so on.

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And I think his life's work in a way was crystallised by his work

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on the Declaration of the Rights of Man, his work on that

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He was a famous idealist but in his great science-fiction books,

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the Time Machine, War of the Worlds, which was published just before

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the turn-of-the-century in the 1890s,

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he was doing something that really hadn't been done before.

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Trying to imagine the world in a way nobody

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There had been visions of journeys to other planets but nothing

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as rigorous and scientifically thought out as Wells.

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He used the logic of the time, which was the sun was cooling down

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and the further from the sun a planet was, the older it was.

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It is locked in an ice age and the Martians have had to reduce

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themselves to a kind of minimal, bunker like existence to cling

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That's one of the fascinating things that emerges in your own story,

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The Massacre of Mankind, the sympathy for, as it were,

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I think we, the readers, who aren't under the feet of the

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Martians, can see glimmers of sympathy for them.

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As I say, they are loyal to each other.

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The way you talk about the story and the

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Martians is interesting because you've written dozens of

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science-fiction stories of your own but it's almost

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as if you're coming back to the motherload of

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The fascination that we have with Mars

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is the archetypal fascination with the other.

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In the telescopic age Mars was the only world whose surface

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you can see apart from the moon, which was obviously dead,

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so you could project your fantasies on it.

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All the way through to the 1960s, actually, when the first space

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probes went past and it was much more like the moon as it turns out.

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Now we believe life of some kind might be up there.

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You talk about projecting our fantasies.

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Is that really what science-fiction is about?

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Well, I think you could say that science-fiction is about...

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It's not about the future or in other words

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it's about the here and now, predicting our concerns, in a way.

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So with Wells and War of the Worlds he was reflecting late Victorian

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angst about imperialism and colonialism and the damage it can do

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to the colonial conscience, for one thing.

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Now I think we could look at it as a metaphor for climate change.

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You know, the Martians' planet has collapsed in a terrible way and

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migrants, heavily armed migrants come to the Earth.

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What is it that gives this story such a grip?

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The fear that lurks inside all of us in some way?

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I think it works on many levels and as a myth you can take out of it

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The sense of the universe as evolving

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around us, not necessarily to our liking and we have to adapt.

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In other words, in every age there is some threat that

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And horrific. Yes.

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As I mentioned earlier, you have collaborated with some

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extraordinary authors and Arthur C Clarke comes to mind.

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A name who is known to people who are not necessarily

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science-fiction addicts as somebody who could imagine the unimaginable.

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What was he like when you communicated with him and talked to

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Yeah, he was in his 80s when I was working.

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Much of what he predicted, logically, had worked out.

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What I asked him about specifically was about space flight,

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how come we don't have places on Mars now, as predicted.

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He said no, because so much of what has

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The robot probes to Jupiter and beyond.

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He set novels out there late in life.

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So he never got tired of that curious search for the next thing

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He was always open to curiosity, to new influences.

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He read the latest SF, like mine, and stayed

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Let's go back finally to the Martians themselves.

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When we've finished this book, what do you want us to think

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I think the lesson we have to learn from the Martians

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is what the characters are working for at the end of the book

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and, indeed, at the end of War of the Worlds.

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In a way the specific nature of the Martians and their

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It is the way they represent the wider context of our future.

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That is the specific story and you have to take it away.

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Rather than Columbus and what he did, his journey emphasised

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So I think it's the universalisation of

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mankind of what you need to take away.

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I would probably be the running fast the other way.

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If I could watch from a height maybe, yes.

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Good evening. It is very quiet weather across the UK at the moment

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because of high pressure but that said, we've got

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James Naughtie talks to Stephen Baxter who has taken on the grand task of writing a sequel HG Wells's classic story The War of the Worlds. The Massacre of Mankind sees the Martians return to earth 14 years after their first invasion.


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