By Matthew Kresal
“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
"No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own..."
With those two lines, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells launched two seemingly immortal literary creations: the great detective Sherlock Holmes for Doyle and The War of the Worlds for Wells. Indeed, as Alex Wallace noted in 2020, H.G. Wells' seminal tale of Martian invasion has proven rich ground for alternate history writers. Alternate history writers have also brought the two together, with among them being the British author Eric Brown with his 2020 Holmes pastiche The Martian Menace, published as part of Titan Book The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes range.
Not that Brown is the first author to have combined the two. Manly Wade Wellman and his son Wade penned a number of short stories on the same theme in the 1970s, eventually collected in 1975's Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds (itself reprinted as part of the same Titan range in 2009). Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill brought together elements of both in their comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Even this reviewer must admit to giving in to the temptation, having penned the 2017 story Holmes Under Foot (free to read on Vocal's Futurism) imagining the great detective and one of the former Baker Street Irregulars in London during Wells invasion. So what does Brown bring to the concept?
It's worth mentioning that this isn't even the first time Brown has explored this territory. Indeed, the first 27 pages of the novel reprint his short story The Tragic Affair of the Martian Ambassador from the 2011 Encounters of Sherlock Holmes anthology. Something that, at first, might appear an exercise in padding, but sets up the novel that follows as Holmes and the trusty Dr. John Watson investigate the death of the titular envoy a decade on from the events of Wells novel and a few years into the second coming of the Martians, this time more peacefully. The earlier invasion, blamed on a defeated and militaristic faction, has given way to cooperation and a more benevolent presence, though still something of an occupation. This opening section is the closest to Doyle, with the pair investigating the death, its circumstances, and coming into contact with Wells (working as a scientific attaché of sorts at the embassy, his writing failing to take off in a world where the invasion took place) and a young woman whom Wells came to know in real-life around the same time. The story is a deft piece of work, neatly combining the two with hints of steampunk while remaining indisputably a Holmes pastiche.
What follows, and takes up the remaining 300 plus pages, moves events to 1912, and it's here that Brown's narrative moves away from Doyle. Holmes and Watson receive an invite to come to the Red Planet, ostensibly to investigate the death of an esteemed Martian philosopher. The trip, and Watson's encounter with anti-Martian activist Miss Freya Hadfield-Bell, instead open their eyes to a new threat. What the Martians could not take in those last years of the nineteenth century by force, they are now taking by stealth and substitution, resisted by a faction of Martians and humans in the know. Thus, Brown combines two different strands of alien invasion fiction: the overt invasions of works like War of the Worlds or Independence Day and the subtle, insidious infiltrations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the 1990s TV series Dark Skies.
By doing so, Brown does several things that Alex Wallace noted in his 2020 article. First and foremost, it works on the story axis of "time and scale," exploring what the world in the aftermath of the invasion might have been like, albeit with the further twists of providing an additional alternative based on the Holmesian canon. It allows Brown, for instance, to invoke the trope of featuring Wells as a supporting character, as is one of his lovers, though with the twist that this Wells does not become the writer of note he became in our version of history. It also allows the inclusion of other real-life figures such as G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw to feature as supporting characters or referencing numerous real-life figures who figure in the Martian plans, for example.
Beyond that, The Martian Menace invokes other tropes Wallace identified. While the version of Mars, its cities, and its inhabitants are by no means taken directly from the pages of Edgar Rice Burroughs or other pulp writers, the depictions of them here owe more to them than to Wells. In addition to Wells, there are references to other works both by Wells and Doyle, including the appearance of Professor George Challenger. Brown also expands on Wells theme of imperialism, with members of the anti-Martian resistance comparing the occupation of countries like Britain and America to those nations earlier efforts in Africa and Asia, with the very movement being an anti-colonial one. Familiar tropes, as Wallace noted, given some new variations here.
All of that leads to the most sizable defect that The Martian Invasion has as a novel. Namely, for a Holmes pastiche, it doesn't feel much like a Holmesian tale. Yes, it features the characters and is narrated in the first person by Watson in the Doyle style, but beyond the opening reprint and the inclusion of a particular aspect of the canon toward the end, the novel could just as easily be a steampunk adventure novel featuring entirely different characters. While Holmes's fountain of knowledge and ability to disguise himself comes into play, there is little deduction and detection in the remaining 300 odd pages. Perhaps it's a matter of expectations, but whereas authors like Nicholas Meyer and Loren D. Estleman made Holmes fit into encounters with the Phantom of the Opera and Dracula inside recognizably Holmes tales, that isn't something Brown seems keen on doing here.
Instead, The Martian Menace is a thriller, one featuring Holmes and Watson in a sequel to The War of the Worlds. As such, it's a perfectly readable novel. Though it isn't perhaps as strong as it ought to have been, giving the elements Brown puts into play with, nor with the page count on hand.