Sunday, April 26, 2009
The end of the world as they knew it
I've never been much of a fan of American science fiction, either in books or films - I always found it somewhat uninvolving and distant (and, of course, there's the fact STAR WARS put a stake through the heart of what up-to-then had been the golden age of American cinema). Nothing snobbish about it though. I can recognize when it's well done. I just don't respond to it on a personal level.
British science fiction, on the other hand, fascinates me, especially the socially conscious apocalyptic fiction that sprang up in the immediate post-WWII era. I've always had a fondness for that subgenre, one I revisited on my recent sojourn to points south, when I found and read an original Fawcett paperback edition of John Christopher's 1962 novel THE LONG WINTER.
Christopher (at right) – in reality Samuel Youd, a prolific British author who produced some 70 books under different names – is probably best known for his "Tripods" series of Young Adult novels, published from the late 1960s on, about alien oppressors and the youthful resistance movement that springs up to battle them. But beginning in the 1950s, Christopher was responsible for a handful of extraordinary post-apocalyptic adult novels, including THE DEATH OF GRASS (filmed in 1970 as NO BLADE OF GRASS), THE RAGGED EDGE (aka A WRINKLE IN THE SKIN) and THE LONG WINTER (originally published as THE WORLD IN WINTER).
THE WORLD IN WINTER deals with the aftereffects of a new ice age gripping Europe - the "Fratellini Winter," named after the scientist that first predicted it. Some expected results follow - there's a mass exodus from the continent, lawlessness breaks out, and London and environs are taken over by the military. But where Christopher takes the story from there is what makes it compelling. His hero, television news producer Andrew Leedon, flees London to the warmer climes of Nigeria, which is gradually being overrun by European - particularly British - refugees. What follows is a reversal of British colonial history, as whites become the despised underclass, relegated to slums and considered fit only for menial and domestic work - or as prostitutes. Leedon eventually returns to England in an armed Hovercraft expedition with a young Nigerian journalist who's given him an opportunity to better himself. What they find is a ragtag-but-determined band of survivors living in the frozen cities, brutally ruled over by a former Home Office staffer and friend of Leedon's.
Post-apocalyptic novels are nothing new in British literature. Stephen King often cites M.P. Shiel's 1901 novel THE PURPLE CLOUD as an influence on THE STAND, and Mary Shelley's post-FRANKENSTEIN novel THE LAST MAN (1826), might be the very first book in that subgenre. They certainly aren't relegated to the Brits alone either - American George R. Stewart's 1949 novel EARTH ABIDES is a cornerstone of the genre, as is Pat Frank's 1959 ALAS, BABYLON. But the Brits always seemed to do it better, or at least take it more seriously. That might be the result of the ravages they suffered during World War II, when nightly bombing leveled whole city blocks, and wartime rationing made daily living difficult - not to mention the constant threat of Nazi invasion. Add the burgeoning Cold War and fear of nuclear catastrophe, and the stage was set for some grim and startling - and at the same time deeply-felt - works of imagination.
Christopher's chief rival in this fertile period was John Wyndham, right, best known for 1951's THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS and 1957's THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, which became the classic film VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The influence of TRIFFIDS and other Brit post-apocalyptic fiction is evident in Danny Boyle's film 28 DAYS LATER ... (top image) which borrows ideas and situations from Wyndham's novels as a sort of homage (not to mention the debt it owes to the films of George A. Romero). In 2005, BBC Four produced a documentary about Wyndham, which is linked here. One of the interviewees is Christopher/Youd, who talks about his friend and fellow writer.
Christopher and Wyndham's works drift in and out of print, but they remain the best novels of their kind - frightening, thought-provoking and all-too-believable.