Category Archives: Post-apocalypse

Post Christmas round-up

I read a few books over Christmas and in the run-up to New Year that I didn’t get a chance to write a post about. Going into 2018 that gives me a backlog of about six books, which is a little oppressive so while the books deserve better I’m going to cover a few of them off in a single post.

No Dominion, by Louise Welsh

This is the third of Louise Welsh’s plague times trilogy. I wrote about the first and second novels in the series here and here.

No Dominion opens a few years after the events of the first two novels and their protagonists Stevie Flint and Magnus McFall are now part of a community of survivors living in the Orkney islands. Stevie is their mayor and Magnus has become the adoptive father of one of the child survivors, now an adolescent.

The adults have tried to shield the children from the full horrors of what the world became as it fell, and unfortunately have succeeded a little too well. When strangers come to the island they don’t have to work too hard to lure several of the children away with them to the mainland. Stevie and Magnus have to team up and brave the dangers of the post-apocalypse world to attempt a rescue.

As ever there’s lots of good set-pieces here and Welsh’s view of the new societies being thrown up after the loss of our own is persuasive. There’s a feudal set-up; a small community of religious fanatics; and a resurgent Glasgow where a self-styled Provost has set the city partly back on its feet but where his methods have sparked increasing local resistance.

‘Provost Bream is an exceptional man, charismatic, single-minded. He’s determined to get things up and running again and he won’t allow a little squeamishness to get in the way. We might not agree with his methods, but we have to accept that he has a point. The world was always unfair. Since the Sweats, divisions have simply become a little starker.’

The downside is that the plot is heavily coincidence-driven. Stevie and Magnus aren’t particularly well equipped to survive what they encounter and at least twice only do so because they happen to turn up just as the new societies they encounter are facing some kind of internal crisis. One lucky rescue I’ll accept. By the time it gets to two or three it gets a bit stretched for me.

If you’ve enjoyed the first two this is definitely worth reading. It’s good to reconnect with the characters and Welsh’s world-building is as strong as her world-tearing-downing. It’s probably the weakest of the trilogy, but it makes a fitting end to the series.

Kindle titling

By way of an aside, several publishers now put marketing blurb into the title when submitting to Amazon which the kindle software then duly transcribes as the full title of the book. It’s quite annoying and means that if you do get this on kindle it’s not simply called No Dominion, but instead actually shows up on your device with the title “No Dominion: An action-packed post-apocalyptic thriller (Plague Times Trilogy)” which seems somewhat excessive.

Similarly, Andrew Hurley’s Devil’s Day is actually titled on your device “Devil’s Day: From the Costa winning and bestselling author of The Loney”. Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach becomes “Manhattan Beach: 2017’s most anticipated book” at which point I’ll just buy it in hardcopy since seeing that on my kindle each time I open it starts to feel a bit hectoring.

The Shadow Line, by Joseph Conrad

Honestly, I read this because it’s the book that triggers the action in Carlos Maria Dominguez’s The Paper House. Having now read it I don’t think it has any particular meaning in The Paper House and was as good a novel to kick things off there as any other. Still, it’s fun and so worth reading in its own right.

This is one of Conrad’s sea yarns rather than his more psychological pieces (though there’s plenty of psychology in here). A young man takes his first command only to find his ship becalmed and his crew laid low by disease. The first mate becomes convinced they’ve been cursed by the ship’s previous captain who died a madman.

Conrad’s a marvel at describing the sea and I’ve come to really enjoy his adventure stories, even if they do lack the subtlety of the marvellous The Secret Agent. I couldn’t resist including this quote:

It was a terribly lifeless afternoon. For several days in succession low clouds had appeared in the distance, white masses with dark convolutions resting on the water, motionless, almost solid, and yet all the time changing their aspects subtly. Toward evening they vanished as a rule. But this day they awaited the setting sun, which glowed and smouldered sulkily amongst them before it sank down. The punctual and wearisome stars reappeared over our mastheads, but the air remained stagnant and oppressive.

Despite getting off to a rocky start with Conrad I’ve become something of a fan.

The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift and translated by Jamie Bulloch

What to say about this one? It’s a dark fairy-tale in which a young woman who’s recovered from an eating disorder meets an old woman in contemporary Vienna who appears to be either the Empress Sissi or to have modelled herself closely upon her.

This is a deeply disturbing novella and if you’ve ever come even near any kind of eating disorder yourself I’d advise caution before reading it. The protagonist finds herself trapped in the old woman’s world and spiralling back into bulimia and anorexia. As she observes: “Everything was all right if I was thin.”

It’s a deeply strange novella with the old woman using her captive to steal objects once belonging to the Empress from Viennese museums and it operates on a sort of terrible dream-logic. I read it while in Vienna which helped hugely in terms of getting some of the references and it’s definitely worth reading the Wikipedia page on Empress Sissi before starting.

Don’t expect this to make real-world sense. It has an internal logic but it’s the logic of madness rather than reality and this is more an exploration of obsession than an attempt to portray a realistic situation. It is very, very good but not for the faint-hearted or the weak of stomach.

[Edit: I had forgotten to link to Tony of Tony’s Reading List’s review here, which is very good and which inspired me to give this a try.]

Epitaph for a Spy, by Eric Ambler

I’ve read two previous Amblers: Uncommon Danger, and The Mask of Dmitrios. This will probably be my last for a while and in truth I chose this particular one in part as I liked the cover.

Here we have the usual hapless Ambler protagonist – Josef Vadassy – a stateless refugee living in 1930s France.  Vadassy finds himself in trouble while on holiday in the French riviera when he sends some photos to be developed only to find that due to some mix-up he’s submitted photos of coastal defences rather than his own pictures.

The nice twist here is Vadassy’s status. The police work out almost immediately that he’s not a spy, but someone is and just having those photos is itself illegal. He is sent to the small hotel at which he’s staying to discover which of his fellow guests is the real spy under threat of deportation if he fails. For Vadassy, deportation could easily mean death.

The curious thing with Ambler is how up to date his novels always seem. Here we have the backdrop of Europe on the eve of war. Vadassy has roots in Yugoslavia and Hungary and the particulars of why he has no country to call his own are of that time and those places. 80 or so years later and we still have stateless people, desperate refugees, and of course spies. Vadassy’s precarious position is one that many people would still recognise today.

In a funny way this is a bit of a classic country house crime novel. It turns out that most of the other guests at the pension have secrets to hide and Vadassy soon finds himself lost in a web of danger and deceit. Honestly it stretches credulity a bit quite how many of these people do have something going on, but the same is true for a great many cosy crime novels so I think it’s forgivable.

The hotel setting works well here and the characters are a lot of fun: a shell-shocked British major and his strangely silent wife; a pair of attractive young Americans whose account of their travels doesn’t quite add up; a hotel manager who enjoys spending time with the guests more than doing his job; an obese German couple having the time of their lives amidst it all and many more.

This is much better than the much more widely praised The Mask of Dmitrios. Vadassy is as dim as most Ambler protagonists but is sympathetic and has a good reason to actually be involved in the story. The 1930s European backdrop is great and while the range of secrets present in the hotel is literally incredible it does allow Ambler to pack a lot into a short space. Overall, recommended.

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse

Chronologically this is the second of the Jeeves’ collections, so far as I know anyway. It’s short stories but loosely tied together to create an overall narrative. Honestly, I’d read them more as short stories and space them out a bit. Wodehouse is brilliant but too many too quickly and you risk the underlying architecture showing which isn’t to their benefit.

Years back I wrote about the first Jeeves’ collection, Carry on Jeeves, which includes the story where he’s hired by Bertie. I wrote quite a bit there about how Wodehouse structures these stories and to be honest I think it’s one of the better pieces I’ve done here.

Anyway, not much else to say save that this is P.G. Wodehouse with his most glorious characters (sorry Empress and Psmith!) and a cast of: terrifying aunts; young men who mostly make up in spirit what they lack in intellect; young women who tend either to the sporty or the serious or to both; and vicars and con-men; dangerously precocious children and much more. It’s wonderful.

Others yet to come

I also read Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua and a C.P. Cavafy poetry collection but those I do hope to do individual posts for over the coming week.

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Filed under Ambler, Eric, Comic fiction, Conrad, Joseph, German, Post-apocalypse, Vienna, Welsh, Louise, Wodehouse, P.G.

It was how the place made you feel, like it was alive and biding its time before it crushed you.

Death is a Welcome Guest, by Louise Welsh

Death is a Welcome Guest is the second in Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy. It’s not so much a sequel to her first in the sequence, A Lovely Way to Burn, as a companion piece. The apocalypse unfolding from another perspective.

Death_is_a_Welcome_Guest

That perspective belongs to Magnus McFall, a stand-up comedian who as the novel opens is on the way to the gig of his life. He’s the warm-up for a popular tv comedian playing the O2 Arena in South London. Warm-up might not sound like much, but the O2 is a huge venue and any comedian who finds themselves performing there in any capacity is doing ok for themselves.

The problem is that as the first novel established the UK and much of the world is coming down with the Sweats, an influenza-like illness which is spreading rapidly and causing huge disruption. Magnus isn’t feeling too well himself as he heads to the O2, a sensation made worse when he sees someone evidently suffering from the Sweats pass out and fall under a train. Things are coming apart, he just doesn’t know yet quite how bad they’ll get.

On his way home Magnus sees a woman being attacked in an alley and goes to help. He drives off her assailant, but when more help comes they think he’s the attacker and he finds himself arrested for attempted rape. Magnus is in serious trouble. He was drunk, there’s no witnesses as to exactly what happened and the woman he saved was too drunk or sick to know what happened. He’s given a uniform marking him out as a vulnerable prisoner so the guards know not to mix him with the general population and then put in a cell to await trial. You’d think it couldn’t get much worse, but his cellmate falls seriously ill and the guards don’t seem to care. They only move Magnus when his cell mate, who’s received no medical attention, dies. Magnus gets moved, the body doesn’t. Something is very much up.

Magnus’ new cell mate, Jeb, is a quiet but violent looking man who apparently doesn’t normally share his cell with anyone. Jeb’s another vulnerable prisoner, generally a sign of a serious sex offender who other inmates might attack on the (usually correct) assumption that they’re a rapist or child molester. As the guards stop coming round Magnus and Jeb start getting hungry and realise that their cell could soon be their tomb.

The first third or so of Guest takes place in the prison and is incredibly tense (once the stage mechanics necessary to get Magnus in there while being innocent are done). It’s a bit of coincidence that Magnus ends up with another Sweats’ survivor, but not hugely so since presumably they were put together since neither was sick. Once they get out of their cell Magnus has to rely on Jeb’s prison-savvy to get out of a building expressly designed to stop people leaving and now overrun with other escaped prisoners all desperate and many dying. All this while wearing a uniform that marks Magnus out for attack by any prisoner who sees him and accompanied by a man who might well be a killer or worse.

Once they finally emerge the apocalypse is in full swing, indeed it’s mostly over. There are still soldiers trying to keep the peace and prevent looting, but not many and they’re clearly losing interest. Welsh easily evokes a devastated and empty England:

Almost all the shop windows that lined the road had been smashed. New clothes, some still on their hangers, lay scattered in heaps at the edge of the road, piled like storm-blasted seaweed at low tide. Trainers spilled from cardboard boxes inside a ransacked branch of Foot Locker and mobile phones were scattered like hand grenades outside EE Mobile. The bank sandwiched between the two plundered shops stood strangely intact, as if looters had decided they preferred solid merchandise to cash.

A nice touch here is Magnus’s own overheated imagination. He’s seen too many zombie movies and with corpses lying everywhere keeps imagining them getting up and coming after him, as if the reality weren’t bad enough. I found that stupid enough to be credible and it added a nice touch of absurdity which I thought very human.

Magnus is originally from the Orkneys and hopes that somehow his family might still be alive there (a pretty forlorn looking hope as several characters point out). He and Jeb head north, travelling together and slowly learning if not to trust each other at least to co-exist. Jeb’s close-mouthed about his past and doesn’t particularly believe in Magnus’s innocence (every prisoner claims they’re wrongly imprisoned). They’re together by necessity, not choice.

Welsh’s debt to the 1970s tv show Survivors is even more evident in this book than the last. Magnus and Jeb come to a country house where a small group are trying to re-establish a community. Among them is ex-army chaplain Jacob who rescues Magnus and Jacob from an attacker but seems perhaps a bit too ready to shoot to kill when facing challenge. Magnus and Jeb need to rest up so they temporarily join the community. Jacob hopes to persuade them to make their stay permanent.

As anyone familiar with the genre knows, the true threat after the apocalypse is other people. Two of the community have recently died, apparently through suicide. Jacob has his doubts. The first death he found credible, a distressed young woman who hanged herself, though the chair was a long way from the body. The second died from cut wrists but with no signs of hesitation marks and no prior indications suicide was likely. Anyone might do anything with the world ending, but if suicide is possible so too is murder.

Murder in a country house is as traditional as it gets, but when the murderer is one of a handful of survivors of a global apocalypse there’s nowhere to look for help. There’s no police and no backup. Just a random group of strangers every one of whom is going through enough trauma to turn anyone insane.

I did work out who the killer was, but that wasn’t remotely fatal as Welsh has plenty more story yet including rival groups of survivors and deeper questions of trust, morality and justice. What do you do with dangerous people when there are no police or prisons left? What prices are worth paying to reestablish community? Crime fiction is moral fiction, and by putting crime in a post-apocalypse context Welsh is able to strip these questions back and to force her characters to come up with their own answers.

Other reviews

My review of the first in this series, A Lovely Way to Burn, here. Credit for pointing me to this series at all belongs to Grant of 1st reading, and his review of this one is here.

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Filed under Crime, Post-apocalypse, SF, Welsh, Louise

London had a hint of yellow to it today, she decided, a septic glare.

A Lovely Way to Burn, by Louise Welsh

The true test for any novel which is part of a series is whether the reader goes on to read the next in sequence. If they do then the novel succeeded. If they don’t then for that reader at least the novel failed.

A Lovely Way to Burn is the first of three thrillers each set against the backdrop of a pandemic laying waste to the UK and much of the world. The sequel’s already out and I plan to read it, so Burn succeeded for me. That’s worth bearing in mind given some of the criticisms of the novel I’m going to make below.

burncover

Stevie Flint is a presenter on a UK TV shopping channel. She’s the pretty and glamorous one, paired with an older woman named Joanie who adds a homely character to their show. Between them they flog tat to daytime TV viewers most of whom likely watch more for the company than the goods they buy.

Stevie’s boyfriend is attractive paediatric surgeon Simon Sharkey (he’s referred to as Dr Sharkey in the book, which is a minor error as in the UK surgeons are called Mr or Miss as appropriate). Simon’s handsome, rich and lives a fast-moving and high spending lifestyle. Stevie’s not sure if she’s in love with him, but she’s quite certain he’s fun to be around.

Before all that though the novel opens with for me a really misjudged prologue recounting three high-profile shootings that take place in London before the plot proper starts. Each of them is so dramatic that I genuinely think we’d still be discussing them decades later. An MP on a spree shooting; a hedge fund manager who goes berserk on the tube; a vicar who slaughters his congregation. Any of them would make international news.

The prologue doesn’t work because it’s incredible (unless of course an underlying connection gets explained in some later novel, but it’s still incredible now). I can buy a pandemic and I can buy a spree murder, but I struggle a bit with being asked to buy three spree murders and then a pandemic. Obviously the goal is to create a mood of tension and impending chaos, but it just flatly didn’t work for me and I think the novel would be better if the prologue were entirely deleted and the few subsequent references to it taken out.

After the prologue misfire we get into the plot proper. Stevie goes round to visit Simon only to discover him dead in bed, a victim of what she’s later told is sudden adult death syndrome. He died for no obvious reason but with no sign of foul play. Sometimes healthy people just die and however tragic it might be it’s not a police matter.

At about the same time a new disease nicknamed the Sweats has started going round and so far most people don’t realise quite how serious it is. Stevie goes down with it and her next few days are spent in a brutal and debilitating fever. She recovers, after which she’s visited by Simon’s sister who found a hidden letter at Simon’s flat addressed to Stevie. The letter leads to the discovery of a password-protected laptop hidden in his attic crawlspace and an instruction to take it to one of his colleagues and to trust nobody, absolutely nobody, else.

Here starts the mystery. If Simon’s death was natural, why did he leave hidden notes, stashed-away laptops and cryptic instructions just before it happened? Stevie goes to the colleague Simon named, but discovers that he’s come down with the Sweats too and unlike her he didn’t recover. Now Stevie has a dead boyfriend, a laptop that very quickly starts sparking interest from others at the hospital, and the disquieting possibility that Simon was murdered and that whoever was responsible might come after her next.

So far nothing so unusual, except that the Sweats continue to spread. At first most people assume it’s like having a bad cold and society continues on much as it ever has, just with more people off sick.

The Underground carriage’s fluorescence drained the passengers’ complexions of any lustre. The dark skin of the business-suited man beside her had turned grey, and the woman leaning against the pole by the door had taken on a jaded sheen that reminded Stevie of the print of Tretchikoff’s green lady that had hung in her grandmother’s hallway.

Soon however it becomes apparent that almost everyone who catches it dies. Stevie’s immunity isn’t unique, but it is unusual. She still wants to find out why Simon died, but now her investigation is taking place in the midst of a new Great Plague.

‘What’s wrong with Joanie?’
‘The same thing that’s wrong with the rest of them, only more so, sickness, vomiting, diarrhoea, high fever, hot and cold sweats. Don’t you watch the news?’
‘I told you, I was sick. I thought it was the shock of finding Simon.’
‘The great washed and unwashed of London are going down with the lurgy, as are a good portion of Paris, New York and anywhere else you care to mention. People have died. That’s why I was going to send someone round to check on you. I was worried you might have shuffled off this mortal coil.’
For the first time Stevie thought she could detect a note of panic beneath Rachel’s posh bonhomie. She walked to the window. The parade of shops in the street below looked as busy as ever. Rachel had a reputation for exaggerating, but she wouldn’t lie about Joanie being in hospital.

Welsh says in her afterword that the book is in part inspired by classic TV dramas Threads and Survivors, both from the 1970s (the decade that optimism forgot). It shows because the best of the book is easily her portrait of London’s unravelling, slow for much of the book but then suddenly accelerating as the seriousness of the situation dawns and more and more people fall ill.

Less successful is the characterisation. Leaving aside that Stevie Flint and Simon Sharkey both seem to me very much names out of a thriller rather than real life, the characters here are pretty two-dimensional. Stevie is regularly asked why she’s risking her life investigating the death of a man she isn’t even sure she loved during what could potentially be the apocalypse and there’s never really a good reason for that. Nobody else is hugely developed either; people are largely what they seem and they’re painted in fairly broad brush strokes.

The flipside to that characterisation complaint is to ask what else I’d actually want. This is a conspiracy thriller. Subtle and nuanced characterisation would be rather beside the point. As a reader I need it to be clear who everyone is, what their role is in the plot and to be able to easily picture them and Welsh effortlessly meets every one of those criteria (save that I never quite worked out how old Simon was supposed to be, but he was dead so it didn’t much matter).

The trick to thrillers is cutting back on anything which gets in the way of pulling the reader on, to the next page and the next revelation. If character is too deep the reader will stop to explore it; if the prose is too beautiful the reader will slow down to parse and admire it; plot and atmosphere are key and language and character are there to efficiently carry the reader forward.

It’s true that I found the characters here a bit superficial and the language plain and it’s true that the plot didn’t hold too many surprises, but it’s also true that I enjoyed the book. I read though all 369 or so pages of Burn in a single day and as I said at the outset I plan to read both sequels (the first of which is already out). I just hope Welsh doesn’t take too long to finish the final book of the series.

Other reviews

Grant at 1streading put me on to this with his review here. I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews but this one from Leslie McDowell at The Scotsman picks up a brilliant point on the gender issues of the book which I missed. The key quote from the review is:

“As Stevie lurches from one dangerous situation to another, the image that is conjured up reminds one of US artist Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Stills, where a young woman is portrayed in various poses against a hostile city-scape. There are no women in Welsh’s dystopian world, apart from dead or dying ones. Technology is useless against the plague that is spreading and women have lost the power that technology once gave them. Simon’s medical colleagues are all male; one of them, Alexander Buchanan, even offers to send his son to collect Simon’s laptop from her. There are no daughters, no sisters, no mothers in this darkening world; as the city turns to chaos, men roam the streets and women become invisible.

By the end of the novel, Stevie has almost rid herself of her feminine look, marked at the beginning by her painted nails; she is wearing Simon’s clothes, has shaved her hair. The feminine has no place in a dangerous dystopian landscape. Perhaps that is what we should really fear.”

I think that’s a really impressive (and spot-on) analysis and I encourage anyone with any interest in this book at all to follow the link and read the full review. McDowell has her own blog, here, on blogspot unfortunately which makes it harder to subscribe for new posts and comments. Still, given her review in The Scotsman I suspect her blog would be well worth taking a look at.

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Filed under Crime, Post-apocalypse, SF, Welsh, Louise

Feminine indulgence in extravagance of attire was the bane of London at that era.

The Doom of the Great City, by William Delisle Hay

I’m a little pounded at work presently, so while I don’t yet have time to properly write up Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing I do have time to write up one of the short novellas I’ve recently read.

This one is an absolute oddity. I’ve mentioned before the fondness the Victorians and Edwardians had for apocalyptic fiction. The Doom of the Great City is a classic example. It’s an account of the destruction of London by that great terror of the Victorian age – really bad smog.

I should mention that this novella was as best I can tell intended as utterly serious. The emphasis there is on the word intended…

DoomGreatCity

So, we open with a framing device – it’s the far future (the 1940s!) long after the fall of London. The narrator is now an old man surrounded by family, and he’s moved to write an account of the traumatic events he personally witnessed that led to the destruction of the world’s greatest metropolis. It’s a very common framing device in fiction of this period, and one that allows Hay to contrast his future idyll with the iniquities of London in 1880.

I am transported back to the land of my birth across the intervening ocean a land of chill and sour skies, where the sun has forgotten how to shine; a laud of frost and rain, of mist and snow. I am young, but I am scarcely hopeful, for I am oppressed with many cares; I live amid noise and bustle, amid a throng of idlers and workers, good men and bad, rich and poor; I work hard at employment that demands my best energies and absorbs my young strength, and that yields me but scant repayment; I dwell shut in by bricks and mortar, and crushed by stony hearts; I am one among many, a single toiler among the millions of London!!

The bulk of the novella spends its time setting the scene. The narrator is (was) a clerk, as they so often are in these books. He lives with his mother and sister and in the usual vein of Victorian fiction there’s a fairly detailed explanation of their salaries and sources of income as compared to their outgoings. They’re barely scraping by on a combined £150 a year, “little more than sufficient to provide us with the bare-necessities of existence, while every day things seemed to be growing dearer.”

I love London. The narrator, well:

It was the opinion I formed at the time, and the opinion I still continue to hold, that London was foul and rotten to the very core, and steeped in sin of every imaginable variety.

He’s not a fan. That’s where the unintentional comedy comes in. This isn’t an apocalyptic novel where disaster strikes an undeserving populace. This is much closer to a judgement of god or nature on a city that richly deserves everything that’s coming to it. Hay spends a great many pages discussing in remarkably enthusiastic detail everything that’s wrong with the city, starting from the narrator’s own line of work:

I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same.

I’ll add the larger passage that quote comes from at the end of this post for those who’re curious. It starts sanely enough as you can see above, but soon he’s on to lawyers, then the church, then doctors, the entertainment industry, the aristocracy, professors of art, women, it goes on for pages. It’s a breathless outpouring of disdain for pretty much every target in sight.

After a couple of pages or so of this (out of only fifty or so in total) even Hay/the narrator must break for breath:

Enough! Even a great-grandfather’s garrulity must be checked in its reminiscent flow.

Yes please.

Thankfully once the diatribe against the evils of the contemporary age is out of the way the story picks up some. The narrator is out of London visiting, and the next morning tries to head home only to find out there’s no transport back into town:

All traffic into and out of London was indeed suspended, or rather, had never commenced. No trains had come out from the London termini, no response had been received to signals or telegrams; while men who had started to walk into town had either never returned, or else had shortly retraced their footsteps, panting and half-strangled. Telegrams from other suburbs and outskirts of town brought intelligence of a precisely similar state of things existing in those localities. No one had come from London, no one had succeeded in entering it.

Soon it becomes evident that the unthinkable has happened. The London smog has become so bad as to suffocate all within it. The whole metropolis lies wreathed in dark and sooty fog, utterly desolate. Eventually the air starts to clear a little, and so the narrator becomes one of the first to push his way back into the city – fearing for his mother and sister who are still within.

What he finds is why the story is worth reading (to the extent it is). It’s a haunting evocation of an utterly lifeless city, eerily reduced to silence and stillness:

I traversed the foggy street, seeing objects but indistinctly at ten yards distance. I saw no living being, no faces at the shrouded windows, no passers by, no children playing in the gardens or the road; not even a sparrow fluttered past to convey to me the sense of companionship. And then the frightful, muffled stillness that seemed to hold me down in a nightmare trance; not a sound of traffic, no rattle of carriages and carts, no scream and rumble of trains, no clamour of children or costermongers, no distant hum of the midday city, no voice or whisper of a wind; not the rustling of a leaf, not the echo of a foot-fall, nothing to break the deathly stillness but the panting of my laboured chest and the beating of my trembling heart.

There’s nothing that really happens – everyone is dead after all. There is though a tremendous series of descriptions of the desolation, including some very effective set-pieces particularly including a description of a horse-drawn bus stilled with horses still in harness, driver belted in and passengers rich and poor contorted in their seats.

I did struggle a bit with the narrator’s pious cries of horror and sympathy given that most of the book is given over to lengthy descriptions of how awful London and its inhabitants are. It reminded me slightly of The Black Spider – in both texts there’s a sympathy for those who are damned which is distinctly at odds with the glee with which their sufferings are described. It all reminds me a bit of that old Medieval idea that the afterlives of the saved are made more pleasurable by their being able to watch the sufferings of the damned in hell.

Still, it’s short, it’s about 99p from Amazon (and no doubt legitimately free somewhere online without too much trouble), and it’s a lovely example of a now largely extinct genre – the Victorian/Edwardian industrial apocalypse. It’s not really an overlooked classic, but nor does it deserve to be wholly forgotten either.

Here’s the fuller version of that quote. It’s absolutely mad:

I will add of what I saw around me to incline me to the belief in the black enormity of London sin. I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same. The laws were good, though inordinately cumbrous, and lawyers administered them for their own advantage, and at the expense of their unhappy clients. The law was a terrible engine of justice, but its intricate machinery was clogged with rusty “precedents,” and could not be got to move without a liberal oiling in the shape of fees. Hence arose the saying, that the law had one interpretation for the rich, and another altogether for the poor. The medical profession was conducted upon similar principles; the doctor — if he knew how — would keep his patient ill in order to increase his fees, and making suffering and death his daily sport, traded upon them for his own profit. Clergymen and ministers of religion, whether belonging to the State Church or to independent bodies, made “the cure of souls” a means of livelihood; they quoted the maxim, “the labourer is worthy of his hire,” applying its point to themselves; they kept alive “religious feeling” among the masses by incessant and endless quarrels among themselves on points of dogma and doctrine, extorting money in the cause of “truth” from the public, and either keeping it themselves or squandering it in various foolish and useless ways. And they made one religion for the rich and another for the poor, as anyone might learn by comparing a sermon preached before a fashionable congregation with one delivered to paupers. The merest infraction of moral integrity in one of the humbler classes was visited as intolerable; among the rich and high-born sin flourished under the hallowing sanction of religion, and vice luxuriated in the shadow of the Church. Purity of life was a simple impossibility, and chastity of soul would have been sought for in vain amongst Londoners. Theatres, music-halls, and similar institutions, appealed to the most depraved appetites; people flocked to gaze admiringly at a fashionable courtesan and her attendant harlots, or thronged to listen to obscene and filthy songs, or to witness indecent exhibitions, especially if these involved the risk of life or limb to the performers. Money flowed into the treasuries when such were the inducements, and eager rivalry in their production was the inevitable consequence. Clergymen, aristocrats, and art professors joined in extolling the stage as “the educator of public taste,” while young girls crowded to enter the ballet as the proper road to a life of delightful immorality. The press groaned daily under the weight passing through it of novels which tinctured absolute crimes with poetry and romance, which clothed the worst sensuality in the white robes of innocence, and which taught and argued in favour of every vice. Serial journals adapted to every class, rested their claims to attention on the obscenity, scurrility, or blasphemy of their pages, disguised under a film of moral platitude. Such were some of the causes at work, here were some of their immediate results. Among the higher ranks of society immorality was so common as to excite but small attention; frequent divorce suits proved this; scandalous disclosures of high life were of common occurrence; they gratified the public taste while serving to show the deeper depths below. Pleasure-seeking being the only employment of the wealthy and governing class, they elevated it into a “cult,” and wearied with the tameness of mere harlotry, gluttony, and show, brought “art” to their aid and invented “aestheticism ” as a cloak for higher flights of sin. The men of the “upper ten thousand” were trained from their cradles for a life of sensuous enjoyment. They held themselves aloof from commoner clay as from an inferior race, and they looked upon inordinate luxury as their paramount right. In their code of honour the payment of just debts had no place, unless the debt were contracted by gambling among their fellows. The “golden youth” were banded together into social guilds, bearing imbecile insignia, and using mysterious passwords, whose vicious meaning only the initiate might know. They had peopled a whole suburb with the villas of their concubines, whom the stage and the streets had furnished, while their elders sought amusement from almost infantile charms. Strange and unnatural were the crazes and fashions that pervaded this society: wearied with dissipation carried to excess, they were ever seeking new varieties, new emotions, new vices; they worshipped beauty, but it was not the beauty of created Nature, but that of art — and such art! — that most enchanted them. Ladies were divided into two “mondes,” the proper and the improper, but it was by no means easy to define the exact limits of either grade. The Phrynes of the period held their court and received adoration from the men, though not recognised by their high-born sisters; yet these were eager to copy the manners, dress, and accomplishments of the courtesan, styling themselves “professional beauties,” or veiling their hyper-passionate sensibilities under the pseudonym of “intensity;” while matrimony, even among the most externally decorous, was as much a matter of business as downright mercenary prostitution. The members of this highest rank lived in the very perfection of luxuriousness; their mansions, equipages, and servants, all were on a scale of magnificence as great as could be compassed. Dresses and furniture were splendid and costly. They fared sumptuously every day. Poverty was carefully excluded from their view, and came not within their cognisance, and ultra-extravagance was commended from the pulpit as a means of wisely diffusing wealth, and as an “encouragement to trade.” It was said that the spendthrift vanities and caprices of the wealthy were a source of good, promoting industry, and developing arts and sciences among the workers; “wherefore,” said these reasoners, “lavish arid. profuse prodigality is the commendable duty of the rich, as thereby they foster trade and benefit those who minister to their enjoyment.” When such theories were generally received, it is needless to say that politicians were blind to comparisons drawn from the history of the latter days of Rome, of Venice, or of Bourbon France. And this state of things had, of course, its dire and disastrous effects upon all grades of society below. People of the next rank, whose wealth had been gained from other sources than that of passive hereditary accumulation, busied themselves in the endeavour to gain admission within the pale of “polite society;” they sought to imitate with exactness every eccentricity of the nobles, and courted ruin to effect their purpose. A step lower, and the same procedure was invested with the grotesque addition of “vulgarity.” This abstraction consisted mainly, as I conceived, in a lack of “refinement:” it meant a want of ease and inherent use in forms of speech, manners, and usages; it conveyed the idea of eagerness where cold indifference should have been felt ; or it displayed a sense of actual pleasure, where blasé and captious disdain ought only to have been manifested. Throughout the great masses of the middle class, so styled, there beat the mighty pulse of Loudon life. In this section was contained business and professional men of every degree and kind, from the wealthy banker, the opulent trader or manufacturer, and the sordid promoter of bubble companies, down to the struggling professional man, the actor, and the ignoble clerk. It was divided into a multiplicity of grades or strata, the lowest mingling with the vast democracy of labour below, the highest, by dint of golden passports, passing current among the aristocracy. It was in this division of the social system that the real life of the great city was mainly manifest; here were to be found the chief law-makers and the chief law-breakers; here was every vice most obnoxious to the senses; here, too, was to be found what was left of virtue and goodness. Down through the middle class filtered every evil of aristocratic birth, losing nothing in the process, we may be sure, save the semblance of polish and the grace of courtly elegance; while up from the lowest depths there constantly arose a stream of grosser, fouler moral putrescence, which it would be a libel on the brutes to term merely bestiality. Do not think there was no good In London; there was, much; but it was so encompassed and mixed with evil as to be barely recognisable; while the influences of exuberant vice were such as to warp the integrity of men’s ideas of what was right, to benumb their perceptions of moral turpitude, and to lower the standard of excellence to the very mud. Besides, I only set out to tell you something of the wickedness I saw and knew and felt in London; merely a brief epitome, such as might serve to sustain the view I propounded of the guilt of that city. Have I said enough, my grandchildren? But a few words more, and I pass to the dread narrative itself .

Phew! Just for reference, he’s still not finished, I just ran out of ability to cut and paste on my kindle.

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Filed under 19th Century, Novellas, Post-apocalypse, UK fiction

Free, strong, safe.

Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest

I have white skin. Light brown hair. Blue eyes. I am tall. I usually dress conservatively: sports jackets, corduroy trousers, knitted ties. I wear spectacles for reading, though they are more an affectation than a necessity. I smoke cigarettes occasionally. Sometimes I drink alcohol. I do not believe in God; I do not go to church; I do not have any objections to other people doing so. When I married my wife, I was in love with her. I am very fond of my daughter Sally. I have no political ambitions. My name is Alan Whitman.

My skin is smudged with dirt. My hair is dry, salt-encrusted and itchy. I have blue eyes. I am tall. I am wearing now what I was wearing six months ago, and I smell awful. I have lost my spectacles, and learned to live without them. I do not smoke at all most of the time, though when cigarettes are available I smoke them continually. I am able to get drunk about once a month. I do not believe in God; I do not go to church. When I last saw my wife, I was cursing her, though I have learned to regret it. I am very fond of my daughter Sally. I do not think I have political ambitions. My name is Alan Whitman.

Among the first books I reviewed when I started this blog was Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions. After writing the review, I looked online to see what others had thought of it and discovered that I’d liked it more than most. The reason seemed to be because the London Kunzru was writing about was the London of my childhood; I recognised his book as true.

The problem with that of course is that if a novel needs a reader who was there (though I was only a small child in the 1970s) then it will struggle both for longevity and a wider readership. My Revolutions did find a wider audience than just me, but not as appreciative a one as he found for some of his other books.

I grew up in Notting Hill, more specifically North Kensington (near the north end of Ladbroke Grove for anyone reading this who knows London). It wasn’t then as fashionable as it is now; in fact North Kensington (despite what the word Kensington suggests) was one of London’s more deprived areas. It was also an area with large Black British and Afro-Caribbean communities and there were often tensions between them and the older white communities (Sam Selvon’s excellent The Lonely Londoners and his Moses Ascending both explore the area’s immigrant experience, my reviews of both are here).

Sometimes there were riots, and as a child one particular street (All Saints Road, the band All Saints named themselves after it though god knows why) was known as “the front line” because it was seen as a border between black and white neighbourhoods and a no-go zone for police and whites. The no-go bit was a myth incidentally, I walked through it on several occasions without the slightest problem (other than an assumption I was looking to buy drugs).

All of which brings me to Christopher Priest’s 1972 novel Fugue for a Darkening Island. Priest is a writer of what is sometimes called slipstream fiction, a term he invented as far as I know. He provided the foreword for Anna Kavan’s Ice and is a writer who straddles the line between literary and science fiction without recognising the boundaries of either. He can be challenging, and while Fugue is far from his best novel in some ways it’s perhaps the most challenging of all of them.

Fugue-for-a-Darkening-Island-VG

Racists sometimes talk of immigrants “swamping” Britain; of them “overrunning” the country. Fugue is a novel in which their worst fears are realised, That’s what challenges here: it’s not the fact that the narrative is a mosaic which cuts forward and back among the protagonist’s experiences and memories so that only by the end is the entire story clear; it’s the fact that Priest has written a book which explores racism in a profoundly visceral way.

War has broken out in Africa. Some of the powers involved have got hold of nuclear weapons. They use them, rendering large parts of Africa uninhabitable. The result is a human tidal wave of refugees; millions of them. Many come to the UK; more than the UK can absorb. The result is social breakdown, civil war, the descent of the UK into the sort of hellhole the Africans are fleeing from.

The obvious parallel is with War of the Worlds, in which Britain finds itself on the receiving end of the colonialism that it dishes out elsewhere, thanks to the Martians. Here there are no Martians, but the essence is the same. Priest asks the same question as did Wells, how do we like it when the atrocities happen in the Home Counties, rather than Rwanda or the Congo?

Fugue is written from the perspective of Alan Whitman, but not chronologically. Some sections are from his life before the UK’s collapse, with Alan indulging in meaningless affairs while ignoring both the increasing sham of his marriage and a dangerous drift to the hard right in UK politics. Some are from the period in which society began to break down, with Alan looking for somewhere he and his family can safely wait out the approaching storm. Some are from after that storm has hit, with Alan one refugee among many looking now for his wife and daughter who have been kidnapped by an Afrim militia group.

The Afrim are what the African refugees are called in the novel. It’s never explained why, which lends it a certain verisimilitude as the characters after all would know why. As the novel takes Alan’s perspective though the Afrim are largely faceless; a mass of indistinguishable black aggressors who literally steal his women. It’s a troubling portrayal and it plays directly into racist stereotypes (“Once the Afrims have a street to themselves, they spread through the rest of the district in a few nights”, and later “‘Then you should know that the Afrim command has set up several brothels of white women for its troops.’”). I don’t think this is a racist novel, but it’s definitely capable of a (incorrect) racist interpretation.

Priest describes in the detailed and fascinating foreword how he was in part inspired by the cosy catastrophes of writers such as John Wyndham and John Christopher. He wrote against a backdrop of political violence in Northern Ireland, barricaded streets and paramilitaries driving families from their homes.

We realized we would probably be forced to abandon our house in Southgate the day the barricade was erected at the end of our road. Although terrified by the prospect we did nothing, because for several days we thought we might be able to adjust to the new mode of life.

In Northern Ireland sectarianism led to social cleansing, not that we use that term when it happens in the developed West. Catholics and Protestants often found themselves living in different areas, and entering one group’s territory if you belonged to the other could be dangerous even if you weren’t yourself political. For Catholics and Protestants read Hutus and Tutsis, Serbians and Bosnians, a myriad sectarian squabbles.

The following day we were at home when we heard the noise of the Martins being evicted. They lived almost opposite us. We had not had much to do with them and since the Afrim landings had seen even less of them. Vincent Martin was a highly qualified research technician and worked at an aircraft components factory in Hatfield. His wife stayed at home, looking after their three children. They were West Indians.

Soon Alan is on the road with his wife and daughter, heading to his wife’s parents in Bristol and avoiding “the barricaded Afrim enclaves at Notting Hill and North Kensington”. We know they don’t make it, and Alan becomes a refugee pushing his few belongings across England in a wheelbarrow. The violence spirals out, not just white against black but nationalists against those who sympathise with the plight of the African refugees. Alan finds himself in a warzone, policed by UN troops who do little to help. When he meets combatants it doesn’t really matter much which side they’re on because none of them give a damn about the civilians caught in the middle. At best the various militaries hand out propaganda, then move you along.

He offered me an immediate commission into the Secessionist forces, but I turned it down, explaining that I had to consider Sally. Before we left he handed me a sheet of paper which explained in simple language the long-term aims of the Secessionist cause. These were a restoration of law and order; an immediate amnesty for all Nationalist participants; a return to the parliamentary monarchy that had existed before the civil war; the restitution of the judiciary; an emergency housing programme for displaced civilians; and full British citizenship for all contemporary African immigrants. It reflected exactly what I hoped would happen, but all our recent experiences had underlined the impossibility of a peaceful solution to the present chaotic fighting.

Alan incidentally spends a fair chunk of the novel criticising his wife’s passivity and refusal to recognise what’s going on and so help herself. As the novel progresses though it becomes evident that Alan’s not really that different, that what he hates in her is in part the mirror of his own failings. Fugue is as much an exploration of Alan’s psychology and how he reacts under extreme pressure as it is a bringing home of conflicts we’re used to seeing on the TV, and it’s that dimension which ultimately makes this a better book than many of those which inspired it – Alan is simply more real, more flawed and human, than most protagonists are in this sort of book.

Fugue isn’t without its problems. In the foreword Priest talks about how he thinks that when he wrote it he was too influenced by the coolly distant style of the 1970s new wave movement and by writers such as Brautigan and Vonnegut. Part of the reason he rewrote the book was to change stylistic and language choices which worked in the 1970s but which with the passing of time carried overt political interpretations which hadn’t been intended, but part too was that with hindsight he felt that his influences had resulted in a book the language of which didn’t really suit the subject matter. I’ve not read the original, pre-revision, version, but even here there is at times a conflict between the intentionally flat prose and the horror it describes.

I’ll definitely be reading more Priest, and I’m glad I read this because while it is exceptionally bleak in both tone and outlook, it does humanise the nameless refugees who from time to time populate our news. There used to be a saying in English, there but for the grace of God go I. It’s gone out of fashion, but it expresses an important truth. Given different circumstances, a run of bad luck, political developments beyond our control, those people we perhaps send a little money or a food or old clothes donation to could be us.

In my last review, of Berlin Alexanderplatz, I talked at the end about how that novel continued to have a contemporary resonance. Fugue, despite the unlikely subject matter, does too in its way. I’ll leave you with two final quotes:

The country was in deep recession. We had a government that prided itself on fiscal expertise, but they made one bad decision after another. John Tregarth and his government had first come to power because of their economic policies but the balance of payments was in the red for month after month, public borrowing was at an all-time high, prices continued to rise steeply and an increasing number of people were made unemployed.

and

Meanwhile, democracy was taking its turn, and a General Election was held in Britain. It was a time of economic recession, with many people jobless. Inflation was high, loans were difficult to obtain, many companies were going out of business. A new right-wing party, initially a splinter group from the Conservatives, campaigned successfully on the basis of economic reform and isolationism as a cure for our employment problems.

The cover above is the one I have. I couldn’t resist sharing this one though, which utterly misrepresents the novel on pretty much every front:

220px-Fugue_for_a_darkening_island_gratuitous_cover

Anyone who bought the book on the basis of that cover would have been sadly disappointed.

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Filed under Post-apocalypse, Priest, Christopher, SF

Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

The Road is probably now Cormac McCarthy’s best known novel. It won the 2007 Pulitzer prize for literature, it’s had almost uniformly good reviews, it’s been made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen – it’s one of those occasional novels that cross over from the literary world into popular(ish) culture.

In some ways, that’s a surprising thing. It’s only a little over 300 pages long, but it has no chapters, no easy narrative, it has a setting of unusual bleakness and a dense and sometimes highly inaccessible prose style.

On the other hand, it is in the main beautifully written (though at times the writing I think goes a little overboard, something I’ll return to) and it has an emotional core to it that will resonate with a great many readers. It’s a spare novel, stripped back (save sometimes for the prose) and at its heart it’s focused on the relationship between an unnamed man and his equally unnamed son, the two of them struggling through a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape that contains almost nothing living except themselves.

It’s unlikely anyone reading this doesn’t know essentially what The Road is about but, just in case, I’ll quickly set it out. The novel takes place some years after what appears to have been (it’s never clearly specified) an all-out nuclear war. The world is shrouded in nuclear winter, the sun barely visible through permanent heavy clouds of ash and dust, the cities are burnt and filled with corpses and the country is denuded – the trees dead and clogged with ash and the animals gone with them.

Among the few survivors are a man and his son, the boy born shortly after the apocalypse and so never having known the world before. The mother is dead, all that is left is this pair, and all they have is each other. They push their meagre possessions ahead of them in a shopping cart, heading for the coast where they hope to find life and something more than the desert that the world has become, but the impression is that they are moving because they have to, and because there’s not enough food left to make it feasible to stay put in any one place.

As they progress, they avoid other survivors, many of those who are left have resorted to cannibalism and food is so scarce that anyone met on the road is more likely to kill them than help them. The man lives to protect his son, to keep the flame alive as they both often say, and in this country of the dead there is plenty to protect the boy from. The world is full of dangers, full of those who would harm his child, with the mother gone he is all that stands between his small son and the horrors of an existence utterly indifferent to his child, sometimes outright hostile.

The power of the novel, of course, is that parents today feel this protective love, this sense that they are all that stands between their child and an indifferent world full of danger. Parents always have felt that, likely because it’s often true. The Road succeeds not because of the particular facts of its characters’ situation, but because those facts set out in relief a common human emotion. The knowledge of the fragility of something you love more than your own life, the desire to keep it safe, the knowledge that you will not be able to forever.

The Road didn’t start well for me, or rather it started well but quickly alienated me. By about half way through, that alienation ceased and by the end I enjoyed the novel and was glad I’d read it, but for a while it was touch and go. The problem was the language and, to an extent, the premise (which is unfortunate, because the premise doesn’t matter).

Early on the man and his son pass through a derelict city filled with mummified corpses, “discalced to a man”. The sentence goes on to explain what discalced means, it’s not a common word after all (shoeless, generally used in a religious context in relation to orders that walk unshod), but it threw me out of the novel. Firstly, I wondered what discalced meant, the sentence explains it but it’s not often I encounter new words so I took a few moments to look it up anyway. Secondly, the sentence goes on to explain that all their shoes were long stolen, and I found myself thinking, by whom exactly? There are hardly any survivors, the dead vastly outnumber the living. I can accept that the men’s shoes would all be gone, years have passed and shoes can’t be repaired after all, but the women’s? In the grim post-nuclear future are there really people stealing pairs of high heels? The women with sensible footwear would have bare feet, sure, but that still leaves an awful lot whose shoes would I think be left in place.

It’s a petty point, and I was annoyed at myself for being jarred by it, but I was jarred by it. And as the novel continued, more discrepancies struck me. Put simply, the setting doesn’t entirely work. The thing is, that doesn’t really matter, because the novel’s not about its setting, it’s not an attempt to create a credible and worked-up post-apocalyptic environment. It’s a setting that is there to cast the relationship of the central characters into relief. If I hadn’t grown up with science fiction, I doubt I’d have noticed or cared, however I did and throughout I found myself troubled by things which seemed contrived more for effect than plausibility.

That issue was I suspect a fault in me. The other issue I found though was more problematic, on occasion The Road is simply overwritten. Here, the man remembers a conversation he had with his wife, after the bombs fell but before her death, he is trying to persuade her not to kill herself:

I dont care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.
Death is not a lover.
Oh yes he is.
Please dont do this.
I’m sorry.
I cant do it alone.
Then dont. I cant help you. They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves. But I dont dream at all. You say you cant? Then dont do it. That’s all. Because I am done with my own whorish heart and I have been for a long time.

Put bluntly, nobody talks like that. A woman considering suicide, considering abandoning her husband and newborn baby because she is filled with utter despair, does not talk about her “own whorish heart”. That’s blatantly a novelist writing for the effect of the prose, utterly unconvincing. The whole passage reminded me that I was reading a novel, a conceit, again it threw me bodily out of the sitatuation and the characters.

Also, reading the above section, you may notice the use of apostrophes. In brief, where a contraction ends with a t, McCarthy doesn’t use an apostrophe. Hence dont, cant, wont. Where a contraction ends with another letter, he does use one. Hence you’re, I’m, it’s. I’m not quite sure what the logic of that is. I can understand using apostrophes properly, I can understand omitting them entirely. McCarthy though creates a new grammar, where they are used correctly save where the word ends in a t in which case they are omitted. That’s regular enough a rule that I thought about it, and it became a distraction.

So, what did work for me? If the dialogue, grammar and sometimes even the writing jarred, why am I glad I read it? Well, because that’s far from the whole story.

Firstly, although McCarthy does sometimes lapse into portentousness, mostly he avoids it and he can capture scenes with a subtlety and power that is quite breathtaking. This scene, earlier than the one quoted before, captures I thought with understated grace the horror of the end of the world (which, as one character argues at one point, from your own perspective is no different at all to your own end, the boy is perhaps the man’s refutation of that argument).

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
I dont know.
Why are you taking a bath?
I’m not.

Why are you taking a bath? I’m not. Marvellous. McCarthy packs a lot in here, we see that the man understands what the flash of light means and that now water will be hard to come by. In a moment, he has seen what is happening, what it will bring, and what must be done to have any hope of survival. It’s a wonderfully understated and subtle moment, terrible in its many implications.

Equally, the new and morbid landscape through which the man and boy travel is often wonderfully evocative. They sleep in a forest of petrified trees, which suddenly start to collapse around them. Snow falls on paths already clogged with ash. The sky is dreary and occluded, and all the birds are dead.

And, above all, there is the relationship between the man and his son. This is beautifully captured, it is the book. They tell each other that they are the good guys, that they are keeping the flame alive. The man teaches his son to fear the bad guys, cannibals and casual killers, and seeks to instil in him some form of morality. But the boy is more moral than the father, when they encounter (as they sometimes do) others worse off than themselves, the father fears them as potential competitors for resources, the boy feels compassion and wants to help them. The boy is innocent, the father isn’t, but the boy’s innocence exists in part because the father sacrifices his own in order to preserve it.

The two reassure each other, the boy is terrified whenever his father has to leave him, to search a building for supplies or to scout the road ahead. He seeks comfort that they are still the good guys. He asks questions with no answer. And, since I shared some not so good dialogue earlier, here’s a passage which I thought captured brilliantly the way children sometimes think and talk:

Do you think there might be crows somewhere?
I dont know.
But what do you think?
I think it’s unlikely.
Could they fly to Mars or someplace?
No. They couldnt.
Because it’s too far.
Yes.
Even if they wanted to.
Even if they wanted to.
What if they tried and they just got half way or something and then they were too tired. Would they fall back down?
Well. They really couldnt get half way because they’d be in space and there’s not any air in space so they wouldnt be able to fly and besides it would be too cold and they’d freeze to death.
Oh.

I don’t want to speak to the ending, but it has an emotional and metaphorical logic that gives it tremendous power. The point of The Road is the journey the man and boy undergo, a journey that all parents undergo. The man protects his boy, pretends that things will be ok, warns him against strangers. The boy in turn understands more than the father would like, for all the father tries he cannot wholly preserve that innocence.

The man’s greatest problem, worse than starvation and predatory strangers, is that without him the boy is often too trusting and too unaware of the dangers around him. The boy though, unburdened by the father’s crippling fear for his survival, sometimes sees some things more clearly, understands that life is more than one’s own survival.

In large part, this is a novel about hope. The father’s hope is all in his son, an object of perfect love, everything he lives for. The boy’s hope is a broader thing, he hopes not just for them, but for others they see who may need help themselves. The flame is alive because the father holds it for the boy, keeping it alight until the boy can keep it going on his own.

There’s a lot to be said about this novel, certainly more than I have here (and this is already a long writeup). I’ll leave then with one final quote, an example of imagery both terrible and beautiful, a combination that McCarthy is no stranger to.

The melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake.

Trevor, of The Mookse and the Gripes, wrote up The Road here in a review which picks out its key elements with great accuracy. In particular, it’s easy when reading about how the novel is about the love between a father and son to fear that it may be mawkish, sentimental. Trevor brings out why that is not so, and quite how true the capturing of that relationship is. Trevor also didn’t get bogged down by setting as I did, and brings out nicely the references to the way the world is becoming something primal again, pre-civilised. His take is well worth a read.

Edit: I forgot to link to Kerry’s review of The Road, here, which is excellent on the religious symbolism of the novel and the importance of keeping going as part of being human. There’s already some discussion of the end over at Kerry’s, so I’ll likely post my own thoughts on the final paragraphs over there.

The Road

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Filed under McCarthy, Cormac, Post-apocalypse, SF

For years now, we’ve treated the land as though it were a piggy-bank, to be raided.

The Death of Grass, by John Christopher

I’ve long been something of a fan of John Wyndham, criticised on occasion for his “cosy catastrophes” in which civilisation falls but people remain generally polite about it. It’s not a criticism I agree with, for a start only two of his novels actually deal in apocalypses (The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes – The Chrysalids takes place centuries after one once order has been restored, and in any event is far from cosy with its religious bigotry, torture and murder). Still, it’s not a charge anyone would lay against John Christopher’s 1956 novel The Death of Grass.

The Death of Grass was a novel that first caught my attention years ago, when I was a teenager. I never saw a copy though, so when John Self reviewed the new Penguin Modern Classics edition over at The Asylum I mentally added it to my to be purchased list. This last week, fancying a break as far from possible from Powell’s wonderful A Dance to the Music of Time, I finally ordered it. As a break between more serious books, it works pretty well, it’s easy to read, powerful and in places is quite horrifying in its portrayal of what people are capable of when pressed. It’s also though not that well written, and the characterisation is dire. It’s worth reading, but it’s not high literature.

Grass generally takes place a couple of years in the then future, so in the late 1950s, but it opens with a prelude in the 1930s where we are introduced to two brothers, John and David, and the farm that David goes on to inherit – a property in a valley closed on three sides and easily sealed off on the fourth. Like Chekhov’s gun, that valley becomes quite important.

As the novel proper opens, famine is sweeping China. A plague that affects rice has caused terrible famine, vast numbers of Chinese are trying to get into Hong Kong in the hope of finding food, but Hong Kong cannot hold against them:

‘You think Hong Kong will fall?’
‘I’m sure it will. The pressure will build up until it has to. They may machine-gun them from the air first, and dive-bomb them, and drop napalm on them, but for every one they kill there will be a hundred trekking in from the interior to replace them.

David said: ‘But if they took Hong Kong – there can’t be enough food there to give them three square meals, and then they’re back where they started.’
‘Three square meals? Not even one, I shouldn’t think. But what difference does that make? Those people are starving. When you’re in that condition, it’s the next mouthful you’re prepared to commit murder for.’

And that, in a nutshell, is the novel. When you’re in that condition, it’s the next mouthful you’re prepared to commit murder for.

At the outset, John Custance is a pleasant and civilised middle class man, happily married with two children. He and his wife play bridge with their friends, Roger and Olivia, Roger occasionally appalling them with his hard cynicism. Still, they’re good people, respectable, the sort you might find in a Wyndham apocalypse. They’re troubled by events in China, all that death, but it’s a long way away.

From the radio, a voice said, in B.B.C. accents:
‘The United Nations Emergency Committee on China, in its interim report published to-day, has stated that the lowest possible figure for deaths in the China famine must be set at two hundred million people…’
Roger said: ‘Dummy looks a bit weak in hearts. I think we might try them out.’

Christopher is making a point here. When we hear of disasters elsewhere, our sympathies often extend to those affected, but generally not for long. There are children to be put to bed, jobs to go to in the morning, washing up to do. With all that, it can be hard to remember the deaths of strangers.

At first, the problem seems restricted to Asia, the disease has spread to Europe, but Europe is not dependent on rice. World governments are confident that a counter to the virus can be found, but the Chinese were confident of that too, and before too long China no longer exists as a nation.

All too soon, the virus has mutated, killing all grass plants, including wheat and barley and the crops upon which our lives depend. Governments lie, reassuring their populaces and claiming that a counter is just around the corner, as food supplies in warehouses grow low and countries stop sending aid increasingly concerned that they may need it themselves. Today in Britain, after BSE, this part of the story doesn’t seem as science fictional as it might, with its self-serving politicians more concerned with the electoral implications of panicking the population than of taking sensible steps to protect them.

Hearing rumours that the government intends to drop atomic bombs on the major cities so as to reduce the population to a sustainable level, John, Roger and their families decide to flee London, heading for that oh so defensible valley. On their way out, they pick up Pirrie, a seemingly mild-mannered gun shop owner who contributes weapons and brings his much younger wife. The roads out of London are blocked off by the military, travel is restricted, and fearing nuclear annihilation they calmly ambush and execute three soldiers manning a roadblock so they can make their escape.

Faced with the threat of starvation, knowing that the country’s food reserves have run out and that they have a day or two at most before everyone else realises it too, the group swiftly become ruthless – killing when they must, leaving others to die rather than risk resources helping them. Pirrie turns out to be a sociopath, utterly remorseless and deadly, he is appreciated all the more for it. As Custance reflect:

They had lived in a world of morality whose lineage could be traced back nearly four thousand years. In a day, it had been swept from under them.

There were some who would choose to die well rather than to live. He was sure of that, and the assurance comforted him.

It comforts him, because they’ll die, and so not compete for food.

Britain’s descent into savagery is swift. There is casual murder, rape, robbery becomes commonplace. In less than 48 hours from the realisation that the food has run out, it’s every man for himself, roving mobs taking what they want and the air force bombing cities to stop the hordes spilling out into the wider country.

At times, the book is genuinely chilling. Custance’s wife and daughter are raped, the rapists are captured and Custance’s wife calmly explains to one as he begs for his life that she decided she would kill him while she was lying there watching him rape her daughter. In another scene, Custance and Pirrie murder a couple for food, then give the surviving daughter to Pirrie as a form of sex slave. Custance all too quickly adapts to his new role, the seemingly ruthless Roger deep down remains a decent man, Custance for all his morality becomes a new feudal chief – able to decide whether others live or die:

After enthronement, the tones of the supplicant beggar were doubly sweet. It was a funny thing.

Christopher’s view of human nature is not a pleasant one. In Grass, those who maintain standards, who try to preserve some decency, die. Those who remain are the new savages, the future is one of barbarism. A world of strong and ruthless men, and those who serve them or die.

The weak points of the novel are easily summarised. The prose is nothing to write home about, workmanlike but it’s the vision it contains that the novel’s worth reading for. Characters are fairly one-dimensional, particularly the women who are bizarrely helpless not even taking turns driving or carrying a gun. It’s still not clear to me why the women need be so helpless, I can see that an apocalypse would make men’s greater strength again more of an advantage, but when Samuel Colt made all men equal he made all women equal too. Here, the women are objects, chattels as one herself angrily comments (though the novel itself seems to agree). They are protected, or raped if protection fails, but beyond cooking they seem to be incapable of doing anything for themselves. The sexual politics of the book are distinctly dated.

But the central vision isn’t. Environmental collapse is a theme more timely than ever, and as Robert Macfarlane reminds us in an excellent (and commendably spoiler-free) introduction, in the real world diseases like Ug99 have already caused crop failure and famine. As he notes, bad as the crop failures in Grass are for the people of the 1950s, they would be much worse for the “just-in-time” delivery world we inhabit today.

Grass is a powerful novel, immediate, not perhaps fine literature but it’s continued fame is deserved. As well as John’s writeup, Tom at A Common Reader wrote it up here. I agree with every word of his and John’s reviews, both of which draw out points I’ve not chosen to focus on in my own comments.

The Death of Grass

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Filed under Christopher, John, Post-apocalypse, SF