Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ends of the World

One of the best book related blogs I've read recently is Caustic Cover Critic, which claims that it is one man's endless ranting about book design, but in fact is so much more.

A common thread running through his blog is dystopian fiction and after reading a posting about John Christopher, the scandalously neglected author of the Tripods trilogy, I decided to try one of his adult novels, A Wrinkle in the Skin.

Caustic Cover Critic (henceforth to known as CCC) has made favourable comparisons to John Wyndham and on the strength of this novel I would agree. John Christopher may not be Dostoyevsky, but A Wrinkle in the Skin was an intelligent, well-paced novel with believable characters and a scenario that was depressingly plausible once you'd got past the fairly implausible premise.

In a nutshell, a series of huge earthquakes rocks the planet, destroying almost every building and killing the vast majority of the population. The world that remains is reminiscent of the excellent BBC drama series Survivors, although in this novel there aren't even homes to provide sanctuary. The remaining humans inherit a world in which the infrastructures of modern life have been completely destroyed and there are insufficient crops and animals left to provide them with food.

How would people behave in this situation? Would we ensure our mutual survival through co-operation or would the strong prey mercilessly on the weak? In Christopher's world, some humans will try to maintain the remnants of civilisation whilst others will quickly regress to a state in which murder, rape and theft become the norm. In a telling passage, the main character is upbraided for his naivety by a woman who has been attacked several times:

What was your idea of what's happened? Who do you think survived? Just the teachers and bank clerks and local government officers, with some nice honest policemen, and perhaps the chief constable of the county as President? That's the way it ought to have been. But things weren't done nearly as neatly as that. What did you expect, for God's sake? The orderly people, the people who could plan more than a few days ahead, have always been in a minority.

According to CCC, Christopher has written better novels than this so I look forward to reading them. The Death of Grass has been voted the best science fiction novel of all time and The World in Winter is supposed to be very good too. So why are most of John Christopher's novels either out of print or available in crude reprints?

On the strength of A Wrinkle in the Skin, I am impressed by John Christopher, or Sam Youd, to use his real name.

Aside from the fact that I approve of any writer who wears a cravat (not sure about the specs though), I can't understand why so many of Sam Youd's novels are unavailable when John Wyndham's remain in print. Let's hope that an enlightened publisher remedies this situation.

In the meantime, if you have any interest in dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels, here is an excellent list on Wikipedia.


bye bye bellulah said...
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bye bye bellulah said...

Great post. I looked at CCC the other day after his (?) post here and was really struck by the site. Very tempted to explore Charles Burns a bit, not my usual cup of tea.
Am just about to start The Road, and am reminded of After London by Richard Jefferies which is now avail free online as part of the Gutenberg project.
And, The Ice People by Maggie Gee.

JRSM said...

Aw, shucks--thanks for the kind CCC words. Another great disaster story (a short story) at Gutenberg is 'The Thames Valley Catastrophe' by Grant Allen, from the 1890s: London destroyed by volcanoes. Very Wellsian. See for the text.

Steerforth said...

BBB - let me know what you think of 'The Road'.

I'll try 'After London' and 'The Thames Valley Catastrophe' - free downloads like that almost make me excited about getting a Kindle!