I've just finished my second John Christopher novel, The World in Winter, which was so compelling that I almost managed to read it in one sitting. Once again the parallels with John Wyndham were striking and I wonder if Christopher would be more popular today if he hadn't been consigned to the ghetto of science fiction. My edition was published by the SF/fantasy publisher Sphere and if I'd seen it on the shelf I wouldn't have bothered picking it up.
John Wyndham used to complain that his novels were speculative fiction rather than SF - a term that has since been adopted by many authors. Margaret Atwood used it to describe her brilliant novel Oryx and Crake, claiming that speculative fiction is a genre in its own right. I'm sure that if John Christopher was 'rebranded ' as one of the finest exponents of this genre, he might start to receive the recognition he deserves.
As for the book itself, it begins as a straightforward catastrophe story in which Britain quickly finds itself in the grip of a new ice age. At first life continues as normal but when spring fails to materialise, rationing and martial law are swiftly followed by rioting, looting and social collapse. At this point the novel suddenly changes gear and it soon becomes apparent what the novel's true purpose is.
I will not give the plot away, except to say that this is a story about racial prejudice and the relationship between Britain and its former colonies in Africa. From a present day perspective it makes an uncomfortable read and I suspect that one reason why it hasn't been reprinted by a mainstream publisher is the preponderance of words like negro, nigger, sambo, mammy and darkie. It is also hard to see where Christopher is coming from. Is he bravely confronting the ugly realities of racism or giving voices to his own prejudices? On the one hand the novel seems to delight in seeing the relationship between black and white reversed - a reflection of the fact that Britain's African colonies were all gaining independence during this period. But at times it felt as if the demise of the white man is the novel's true disaster. This would certainly be a good book for reading groups to discuss!
Next on the list is The Death of Grass if I can find a copy that doesn't cost the earth. At the moment they seem to be selling on Ebay for at least £30, even for a battered old Penguin, so it might be some time before I read it. Perhaps I'll sell a few unwanted CDs to pay for it, as my financial circumstances are a little precarious at the moment (I'll explain why in the next post).