Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Empty World

With his smart, Brylcreamed hair and sensible clothes, this man looks like a bank manager from the days when the job was synonymous with dependability, integrity and prudence. I can imagine him pouring me a whisky in his office before discussing the ungentlemanly business of borrowing money. He looks far too genial to be the author of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Empty World is a novel written for young adults about a virus that wipes out almost the entire human population. Like John Christopher's fiction for adults it offers a fairly bleak view of human nature, but as Puffin don't usually publish novels with gang rape scenes (with the possible exception of Melvyn Burgess), the drama is a little more restrained.

As with everything written by Sam Youd (John Christopher's real name), Empty World is an enjoyable work of escapist fiction that is consistently gripping and thoughtful. The average customer review on Amazon is five stars - a rare accolade for any novel - so why is it out of print?

The simple answer is that however good a novel is, unless it is heralded as a great work of literature or the author is commercially successful, it will probably go out of print.

When I worked in bookselling I remember the dreaded acronym RPUC - reprint under consideration. At first I used to convey this information to customers, who would then plague me for months, to the point where I had to hide in the stock cupboard until they left. I soon realised that RPUC was as good as OP - out of print.

It's depressing seeing a much-loved book fade into obscurity, but the beauty of the internet is that readers now have a voice. I have no doubt that Penguin's decision to reissue John Christopher's The Death of Grass has something to do with the huge demand for secondhand copies on the internet. As for Empty World, I'm sure that it will sell if only someone can come up with a better jacket than this:

The artist, David Chestnutt, has produced some highly-acclaimed psychedelic record covers, but this illustration looks like he's had some bad acid.


Kate said...

For my tenth birthday I got a parcel of Puffin books (I still have all of them). One of them was Empty World.
I'd never read anything like it before, scary but also exciting. Being a mad bouncy child I was able to focus on the whole "do whatever you like" aspect without having nightmares from the whole "hardly anyone left and everyone you loved is dead" bit.

My copy has a freestanding door on the front, partly ajar. (Like the doors in Monsters Inc.) Very cool.

Steerforth said...

Yes, when you're that age the prospect of having no grown-ups to boss you around seems too good to be true.

That's probably the secret behind the enduring appeal of Enid Blyton. The children in her books are independent, resourceful and also manage to outwit grown-ups (as long as the adults are either foreign or working class).

Nobody ever misses their mummy or gets homesick.

John Christopher cleverly gets round this by killing Neil's family in a car crash, before the plague begins.

I hope you'll be pushing 'The Death of Grass' when it's back in print this April.

JRSM said...

I found this two years ago in Tasmania: the edition with the door (http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/n0/n4462.jpg). It's a great little book--and the 'littke'ness surprises me: with this, and his adult apocalypses, Christopher manages so much in 150-250 pages. You KNOW any writer doing this now would take at least 400 to achieve not as much.

The Silver Eel said...

Funny, out of the blue I found myself thinking about JC/SY just a couple of days ago, saw that The Death of Grass is due out and raised a small cheer. I wonder if Brian Aldiss has had a hand in this: he's done introductions for the new Penguin Classics editions of H.G. Wells' novels, and Hothouse was recently published in PMC.

First rule of children's novels: get the parents out of the way. Swallows and Amazons, Harry Potter, The Watch House, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen...summer holidays are an especially favourite trick. Though actually, having them out of the way can help to emphasise their influence: I'm thinking about Anne's parents' divorce in The Watch House which kicks off the plot and makes a kind of terrible background thematic hum right through the novel; and The Owl Service where Margaret (the mother) is often referred to with apprehension by the characters but never actually seen...

Tim F said...

The bloke on the cover looks like the bastard offspring of Robert Powell and Ford Prefect (TV version).

John Self said...

I was fortunate enough to get hold of a proof copy of the new Penguin edition of The Death of Grass, which includes an introduction by Robert Macfarlane. He places the book in the context of the 'floral apocalypse' story, citing less well known examples such as Thomas Disch's The Genocides and Ward Moore's Greener Than You Think.

My own feeling on The Death of Grass is that it is not terribly well written, but compelling nonetheless. I'll be posting a review on my blog closer to the republication date in April. I'm interested to know what the best of the rest of Christopher is, and also to see Penguin continue this vein of SF reissues (Harry Harrison made it this week).

Steerforth said...

I agree. John Christopher is no Cormac McCarthy. He is a prolific writer who worked to earn a living rather than achieve literary greatness. I think the novels have to be judged within the context of similar books.

In the endless debate between high and low brow culture, where does John Christopher stand? He is no Chekhov, but his novels are far more engaging than the average thriller.

A few years ago I heard a debate on the radio about the difference between art and entertainment. AS Byatt argued the entertainment, if it was done exceptionally well, was an art in itself.

I think John Christopher is a good example of a writer who is exceptionally talented within the confines of his genre. The prose may be rough and ready, the dialogue and characters may be cliched at times, but the stories are thought-provoking and utterly compelling.

I would particularly recommend The World in Winter, A Wrinkle in the Skin and Pendulum. Also, the novels for young adults like The Guardians and The Sword in Spirits trilogy.