It has to be said that there are books one reads of which no recollection at all remains after thirty or forty years. I do have notes to confirm that I read this in the Nineteen Seventies. My memory of this is in any case clouded by the 1960 Hollywood movie which I have always loved but which took a few liberties in its interpretation. (There have been at least 14 film, TV and radio adaptations, some more curious than others, such as the 1997 radio version which featured Coronation Street’s Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) as Professor Challenger, Linus Roache (Ken Barlow’s real life son) and also starred Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Ian McKellen).
I was therefore coming at it with a completely fresh eye and expecting something along the lines of an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure in exotic climes.
I should have known better since I was engrossed from the first few pages and enjoyed every second.
Conan Doyle, of course, is rather more well known for his Sherlock Holmes canon and it’s a shame this novel is not more widely read.
At the outset, an Irish rugby playing reporter, one Edward Malone, is attempting to woo a rather unresponsive young lady called Gladys. Gladys spurns his advances as she feels she can only give her heart to a man who is famous for his heroic deeds.
Mr Malone, she fears, is neither famous nor heroic enough to marry her.
In these opening pages there is far more depth of character and insight than in probably the entire ER Burroughs canon. Plus, it sets Malone up to request his editor to send him on a dangerous mission.
The Editor suggests that Malone arrange an interview with one Professor Challenger, a man who had recently returned from the Amazon with incredible claims but little evidence. Challenger, it seems, had been subsequently derided by his scientific peers and had taken up journalist-bashing as a supplementary hobby.
Malone, against all odds and following a sustained physical attack by Challenger, wins the confidence of the Professor and volunteers to join a new expedition to the Amazon to prove the Professor’s claims that creatures of the Jurassic era have survived on an isolated plateau.
Conan Doyle, one suspects, owes much to Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to The Centre of the Earth’ at least since the basic premise is that the Professor’s only evidence is a fragment of a pterodactyl wing and sketchbook from a previous explorer which showed a sketch of a stegosaurus – seemingly drawn from life.
In ‘Journey to The Centre of the Earth’ of course, the Professor’s catalyst was a note from Arne Saknussemm, found in an old book. Both explorers travel to a remote volcanic region where they discover dinosaurs and plant life from another epoch.
For me, Verne’s novel is far superior, but where Conan Doyle succeeds is in having Malone as the narrator being able to balance a fast moving plot (at least for the time it was written) with some impeccable characterisation and occasional dashes of humour.
Challenger, an erudite but physically formidable figure, is given a foil in the form of his professional rival, Professor Summerlee who – although converted from outright sceptic to believer – is always poised to prick Challenger’s somewhat pompous scientific bubble.
In parts the book may be unpalatable to modern readers where it deals with those who are not British. The native Indian guides (I use the word ‘Indian’ as it is employed by Conan Doyle within the text) and luggage carriers remain mainly part of the scenery while a lone ‘negro’ called Zambo however is described as ‘as willing as any horse, and about as intelligent’.
There are two distinct branches of humanity on the plateau; a somewhat civilised tribe of small native Indians and the larger hairy cannibal man-apes who just will not desist from attacking everyone.
Toward the end, the Indians and the white fellas engage in a final battle with the ape-men who are all but wiped out; their women and children then enslaved by the plateau Indians.
Although this concept of genocide seemed fairly acceptable in genre SF, particularly in the US, up until the Nineteen Forties at least it does seem a tad out of character for Professor Challenger to countenance it.
However we must accept that the values and ethics of most people in Nineteen Twelve were far removed from those a century or more later. Paradoxically, the figure of Lord Roxton, a typical huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ bit of aristocratic totty, seems quite familiar given the British aristocracy’s need to cling on to the past in case it flies away like Challenger’s baby pterodactyl.
Nevertheless it is a compelling and engrossing read, which should figure more prominently in the history of British SF and fully deserves to be more widely read.
‘The dominion of the Tanu has been broken. In the aftermath of cataclysm, Aiken Drum seizes his hour to grasp control of the Pliocene world.
There are those, human and Tanu, who rally to him – and those who fear and hate him. The Grand Master, Elizabeth… the mad Felice… the goblin hordes of the Firvulag all thrust into a violent and stormy struggle for irresistible power.’
Blurb from the 1983 Pan paperback edition
In the third volume of May’s ‘Saga of The Exiles’ we join our heroes in the aftermath of the flooding of the Mediterranean basin which decimated the Tanu and upset the power balance within The Many Coloured Land.
Aiken Drum, the diminutive trickster, is quick to seize control of the situation and of the Tanu throne, taking as his bride, Mercy Rosmar, widowed since the flood in which her husband Nodon Battlemaster disappeared, his body never found.
Meanwhile in Pliocene Florida we join – for the first time – the exiled Rebel operants, led by Marc Remillard, disgraced Grandmaster of the Galactic Concilium.
Man has been attempting to discover a world where a race has developed a Coadunate Mind in order that he and his children can be rescued by them, after which they plan to stage a coup.
The rest of the rebels do not share Marc’s faith on the search and his children are secretly planning to travel to Europe in order to create a device at the Time Gate capable of taking them back to Twenty-Second Century Earth.
Elsewhere, further evidence is discovered that suggests that the Tanu and Firvulag, through interbreeding with humanity, will become the progenitors of the Human Race itself.
Old taboos are breaking down. Sugoll, leader of the mutated Howlers has resettled his people in a less radioactive area and, on the advice of a Tanu geneticist, allowed a thousand of his single women (gross mutations who cloak themselves in psi-generated visions of voluptuous beauty) to mate with itinerant humans who literally have no place to go following the ransacking of a Tanu city by the Firvulag.
Many of the traditionalists are predicting the coming of the Nightfall War, which signals the end of the world.
Nodon, it transpires, was not dead, but was washed ashore in Africa and tended by a crazed human/Firvulag hybrid, who manages to seduce her paralysed patient and becomes pregnant.
Like Peter F Hamilton, May is a consummate juggler of the multi-character storylines and simultaneously manages to seamlessly weld what is in effect a fantasy setting (providing a scientific rationale for the gnomes, trolls, ogres, elves and fairies of legend) with the people and the scientific marvels of the Twenty-Second Century. There is also a fair amount of humour, which cleverly serves to accentuate some of the horrors which all three races perpetuate upon themselves and each other.
One could argue that this is perhaps the weakest of the four books and perhaps suffers from a surfeit of characters and political machinations. On the other hand one cannot fault the characterisation since even the minor characters appear as fully rounded characters with histories and tales of their own.
I suspect these novels, along with the superb ‘Intervention’ which tells the tale of the emergence of human metapsychic abilities and the perhaps weaker trilogy which takes us through the Metapsychic Rebellion, will be reassessed as an exemplary body of work, ingenious in its concept and construction.
Academics have written enough about this novel to fill an entire shelf at least, and that perhaps is not a good thing since it tends to detract from the fact that this is a marvellously entertaining and thought-provoking work, maybe the single best British SF novel of the Twentieth Century.
Some years before the opening of the novel a plane containing a box of triffid seeds was shot down and, it is supposed, the tiny seeds were carried to all parts of the world since, not so long after, triffids began growing and multiplying everywhere. It is also supposed that the triffids were a product of Russian genetic engineering and used as a source of highly pure and efficient vegetable oil.
For those not in the know triffids are, in brief , six foot mobile plants whose main stalk ends in a trumpetlike ‘flower’ from which a prehensile stinger can lash out. The stinger contains venom strong enough to kill a man. The triffids can also uproot themselves and walk on their three ambulatory roots. Also, they have sticklike growths which drum against the main stem, creating a rattling noise with which some believe they communicate among themselves.
Bill Mason is a researcher working with triffids and in his world most specimens are docked of their stingers. Some are staked out in parks. Other people keep docked specimens in their gardens.
At the start of the novel however, Bill, who has been in hospital after an accidental triffid sting to his eyes, awakens to a strangely silent world. As his eyes were bandaged he was one of the few people to miss a worldwide display of cometary debris burning up in the earth’s atmosphere.
Eventually he discovers that the strange fireworks have burnt out the retinae of everyone who witnessed them. In the days that follow, the very few who have kept their sight attempt to reorganise, but it is only Bill who realises that now the infrastructure of civilisation has disappeared, the triffids may become masters of the earth.
Wyndham’s three major works – this, ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ and ‘The Chrysalids’ – all deal in their different ways with evolutionary issues and the battle between species for territory. It is here that the message is clearest, and shows an extinction event in which the triffids, until now contained and controlled by a more successful species, are suddenly given an evolutionary advantage. Triffids are carnivorous plants which may or may not have some form of rudimentary intelligence. It has been noted by Mason’s colleagues that when attacking humans they inevitably aim for the eyes. It is also pointed out, somewhat prophetically, that a triffid would always have the advantage over someone blind.
Therefore, by a combination of circumstances, Wyndham quite chillingly shows us how a more successful species (which need not necessarily be a more intelligent species) could, in evolutionary terms, supplant us.
Mason’s colleague makes the point that we go to great lengths to feed and grow the triffids and then design machinery to extract their oil, while all the triffid has to do is kill someone, settle down in the soil and wait for the body to decompose before using its stinger to transfer bits of rotting flesh to its ‘throat’.
What has never been clear is when this novel is actually set. Written in 1951, Wyndham obviously intended it as some near-future setting which, by the internal chronology, must be some time in the Nineteen Sixties.
Much is made of Wyndham’s rather quaint middle-class viewpoint and the fact that many of the survivors seem to be professional middle-class types. The interesting point about this is that it gives Wyndham a chance to have a swipe at some of the complacent attitudes of Middle England, such as the lady in charge of Tynsham Manor who would rather her community fail than surrender to immoral unchristian practices.
Coker is the most fascinating of the sighted survivors although his character may be merely a clever device on Wyndham’s part, since he is written as having a chameleon use of language and accents, which allows him to enter into debate with anyone, and therefore raises some questions which might otherwise have been avoided. The role of women in society, for instance, is brought up when Coker fixes the generator at Tynsham Manor and then berates a young woman for basically waiting for a man to sort it out. This is Wyndham addressing his women readers, telling them that women are more than capable of doing any job a man can do, but it is up to them to fight against the entrenched notions of society.
‘The Sun is going Nova….
And in the boughs of the immense banyan tree that covers one face of the Earth, the last pitiful remnants of humanity battle for survival with huge carnivorous plants and grotesque insect life…’
Blurb from the 1979 Panther paperback edition
What one has to love about Aldiss is his propensity for variety in style and subject matter. If someone unfamiliar with his work were given copies of this and, for instance, ‘Report on Probability A’ stripped of their authorship they would probably not suspect that the both novels were the work of the same writer.
‘Hothouse’, serialised during 1961 and published as a novel in 1962, sees Aldiss postulating a Jack Vance style far future Earth where Humanity has devolved to a tree-dwelling foot-high biped. Gren is a member of a small tribe who live in ‘The Forest’. In actuality, the forest consists of one giant Banyan tree which covers the half of the earth which is perpetually facing the sun since, after the millions of years which have elapsed, the Earth no longer rotates on its axis. Vegetation has evolved to be the most successful form of life and many plants are both mobile and carnivorous. Death is therefore accepted as a frequent occurrence.
The Elders of Gren’s tribe decide they are too old to be of use to the tribe and make a pilgrimage to ‘the tips’ at the top of the forest where they attach themselves to a Traverser in order to ascend to their heaven.
Traversers are vast mobile vegetables who have adopted the traits of a spider. They have survived by becoming dependent on radiation and their green threads extend beyond the atmosphere. Sealed into transparent seedcases, Lily-ya (as Gren’s Mother/Leader is called) and her companions are glued to the legs of the Traverser and eventually they ascend, but end up on the Moon, their bodies transformed by the radiation between worlds.
Almost immediately, Gren and his young inexperienced tribe left behind encounter trouble and end up outside the forest, where Gren is separated from the others. Here however, his body is invaded by a morel, an intelligent fungus who, while opening up Gren’s dormant brain functions, aims to use humans to conquer the galaxy.
The comparison with Jack Vance was not made facetiously. There is certainly something of Vance in the lavish sumptuousness of the landscape, and indeed in the dialogue. Gren, and his new ally, Yattmur, meet a strange race of people called the Tummybellies whom they think have long green tails.
In fact the Tummybellies live in a symbiotic relationship with the tree and are linked to it by a green umbilical cord.
Gren decides the Tummybellies will be free, against the wishes of themselves and cuts the cords, but of course, this is not what the Tummybellies want.
Some of the dialogue between Gren and the Tummybellies is very Vance-like, and Gren is a typical Jack Vance hero, who is often the naïve gung-ho youngster who inevitably gets himself into trouble.
Also, like the work of Vance, the novel is told in quite a distanced and stylised way, and one feels that this is not a realistic tale at all, but a legend, a fable told by a narrator who may never have known any of these characters. The point is a subtle one, but important, since it puts these future humans in the framework of a morality tale, and if so, what moral point is the tale trying to make?
It’s certainly one of those books which highlights the insignificance of mankind. Intelligence, as an evolutionary strategy, was ultimately a failure. Life, of whatever form, is important and it is the mindless green envoys that will set off between the stars to escape the death of our Sun and re-seed planets elsewhere.
World-renowned palaeontologist Richard Leyster’s universe changed forever the day a stranger named Griffin walked into his office with a remarkable job offer… and an ice-cooler containing the head of a freshly killed Stegosaurus. For Leyster and a select group of scientific colleagues an impossible fantasy has come true: the ability to study dinosaurs up close, in their own era and milieu. But tampering with time and paradox can have disastrous effects on the future and past alike, breeding a violent new strain of fundamentalist terror – and worse still, encouraging brilliant young rebels like Dr Gertrude Salley to toy with the working mechanisms of natural law, no matter what the consequences. And when they concern the largest, most savage creatures that ever walked the Earth, the consequences may be too horrifying to imagine…
Blurb from the 2003 Harper Torch paperback edition
Like Robert Reed, Swanwick is an author who does not rest on his laurels and who changes style within the genre, having dabbled with cyberpunk, space opera, fantasy and the gothic. Here he turns his mind to Time Travel and as would be expected, does so with some panache.
Some decades hence, the mysterious Mr Griffin turns up in the office of Richard Leyster, newly interned in a low-paid but high profile Palaeontology position. Leyster is currently investigating a dig which shows the stalking of an apatosaurus by two allosaurs. From their tracks preserved in mud, Leyster has recreated the tracking of a the victim and the kill. Mr Griffin offers Leyster a better position, but will not divulge what it is, although he leaves him a box, inviting Leyster to examine the contents as long as he tells no-one else.
The box contains the head of a freshly killed Stegosaurus.
It turns out that Mr Griffin’s associates have access to Time Travel equipment that will take them anywhere from the first age of reptiles to just after the extinction event, sixty five million years ago. It slowly emerges that this technology has been bestowed and is being controlled by non-humans known as The Unchanging.
Swanwick controls the plot flawlessly, utilising his own internal logic of time-travel to choreograph the various timelines.
Characters return from the future to advise themselves on a course of action, knowing that it will be a success because it has already happened. In one chilling scene, Griffin’s disturbing older self presents his younger self with his own skull as a chilling reminder of his mortality.
Not content with mere arpeggios of the effect of Time Travel on Humanity, Swanwick excels when it comes to the dinosaurs. I am uncertain whether or not any of the theories regarding the behaviour and social habits of dinosaurs have been seriously considered, but Swanwick certainly makes them seem feasible. The concept of Tyrannosaurs ‘farming’ lesser reptiles and controlling them through subsonic frequencies pushes credibility a little but the logic of Swanwick’s explanation for the evolutionary advantages for both species is impeccable. It is known that certain species of ant behave in this way with other insects that excrete sugar solutions, but whether dinosaurs did is another matter.
Swanwick’s human society has not progressed morally or spiritually to any great degree. There is a restaurant set deep in the past and deep beneath the sea where the diners can feast on dinosaur steaks while watching plesiosaurs cruise past the transparent walls, their movements controlled waldo-style through chips in their tiny brains.
One of Leyster’s younger colleagues has an MA in Dinosaur Merchandising, showing perhaps that even Science itself has become a commodity to exploit.
As might be expected the Religious Right (and other fundamentalist groups) is not keen for evolutionary theories to be proven. One of their inside operatives plants a bomb within the Time Locator and strands Leyster and his students in the Jurassic.
Like most Swanwick novels it’s a complex maze of ideas and concepts, somehow all held together and laced with dry wit and occasional irony.
‘Darwin’s Radio: the missing link thriller
The discovery of a mass grave of mutated villagers in the Caucusus; a mummified prehistoric family revealed by ice-thaw high in the Alps; a mysterious new disease that strikes only pregnant women, resulting in miscarriage – three disparate facts that will converge into one science-shattering truth.
So-called junk genes that have slept in our DNA for millions of years are waking up; the women who miscarry become spontaneously pregnant again without sexual activity.
The new babies are not normal.
Governments exact emergency measures: segregation of the sexes, abortion of all foetuses. Only three scientists in the world believe it isn’t a plague: famous biologist Kaye Lang, disgraced palaeontologist Mitch Rafelson and the government’s ‘virus hunter’ Christopher Dicken. Can their leap of faith overcome mass panic and superstition?’
Blurb to the 2000 harpercollins paperback edition.
The subject of Homo Superior or indeed Human Evolution has been a rare theme in SF of late, but Bear has taken the concept and reinvented it anew in an ingenious and compelling novel.
Bear is an established writer of Hard SF which I prefer to categorise better as Big Science. His work is always solidly based on extrapolation of real science and as such produces incredibly plausible works in which huge ideas are dealt with. More importantly Bear is always guaranteed to provide solid characters and societies which are impacted and changed by discoveries or events in a logical and realistic way.
Darwin’s Radio builds its premise around contemporary research on redundant genetic material in the human genome and on phages, beneficial viruses which can be employed in place of antibiotics to fight bacterial infection.
The central idea is that human DNA contains and ancient HERV (Human Endogenous Retrovirus) which is not only capable of converting the DNA within the ovaries of a human foetus, but also of infection throughout the human population.
Three people gradually come to the conclusion that SHEVA (as the virus is named) has been instrumental in leaps of human evolution and in particular, causing Neanderthal Man (or rather woman) to give birth to Homo Sapiens.
Bear makes this scenario horribly believable and concentrates on the frantic race for a vaccine while the world, experiencing an epidemic of miscarriages, erupts into chaos.
As is typical for Bear, politics on many levels provides a stumbling block toward common sense and the need to face the truth about the true nature of SHEVA.
The true horrors of the novel, such as the mob violence, the mass-killings of pregnant women and the outbreaks of religious fundamentalism and human sacrifice are for the most part kept in the background while Bear revels in his mastery of focusing on individual characters and through them disseminating the scientific research as it develops, hindered by the agendas of individuals and political systems and indeed by political divisions within the scientific community itself.
The ending is atypical of Bear, who previously tended to bring his novels to a grand climax such as in ‘Moving Mars’ where again, politics and science collide to produce a denouement where the planet Mars is transported across the galaxy to a new home.
The understated ending here is downbeat but optimistic, showing the new ‘Homo Sapiens Novus’ children either living in reservations or existing (like Van Vogt’s Slans) secretly within human communities.
Wisely perhaps, Bear only gives us fleeting glimpses of what these children may grow into. Equipped with organs capable of discharging a range of pheromones; chameleonesque colour changing facial skin cells and additional vocal skills, the super-children seem destined to be masters of communication and persuasion.
Skills, in fact, vital for survival in contemporary society.
Classic Pulp Fiction from one of the masters of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I have to confess that ‘Slan’ has to be my all-time favourite Science Fiction novel if only for the fact that it is probably the one book which got me hooked on SF back in the early Nineteen Seventies.
AE Van Vogt, partly due to the quality of his later work and his involvement with Dianetics and the Scientology movement was, to a certain extent discredited by the SF community. Thus he was never really given the credit he should be due for his contribution to SF as a whole and the influence he subsequently had on the genre.
It’s high time that Van Vogt’s work was reassessed and I’m surprised that this novel at least has not been republished by one of the companies who tend to reprint classic works of SF.
‘Slan’ is the story of Jommy Cross, one of a race of telepathic superhumans – recognisable only by the tendrils on their foreheads – living in hiding within human society, a race which ordinary humans seem determined to exterminate. The novel begins when the nine-year old Jommy’s mother assists his escape from the police just before she herself is captured and murdered. Jommy survives to grow and slowly learn the secret of who and what Slans really are.
Obviously this is a novel which is bound to appeal to anyone who feels they have suffered persecution for their minority status. Certainly, as a gay teenager, I found many parallels with Jommy, who was forced to hide his true nature from the community around him and spent much of his waking time attempting to find others like himself, fearful of the repercussions should the truth emerge of what he really was.
It also says a lot about ignorance, misinformation and propaganda. There are chilling echoes of Nazi Germany in the cold and casual way in which John Petty and his Police Organisation (and indeed, seemingly ordinary and intelligent members of the human public) talk of killing the Slans, in terms of solutions and statistics.
It’s interesting that Van Vogt does not present this as a one-sided issue. The Slans themselves are a mysterious race who have allegedly been responsible for attacks upon the tendril-less Slans (a non-telepathic variant race), while the TL Slans themselves are building their forces on Mars in preparation for an invasion of Earth.
‘Slan’ also makes some very good points about the fallibility of history, and our tendency to accept myth as fact, something which both humans and the TL Slans seem to be guilty of in this novel.
It’s a flawed novel in many ways. Jommy himself, in contrast to the implicit idea of the Slan’s philanthropic nature, at one point imposes a form of mental slavery on the humans in the community in which he settles. His proposed ‘solution’ to the human problem is mass-hypnosis of the human race to remove their hatred of the superior species. One could argue he has little choice as the alternative would undoubtedly be inter-species war when humanity eventually discovers that the human race is becoming sterile and doomed to extinction. It’s a shame that Van Vogt never took the time to explore the ethics of either potentiality.
Overall, the novel – which covers a period of about fifteen years, following Jommy’s development from a nine-year old to an adult – is fast-paced, inventive and full of Van Vogt’s emotive imagery. One always feels that Van Vogt writes in Technicolor.
There’s his trademark futuristic city at the centre of which is the Slan Palace, built by the telepaths during their brief moment of ascendancy, and now occupied by the human regime.
The building is, of course, bigger and more beautiful than anything humans could build, and stands as a symbol of both human jealousy and impotence (the fifteen hundred foot central spire may or may not have phallic implications) since human researchers know that whatever they discover has probably already been discovered and developed by Slan super-scientists.
The novel also features some of Van Vogt’s idiosyncratic machines (something which, I think may have influenced Dick’s writing) such as the Porgrave Transmitters and receivers, a kind of thought recording and playback device.
The transmitters are used to direct telepaths to safe-houses and hideouts, while the receivers are used by their non-telepath cousins to guard the Martian cities against telepath infiltrators, whom they term ‘Snakes’. (Maybe it might be an idea for someone to examine the use of phallic symbols in the work of Van Vogt at some point)
Eventually, through unfailing faith in the essential ‘good nature’ of Slans, Jommy wins the trust of one of the leaders of the non-telepaths, and through her, finally gains access to the Slan Palace, where all is revealed.
The importance of this novel to me is in its emphasis on a society which blindly accepts rumour and unfounded belief as fact, something which is just as relevant, perhaps even more so, today than it was in the 1940s.
In the 1930s propaganda was used to turn public opinion against Jews in Austria and Germany, usually by having the media stating unfounded allegations as fact.
One only has to listen to a speech in The House of Lords to realise that little has changed. In order to try and scupper the abolition of Thatcher’s Section 28 (which prohibits local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’ in education) people such as Baroness Young and Thatcher have attempted to promulgate the idea that homosexuality is something one catches, like a disease, or else is a condition one is bullied into. Russia is, at the time of posting, promulgating a similar ideology.
Sadly, these arcane notions are seldom challenged.
In ‘Slan’ there is a general belief that the telepaths are somehow experimenting on human babies, attempting to create more of their own kind. This often results in malformed or mutated children. It is later discovered that that this is a natural process of evolution, a process which has produced the Slans, and one which spells an end for Homo Sapiens.
One might argue that the parents in the novel would see the illogic of such beliefs, but then, one only has to look at the real-life parallels to see that such absurd convictions are all too common, even at the highest levels.
EARTH ABIDES is one of the few SF novels to break the barriers of SF readership and reach a huge and universal audience. Winner of the International Fantasy Award and First Choice of the Science Fiction Book Club, it tells of the death of civilisation and of the brave new race that emerges – stronger, self-reliant, primitive…
It is the story of Isherwood Williams and a small handful like him, who rise from the ashes of a destroyed world and begin again…’
Blurb from the 1974 Corgi SF Collector’s Library Edition.
In many ways this is what Brian Aldiss describes a ‘cosy catastrophe’. Isherwood Williams, alone in a US mountain cabin is bitten by a rattlesnake and despite treating himself in time is seriously weakened and lies in a fever for days. Upon recovering he discovers that a plague has swept the world, leaving very few survivors. The novel is the story of the development of a new human tribe around him, but more importantly for Stewart, one feels, the return of the natural world to its mastery over the planet.
The human story, although captivating, is rather too romantic in that Stewart avoids some of the more gruesome consequences of a plague of such proportions. The dead are very notable by their absence. Also, no major medical problems arise as the tribe grows. No-one breaks an arm or a leg (although Ish himself suffers a minor leg injury after being mauled by a mountain lion) and the problems of the appendix or dentistry are glossed over.
The tribe does suffer setbacks and people do die, but from today’s perspective, the tribe’s rather idyllic existence is not what one would imagine society to be like when one’s life is dependent on what can be scavenged, or caught and eaten.
The book’s major strength, however, lies in Nature which, surrounding the territory of the tribe, reasserts itself, making the Earth itself an additional and major character in the drama.
Indeed, the strongest elements of the novel – those which hang in the memory longest – are those in which Ish, a self-confessed distanced observer of change and the passage of time, describes the gradual changing of the world such as when as an old man he once more sees the Golden gate bridge, solid but red with rust, its upper sections encrusted with the guano of generations of gulls.
There are also some intermittent passages in which the author, acting as an omnipotent observer, looks at the world – or rather, it has to be said, just America – from a wider perspective, examining the rise and fall of a plethora of species and the rapid enforced evolution of various domestic or agricultural livestock.
As catastrophes go, it’s one of the cosiest, but that does not in any way detract from its place as one of the great post-apocalyptic novels of the Twentieth Century.