Short Review: If you loved George R. Stewart’s 1949 classic novel Earth Abides then there’s a good chance you’ll love to read R. C. Sherriff’s forgotten 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript.

I bought the new Scribner audiobook edition that came out on January 6, 2023, because of Alec Nevala-Lee’s review in The New York Times. Right now, the Scribner edition is only available as an ebook and audiobook edition. An older, 2018, Penguin trade paper edition is still for sale. This apocalyptic novel first appeared in 1939 and has been reprinted a number of times since, yet it’s never achieved much notice.

I listened to The Hopkins Manuscript and thought it a science fiction masterpiece. However, I’m reluctant to recommend you buy it because it does not have even one citation in our Classics of Science Fiction database. If I believe The Hopkins Manuscript is so incredible why wasn’t it cited by any of the dozens of sources we used to build the database, including recommended reading lists from science fiction writers, polls from fans voting for their favorite novels, or lists of books admired by critics and scholars?

I loved The Hopkins Manuscript and can’t understand why it isn’t a well-known classic of science fiction. See the scans below from various reviewers in the past. I’d love to read what Michael Moorcock said about The Hopkins Manuscript in the September 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books (#205) if anyone has a copy. But in Thrilling Wonder Stories, from January 1940, H. K. recommended readers put it on their “Must” list. But in the April 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories, Donald A. Wollheim concluded the novel conveyed nothing new, nothing hopeful, and nothing very real. I disagree completely. Avram Davidson in the January 1964 issue of F&SF said the novel was first-rate and ended with “Don’t just read it — buy it.” P. Schuyler Miller damns it with faint praise in the April 1964 issue of Analog, concluding “The book first came out in 1939 and lives well.” Finally, Neil Barron did not recommend The Hopkins Manuscript in his library resource book Anatomy of Wonder.

Nevala-Lee spends most of his review talking about cozy catastrophes, giving Sherriff’s biography, and describing the story. I felt he told too much, but then I consider almost everything in a story to be spoilers. Nevala-Lee’s most positive statement is “Reissued this month, this wonderful novel should powerfully resonate with readers whose consciences are troubled by inequality and climate change. As Aldiss wrote, ‘The essence of cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time … while everyone else is dying off.” I disagree with by Nevala-Lee and Aldiss. This novel isn’t just for the woke and poor Edgar Hopkins suffers tremendously.

The Hopkins Manuscript is my kind of science fiction. I deeply resonated with Edgar Hopkins’ story, even though he is stodgy, vain, and frequently seeking to prove his self-importance. His memoir gives us a quiet and personal account of what was almost the end of the world. And I love stories about a few people trying to survive a worldwide catastrophe. If you loved the 1970s British TV shows Survivors, you might to get this book. I recommend the audiobook because the narration is pitch-perfect for the story. If you loved The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, also consider reading The Hopkins Manuscript. (Survivors is available on YouTube for free in low resolution. It doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere. Amazon sells a complete series DVD set for $22. It’s one of my all-time favorite TV shows.)

The Hopkins Manuscript is what some call a cozy catastrophe – a first-person account of the end of the world. The story is set in rural Britain before WWII and imagines the fall of Western civilization due to impending celestial events. Edgar Hopkins, a never-married retired teacher who raises show hens describes a very personal account of the end of the world. What made his story great is he’s a flawed but very realistically drawn character, and Sherriff’s philosophical take on humanity follows my own philosophy – especially that we don’t change. And that’s the tragedy of the novel, we don’t change even when faced with epic incentives.

The novel opens with a Forward from The Imperial Research Press, Addis Ababa telling us how the Hopkins manuscript was discovered two years earlier by the Royal Society of Abyssinia. It is assumed to be over 700 years old. The Forward also tells us how Western Europe is a dead civilization and the Hopkins manuscript is one of the very few artifacts left of the English Empire. The others are an iron tablet that says KEEP OFF THE GRASS, and a stone inscribed with PECKHAM 3 Miles. Except for old Roman roads, the entire history of England is gone. Since I read a three-volume history of the world last year, this felt very real. Civilizations come and go and we can’t expect ours to last forever.

American post-apocalyptic novels tend to involve a lot of violence and guns. British post-apocalyptic novels are genteel and quiet. If you’re looking for Mad Max, read elsewhere. The first half of the novel deals with how the British faced the coming doom. If you like stories about Britain between the wars, that’s another indicator you might want to buy The Hopkins Manuscript. That’s a big interest of mine. I’m not sure you need to be an Anglophile to enjoy this story but it might help. If you read Brian Stableford’s New Atlantis, a four-volume history of scientific romance, he shows how British science fiction evolved differently from American science fiction. I agree with him, and I’m partial to British science fiction. That’s probably another factor in explaining my love of The Hopkins Manuscript. Unfortunately, Stableford doesn’t cover The Hopkins Manuscript. That disappoints me. That’s just more evidence that my love of this novel might be unique to me. I hope not.

Even though The Hopkins Manuscript remains a mostly forgotten work, and has little critical support, I hope people rediscover it with the new Scribner edition. If you read it, please leave a comment below.

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/23

10 thoughts on “The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff

  1. Sounds interesting. I’m partial to stories of non-Europeans checking out the ruins of Europe and America. Sic transit gloria!

    As for reviewers . . . what are you going to do with those guys? They’re all over the place when it comes to their assessments.

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  2. I’ve gone ahead and ordered a copy. I had a discussion — maybe at Fictionmags, also I think at World Fantasy with Jo Walton, Jim Cambias, and Gordon van Gelder — about candidates for the earliest “cozy catastrophe”. I was suggesting The Empty World, by D. E. Stevenson (1937) — this one is two years later — does it qualify? (I think we came up with some plausible candidates as far back as World War I in the end.)

    If you are interesting, maybe you’d like to try The Empty World? (It’s fairly inexpensive in a Kindle edition.) I’d be interested in your thoughts. I don’t think it will get the praise you’ve given The Hopkins Manuscript, but it might make for an interesting compare and contrast. Though I suppose The Hopkins Manuscript may not be cozy enough to be called a “cozy catastrophe”.

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    1. The Empty World is my kind of book I’m sure, so I bought it. Will read it after I finish the last four hours of Babel by R. F. Kuang.

      The oldest of these stories I’ve read is The Last Man by Mary Shelley, but the theme is even older. There’s a French novel by the same name I believe that’s even older.

      The term “cozy” as applied to both mysteries and science fiction isn’t well defined. Some people interpret it as a cozy mood novel to read, but I’ve always interpreted it as a story with a small setting, usually rural, with only a few people. Wikipedia defines “cozy mystery” as:

      Cozy mysteries, also referred to as "cozies", are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence occur off stage, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. Cozies thus stand in contrast to hardboiled fiction, in which more violence and explicit sexuality are central to the plot. The term "cozy" was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
      

      I would think The Hopkins Manuscript fits for a cozy catastrophe.

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  3. Yes, The Last Man came up in our discussion. I think it’s slightly outside my personal sense of “cozy catastrophe” (I try to follow the definition by, I think, Aldiss, which is a catastrophe that leaves just a small group (a dozen to hundreds or even a few thousand, I’d think) isolated and trying to survive (typically in conveniently comfortable, if fraught, situations.) More thoughts later.

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    1. I agree with Aldiss too. THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS and EARTH ABIDES yes, MAD MAX no.

      That’s why I love the TV series SURVIVORS from the 1970s. It’s just four people at first.

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