The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson was first published in 1936 when very few science fiction novels were published in book form. That’s for two reasons. First, not many science fiction novels were being written, and second, the term science fiction was not widely recognized outside the tiny audience who read science fiction magazines. It wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that science fiction emerged as a publishing category.

D. E. stands for Dorothy Emily. She was a Scottish writer of over forty books, published between 1923 – 1970. Most were light romantic novels, so it is surprising that The Empty World is science fiction. I wasn’t going to review The Empty World because I already mentioned it in my essay on post-apocalyptic novels. Then I got to thinking about how it represents a kind of writing, a proto-genre novel. However, I started listening to a second novel by Stevenson, Miss Buncle’s Book which has a very clever plot, and realized that she is a much better writer than I imagined. And that’s making me rethink the value of The Empty World. Maybe more people should give it a read, and give D. E. Stevenson a try.

Barbara Buncle lives in a quaint little English village during the depression. Her investments are not paying dividends, so she decides to write a novel to make some money. However, she is not very imaginative and writes a book about all the people that live in her village but under the name of John Smith. Barbara is, however, very talented at observing details. The townspeople become outraged at her photographic portrayal of themselves in words. The book within a book is clever and I’m enjoying it quite a lot. I have a feeling I will be reading more D. E. Stevenson books in the future. By the way, many of her books are available on Scribd if you want to give them a try. (I’m partial to forgotten English writers. I maintain a website for Lady Dorothy Mills, who is far more forgotten. She also wrote a couple science fiction books published in the 1920s.)

This is strange, but in the first week of 2023, I discovered two science fiction novels that were first published in the 1930s and are mostly forgotten today. The first was The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff which I’ve already reviewed, and The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson. It is currently available on Amazon for the Kindle for $3.99. I enjoyed it but I would only recommend it to two types of readers. First, to science fiction readers who love to find forgotten science fiction novels from the past, and second to Anglophiles who like cozy books from England in the 1930s. However, I wished other science fiction readers would read them and let me know if they deserve more recognition.

This also makes me wonder just how many more forgotten science fiction novels are waiting to be rediscovered? Right now I’m focused on the 1930s. If you look at which books from the 1930s in our CSFquery.com database you won’t see many. And if you use our Show Citations feature you’ll see that most of them with just one citation come from the Radium Age list of science fiction or the library reference book Anatomy of Wonder. Neither novel is widely known to science fiction readers.

The Hopkins Manuscript nor The Empty World is in our database. That’s telling since our database is built on dozens of recommendation lists. This is disappointing since I believe The Hopkins Manuscript is a minor masterpiece and The Empty World is a rather fun book and surprisingly science fictional for its time. The main difference between the two is The Hopkins Manuscript is literary in writing style, and The Empty World anticipates genre writing.

I say that about D. E. Stevenson because, in The Empty World, the characters are shaped to convey the plot. That’s typical of genre writing. In The Hopkins Manuscript, the characterization of Edgar Hopkins is the best aspect of the story. That’s typical of literary writing.

The main character in The Empty World is Jane Forrest, a writer of popular books of history. We don’t know her exact age, but she’s older but still very attractive. The novel starts with her taking a commercial transatlantic flight from New York to London. This is before the first actual commercial flight on August 11, 1938. The novel is set in 1973. During the flight, the pilot flew at the plane’s upper altitude to avoid a storm, but even then the plane suffered tremendous turbulence. They lose all radio contact. When they land they find no people or animals left on Earth. They remember a scientist had warned the world would be destroyed when the Earth passed through a tail of a comet. This makes me wonder if Stevenson had read London and Verne. Both of these old SF books are based on hogwash science.

Stevenson covers many plot issues that later post-apocalyptic novelists will consider. How to scrounge canned food from stores and homes and figure how long such stores of food can last. How to rebuild. How to assign jobs. How money becomes worthless. How does life after the apocalypse affect class, education, gender, etc? What happens when there are more men than women?

However, Stevenson’s first plot problem is not one I’ve seen before. There are 16 men, and 6 women, but two of the women are elderly. Most of the men are in their twenties. Now, I have seen this problem before in after-the-collapse stories, but Stevenson takes an interesting tack. The higher-class men tell Jane they must get all the women away from the lower-class men. At first, she doesn’t understand, but then five of the men pull guns and tell the group they want to divide up the women. Much of the middle of the book deals with women escaping a fate worse than death.

That’s about as much as I want to tell you about the plot. The last half goes in a totally new very fun direction, but again, the women are at risk from a new threat. And much of the book is about the women finding the husband they want. Stevenson tries to surprise us by having the women pick men we wouldn’t think they’d pick.

The novel does wrap up with a happy ending, but Stevenson disappointed me because she didn’t deal with the details of rebuilding the species and civilization. She assumes just a few couples making babies will be enough to be the new Adams and Eves of the next human civilization. Of course, we know now that it would take many more people to give us the proper genetic diversity to survive. What’s amusing is there is a scientist among the survivors who advocates eugenics and a form of animal husbandry for the survivors.

After thinking about The Empty World for a while I saw how a science fictional idea could be worked out by a writer who probably neither read science fiction nor plan to write it. The collapse of civilization is a rather mundane concept unlike space travel and robots. Hell, it’s really just another version of the Noah and the Ark story (note the book cover above). But if you observe the writing in The Empty World you realize each character is there for the purpose of exploring the plot idea. That’s what science fiction has always done. Ditto for mysteries and thrillers. It’s even true for romances. Science fiction writers come up with an idea, then figure out a plot to present that science fiction idea, and then invent characters to unfold the plot.

Now that I’m reading a second D. E. Stevenson’s novel, Miss Buncle’s Book, I see that happening too but with a twist. The main plot is driven along like a genre novel, but it’s based on the idea that one character wrote a literary novel. I don’t think the concept of genre novels existed much before WWII. If you went to a bookstore in the 1930s novels were all lumped together in the fiction section. I’m guessing there was a division of readers between popular novels and literary novels but not because they were shelved in different locations in the bookstore. Sometimes and I’m assuming after WWII, and maybe not until the 1950s, booksellers started dividing up their shelves by what readers wanted to read. Then publishers followed suit and genres were born.

This is why there are science fiction books published before the war that are often forgotten today. They were never grouped with science fiction books, so they never were embraced by the science fiction genre. There’s no telling how many pre-WWII science fiction novels were written and published. And it might also be a factor that these two post-apocalyptic novels were English rather than American. The Empty World was reprinted in America in 1939 as A World in Spell.

James Wallace Harris

15 thoughts on “The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson

  1. Interesting series of posts. You should read “The Twenty-Fifth Hour” by Herbert Best (book not abridged magazine version).

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    1. Well thanks a lot, Paul, for recommending a book that the cheapest copy I can find is $74.76. Now I’m intrigued. Do you know of a cheap source? And you said don’t read the abridged magazine version in Famous Fantastic Mysteries (August 1946). By the way, that was the last reprint of this 1940 book.

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        1. Do you have a copy of that book? Just curious. Looks like a wonderful collectors item.

          I already have a scan of the mag so I’ll look at it. The cover claims its a book length novel and its the first North American Magazine Rights after book publication from Random House. That suggests Famous Fantastic Mysteries might be a source of forgotten SFF novels.

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  2. Not sure if my previous message went missing—yes I have the book, I eventually got a copy at a reasonable price after watching Ebay for years (there is still a £65 copy there from about 2018 iirc). I suppose I should read it seeing as it has been seven years since I read the magazine version (and reviewed it here: https://sfmagazines.com/?p=821)
    I believe the magazine version is 80,000 words long against the book’s 95,000.

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  3. FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES is indeed a source of forgotten SFF novels. (Or once-forgotten–there’s been a lot of resurrection going on in recent years.)
    It started as a vehicle for reprinting favorites from the old Munsey magazines ARGOSY, ALL-STORY, and others, but was sold to Popular Publications in 1942 and thereafter reprinted novels that had appeared in book form, like THE TWENTY-FIFTH HOUR.

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    1. I just went through my FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES scans and found these novels. I still need to do FANTASTIC NOVELS. I used to even own some of these pulps, but at the time I didn’t really care for this old stuff. Now I’m more interested in SFF history, these magazines look like a goldmine for that kind of history. Most of these works are known to me, but there are several that are not that I want to check into. It looks like a few of them could be added to my post-apocalyptic list if I read them.

      – THE CONQUEST OF THE MOON POOL by A. Merritt (1919 reprint)
      – THE RADIO MAN by Ralph Milne Farley (1924 reprint)
      – THE BLIND SPOT by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint (1921 reprint)
      – DARKNESS AND DAWN by George Allan England (1912 reprint)
      – THE FACE IN THE ABYSS by A. Merritt (1923 reprint)
      – THE SUN-MAKERS by Will McMorrow (1925 reprint)
      – THE SPOT OF LIFE by Austin Hall (1932 reprint)
      – CLAIMED by Francis Stevens
      – BEYOND THE GREAT OBLIVION by George Allan England (1913 reprint)
      – THE METAL MONSTER by A. Merritt (1920 reprint)
      – PALOS OF THE DOG STAR PACK by J. U. Giesy (1918 reprint)
      – THE AFTERGLOW by George Allan England (1913 reprint)
      – THE CITADEL OF FEAR by Francis Stevens (1918 reprint)
      – THE RADIO PLANET by Ralph Milne Farley (1926 reprint)
      – BURN, WITCH, BURN! by A. Merritt (1932 reprint)
      – POLARIS–OF THE SNOWS by Charles B. Stilson (1915 reprint)
      – CREAP, SHADOW! by A. Merritt (1934 reprint)
      – A BRAND NEW WORLD by Ray Cummings (1928 reprint)
      – THE ELIXIR OF HATE by George Allan England (1911 reprint)
      – INTO THE INFINITE by Austin Hall (reprint 1919)
      – THE MOUTHPIECE OF ZITU by J. U. Giesy (1919 reprint)
      – THE GOLDEN CITY by Ralph Milne Farley
      – ARK OF FIRE by John Hawkins (First Magazine Rights)
      – THE IRON STAR by John Taine (First Magazine Rights)
      – THREE GO BACK by J. Leslie Mitchell (reprint 1932)
      – THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY by G. K. Chesterton (reprint 1908)
      – THE GREATEST ADVENTURE by John Taine (First Magazine Rights)
      – THE DAY OF THE BROWN HORDE by Richard Tooker (First Magazine Rights)
      – THE LOST CONTINENT by Cutliffe Hyne (First Magazine Rights)
      – THE MACHINE STOPS by Wayland Smith (First Magazine Rights)
      – THE BOATS OF GLEN CARRIG by William Hope Hodgson (First Magazine Rights, 1907 reprint)
      – PHRA THE PHOENICIAN by Edwin Lester Arnold
      – THE ANCIENT ALLAN by H. Rider Haggard (1920 reprint)
      – BEFORE THE DAWN by John Taine (First Magazine Rights, 1934 reprint)
      – THE ISLAND OF CAPTAIN SPARROW by S. Fowler Wright (First Magazine Rights, 1928)
      – THE UNDYING MONSTER by Jessie Douglas Kerruish (First NA Magazine Rights, 1936)
      – THE TWENTY-FIFTH HOUR by Herbert Best (First NA Magazine Rights, 1940)
      – THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREA by H. G. Wells
      – UNTHINKABLE by Francis Sibson (1933 reprint)
      – THE STAR ROVER by Jack London (1915 reprint)
      – ALLAN AND THE ICE-GODS by H. Rider Haggard (First NA Magazine Rights, 1927)
      – THE PEOPLE OF THE RUINS by Edward Shanks (First NA Magazine Rights, 1920)
      – MINIMUM MAN, OR, TIME TO BE GONE by Andrew Marvell (1938 reprint)
      – THE CITY OF WONDER by E. Charles Vivian
      – THE MAN WHO WENT BACK by Warwick Deeping (1940 reprint)
      – THE PEACEMAKER by C. S. Forester (1934 reprint)
      – CITY OF THE DEAD by Augusta Groner
      – THE DEVIL’S SPOON by Theodora Du Bois (1930 reprint)
      – THE PURPLE SAPPHIRE by John Taine (First NA Magazine Rights)
      – THE LION’S WAY by C. T. Stoneham (First NA Magazine Rights)
      – NORDENHOLT’S MILLION by J. J. Connington
      – ANGEL ISLAND by Inez Haynes Gillmore
      – DIAN OF THE LOST LAND by Edison Marshall (1930 reprint)
      – THE PURPLE CLOUD by M. P. Shiel (1930 reprint)
      – THE VALLEY OF SILENT MEN by E. Charles Vivian
      – THE STARKENDEN QUEST by Gilbert Collins (1925 reprint)
      – OGDEN’S STRANGE STORY by Edison Marshall (1934 reprint)
      – MORNING STAR by H. Rider Haggard (1909-1910 reprint)
      – THE SECRET PEOPLE by John Beynon
      – THE ADVENTURE OF WYNDHAM SMITH by S. Fowler Wright
      – DONOVAN’S BRAIN by Curt Siodmak (1942 repring)
      – THE WOMAN WHO COULDN’T DIE by Arthur Stringer (1929 reprint)
      – BROOD OF THE WITCH-QUEEN by Sax Rohmer
      – THE THRESHOLD OF FEAR by Arthur J. Rees (1925 reprint)
      – THE SLAYER OF SOULS by Robert W. Chambers (1920 reprint)
      – THE WAR OF THE WORLDS by H. G. Wells (1898 reprint)
      – REBIRTH by Thomas Calvert McClary (1934 reprint)
      – THE GRAY MAHATMA by Talbot Mundy (1922 reprint)
      – THE VALLEY OF EYES UNSEEN by Gilbert Collins (1924 reprint)
      – THE DEATH MAKER by Austin J. Small (1925 reprint)
      – HER WAYS OF DEATH by Jack Mannn
      – THE WHITE WOLF by Franklin Gregory (1941 reprint)
      – THE BAT FLIES LOW by Sax Rohmer (1935 reprint)
      – SKULL-FACE by Robert E. Howard (1929 reprint)
      – FULL MOON by Talbot Mundy (1934 reprint)
      – THE WANDERER’S NECKLACE by H. Rider Haggard (1914 reprint)

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      1. I haven’t read most of those, but some comments on those I have read:

        England’s DARKNESS AND DAWN is post-apocalyptic but made risible by, oh, the intervening century or so. The main characters, man and woman, fall into suspended animation for a long time as a result of some cosmic dislocation, and when they wake up so much time has passed that their clothes have rotted. But all is not lost! Their hair has continued to grow, so they are able to retain their modesty with artful draping until they come up with some other solution. England’s THE ELIXIR OF HATE is a much better novel, but involves only a personal apocalypse.

        BEYOND THE GREAT OBLIVION and THE AFTERGLOW are sequels to DARKNESS AND DAWN.

        THE BLIND SPOT is a famously inane novel, ridiculed at length by Damon Knight in IN SEARCH OF WONDER.

        Frances Stevens’s CLAIMED is quite a good supernatural novel; she was an excellent writer and anything of hers you come across is worth trying.

        John Taine is very readable. THE IRON STAR was historically reckoned as about his best book, I believe, though Taine was a terrible racist and it manifests itself most prominently in that book. THE GREATEST ADVENTURE is similar in concept to THE LOST WORLD.

        THE BOATS OF THE GLEN CARRIG is a nautical adventure/horror novel—readable enough, but nothing comparable to THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND or even THE GHOST PIRATES. We will pass over THE NIGHT LAND, Hodgson’s monumental folly.

        Shiel’s THE PURPLE CLOUD is post-apocalyptic but you presumably know about it.

        But keep in mind that all of these are likely abridged by someone other than the author, so you might want to look for an affordable copy of the book version of any of them you are interested in.

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  4. I’m glad you read The Empty World. (Jo Walton just read it too, I suspect because I mentioned it was science fiction.)

    Yes, I did find parts of it very classist. And she comes dangerously close to endorsing eugenics, though not in the form recommended by the mad scientist character. But it’s still an enjoyable read.

    To be fair, also — by the end of the book, instead of just a dozen or so surivors as indicated at the start, they are up to probably at least a hundred, perhaps more. That is sufficient genetic variety to give them a chance.

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    1. I hope you will read and review The Hopkins Manuscript. (I couldn’t find a search feature on your blog to see if you have already.) I thought the writing in that was excellent. I haven’t read any other Sherriff, but after reading The Hopkins Manuscript I bought Sherriff’s biography. It just arrived from England. But I think that book is a mini-masterpiece. In the biography, I found out it was first serialized in Good Housekeeping. I’d love to find those issues and read any letters to the editor.

      I didn’t mention the discovery of the other survivors in The Empty World because I considered it a fun part of the plot and didn’t want to spoil it.

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  5. As to Famous Fantastic Mysteries — I haven’t read many of those. I highly highly highly recommend THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. I just bought a copy for my daughter-in-law for Christmas! It is a remarkable and very strange book.

    Besides that I have little to add to John Boston’s as always astute comments. I agree with him that Francis Stevens is a good writer though I’ve read very little by her. And I will say that I think BROOD OF THE WITCH QUEEN, by Sax Rohmer, is dreadful (and very racist.)

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    1. I’ve read The Man Who Was Thursday years ago. About time for a re-reading. It is a strange book. I should read more of Chesterton’s books. I do like the Father Brown TV show, even though I can’t get past the idea of a country parson encountering so many murders in such a little village.

      I doubt I’ll read Sax Rohmer or Talbot Mundy. The adventure stories are less appealing to me. However, I might sample them. I’m starting to think Famous Fantastic Mysteries would be an excellent survey of early 20th-century SFF. I’m thinking some of the books they reprint might be the ones Stableford surveys in his New Atlantis.

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  6. There’s the european tradition of what would later be called “Science Fiction” novels, that was around for 200+ years. This novel is IMO part of that stream, not american SF which arose from the magazines.

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