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