If you’re an old movie fan, either from being old or just because you love old movies, you might know Walter Tevis from his first novel, The Hustler (1959). It was made into a stunning Paul Newman movie. Jeez, that’s a helluva start for a young novelist. Wait, that happened to Larry McMurtry too. (Note to self, see how many young novelists were made famous by Paul Newman, it might be worth a blog.) Tevis’ last novel, The Color of Money (1984) was also made into a movie starring Paul Newman. I’m sure the first and last thing is unique.
Tevis was forgotten for a while until David Bowie made his second novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), into a weird quirky flick in 1976. Don’t rush out and watch that movie though, they ruined the book, but do read the novel, it’s quiet and lovely and should resonate with your soul. (You can watch the film afterward to see what Bowie does in the role, and there is another film version and a Showtime TV series to check out too.)
Most young people today will know of Walter Tevis if they read the credits or reviews of Queen’s Gambit (1983), the hit series on Netflix. The TV show is excellent but the book is better. All this media exposure has made Tevis (1928-1984) a minor forgotten writer with some fame.
You might have figured out by now that I’m a fan of Walter Tevis. That’s even more true now that I just finished his 1980 novel Mockingbird. What a strange trip it was. I thought it a perfect novel for the 2020s because it is about artificial intelligence and the decline of the human race and our civilization. Mockingbird is set in the 25th century but I don’t think it will take us that long.
I don’t want to give any spoilers to this novel because it‘s the kind of story that you should just unfold slowly as you read. But I do need to say enough to get you to read Mockingbird. Mockingbird has over two thousand customer ratings on Amazon with a 4.5 average.
For most of the novel Tevis tightrope walks between existentialism and nihilism and has a brush with Christianity. I will tell you the ending made me happy because of how Tevis ties up the story and his philosophical speculations. Tevis doesn’t stick to any one philosophy. He appears to be extrapolating on the decline and corruption of liberal thought but what he projects for conservatives isn’t any better. Walter Tevis was one of those tortured souls that tried mightily to figure out reality in his fiction.
The story opens with Robert Spofforth, a robot who looks like a black man but has an artificial brain. Later in the novel, Spofforth is described as the most beautiful object humans ever created. Bob is a level 9 robot, the most advanced of his kind, but the only unit of this model that hasn’t destroyed himself. He has been programmed so he can’t commit suicide. Currently, he is the Dean of New York University, but he might be the most intelligent and most powerful being left on the planet.
Spofforth hires Paul Bentley to come to New York because he’s the only human being he can find that can read. Bentley’s narrative is the main part of the novel. Paul then meets Mary Lou, an iconoclast living among the sheep, and teaches her to read. But Bob didn’t hire Paul to teach people to read but to translate the intertitles in silent films. Bob doesn’t want humans to learn to read again.
The human population has shrunk from billions to just a few million. Robots care for all their needs, but very poorly because robots are also a declining species. Humans routinely consume drugs, have a lot of casual sex, and pursue inner development.
There are elements in Mockingbird that will remind you of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, with a slight hint of The Road. And if you’ve read The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett, Mockingbird reminded me of it too. And there’s a little bit of Cool Hand Luke in the story. (Another Paul Newman connection).
And if that’s not enough to get you to read Mockingbird there’s a cat named Biff. I’m off to read The Steps of the Sun (1983) but it hasn’t gotten kind reviews. I also bought The King is Dead (2023) which reprints his 1981 collection Far from Home and adds many unpublished works.
I have become fascinated by science fiction book reviewers on YouTube. Most are young, and what’s particularly fascinating to me is how they are reading old books to learn the history of science fiction. That’s something I’ve been curious about for years, how do younger people feel about older science fiction. Of course, some of them bring a woke perspective, but I don’t mind, I often accept their criticism. On the other hand, some of the woken lack compassion for what it meant to grow up in the past.
Most of these book reviewers don’t review new books. I’m used to those book reviewers in science fiction magazines reviewing the books that are just coming out or will be soon. So I assume these YouTube reviewers aren’t getting ARCs or review copies. Some of these reviewers seem to be making money off their YouTube channel, maybe enough to make a living. Or that’s the hope. My favorite reviewer is Bookpilled, and he admits his YouTube channels are the way he makes his living. That might be changing since he’s about to become a world traveler. Not all of his videos review books. He makes money by buying used SF and reselling it online, and some videos are showing what’s up for sale.
Bookpilled is my favorite because reviews books intelligently, and with a lot of insight. I don’t know his real name, but I think it’s Matt. He actually gets me to read books. The link above is to his main site, but here is his last favorites video:
The next channel I like is Fit 2B Read. I liked this particular review because it made me want to read/reread all five books. I wish these reviewers would use their own names. I like how Fit 2B Read sought out forgotten classics. That’s what I’m doing myself. The guy is very camera ready and his show is either scripted or he’s very good at talking off the cuff. One of the main problems with watching YouTube videos is they waste the viewer’s time by either giving us information unrelated to the video or by slowly meandering around a topic or just never getting to the point.
I probably shouldn’t say this, but some YouTubers just don’t speak well enough or look good enough to watch. Fit 2B Read does a good job of being a talking head. He doesn’t get too close to the camera. He speaks fast, but not too fast. And he’s coherent. Like many of these YouTubers, he cranks out the content, finding different reasons for creating a topic to film. This doesn’t always work, but I know that YouTubers have to constantly produce new content or they’ll lose viewers. YouTube has some kind of statistical science for promoting videos, and that puts YouTubers who want to build their channel and make money on the rat race treadmill. Fit 2B Read does make some slick-looking videos.
And talk about a slick production, I’m quite impressed with The Library Ladder. His production is eye-catching, he has a radio announcer voice and a camera-ready mug. But what really wows me about this guy is his collection. I assume he’s wealthy because he often shows books that are rare collectibles. The video of his that makes me drool is the one on Gnome Press.
One of the strangest reviewers is the one for Media Death Cult. His stage name is Moid Moidelhoff, but I don’t know if that’s a real name. Moid is quite a character. In many of his videos, he’s wearing a gun. Moid goes all out for his channel. He’s even started interviewing famous writers. Here’s his review of two lesser-known Philip K. Dick novels. (He hopes to review them all.)
Next up is the Secret Sauce of Storycraft. I was impressed with her take on The Sparrow but today I watched an earlier video, Classic SciFi Sampler, and she disappointed me with how many mistakes she made and how often she admitted she didn’t know something and didn’t want to look it up. That was an older video and I think she evolved quite a lot. Right now I’m forgiving of her mistakes because she seems young and fairly new to science fiction. But what I like is how she’s working to catch up.
I thought the premise of the video below was a great idea. She wanted her users to know what kind of books she disliked because if she only reviewed books she liked they wouldn’t completely understand her as a reviewer. Unfortunately, she only gives a litany of her emotional reactions to the 8 books, and no useful details as to why. The reason why I liked her review of The Sparrow is she worked out a framework of ideas to judge the book and that gave me something to think about. The woman who does Secret Sauce of Storycraft does know how to make a video, speaks well on camera, is camera ready, and stays on topic. I’m expecting her to improve. She needs to give us more details about the book and I hope she comes up with more analytical thinking about the themes in books like she did for The Sparrow.
The Shades of Orange, by a young woman named Rachel, also shows potential. She gives a bit more detail about the books than the reviewer on The Secret Sauce of Storycraft. I’m showing this video because she rereads Shadow & Claw by Gene Wolfe, a book my friend Mike is reading, and one I’ve been thinking about reading. She starts with some new releases. I want to see more of that. I’m completely out of touch with newer science fiction.
I wish these reviewers would give more details about the books and less about their impressions. I do not like spoilers, so I know it’s hard to present a book without ruining the story for people like me. I liked how she said that Shadow & Claw was about a regressed society which she didn’t learn right away in her first reading, but made a big difference in enjoying the book in her second reading. That’s a good detail and it’s not a big enough spoiler.
The Outlaw Bookseller often creates videos on topics I’m most anxious to watch but I have trouble watching them. My problem is he doesn’t get down to business quick enough, or he digresses, but when he is on target, he’s often the most knowledgeable about the genre of the reviewers mentioned here. And he covers the books and topics I’m most interested in. For example, I recently wanted to read a D. G. Compton novel. The Outlook Bookseller does give the level of detail I want, but he sometimes tells too much about the story. The details he does give are a description of what happens in the book. That’s great if they aren’t spoilers, but I also want analysis. The Outlaw Bookseller does give me most of what I want from a review, but I have to admit the presentation doesn’t work well for me. The reviewer has the details I want but gives them too fast, and in a kind of stream of conscious way that’s hard to hang onto cognitively. I think I would do better reading his reviews. I’m sticking with this channel, trying to adapt to the presentation, because this guy knows his stuff.
My guess is these YouTube book reviewers (BookTube?) have a greater potential of promoting and selling books than bloggers and magazine reviewers. I’d like to find reviewers who focus on new books, so if you know of any, give me a link in the comments.
I first read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell in 1997. Then in 2005, I listened to it when it came out on audiobook. I remember it being an exceptional novel of first contact involving the Jesuits. Russell explored both religion and science fiction at the same time. Essentially, the story asks why bad things happen to good people, especially why would God be so cruel to one of his faithful. It asks this ancient philosophical question in a special context involving aliens, aliens who essentially make the query meaningless, or does it?
However, I don’t really remember the details of the book. This week I accidentally watched three reviewers review this book on Youtube and discovered most of them are part of a science fiction alliance of reviewers. That led to two more reviews. Watching all of them tells us a whole lot about how books are perceived by readers, and how reviewers take different approaches to evaluating books for our consideration. Here they are:
Fit 2B Read:
Secret Sauce of Storycraft:
Media Death Cult:
The Library Ladder:
I’m afraid I’m going to have to study these reviews carefully and reread The Sparrow. Bookpilled is my favorite science fiction reviewer on YouTube and he did not like the book. He had very specific criticisms, some of which I’ve made against other books. I don’t remember thinking about those criticisms when I read The Sparrow.
The Sparrow is on the Classics of Science Fiction list with 23 citations. It is a novel that’s widely admired. But it’s over a quarter of a century old, and it’s been eighteen years since I last read it. I’ve changed, society has changed, and maybe it will be a different reading experience for me this time. Watching these reviewers has brought up a number of questions for me:
Are reviewers too easy or hard on books?
Are readers too easy or hard on books?
Will these reviewers change how I reread The Sparrow?
Are there positive qualities that all readers can recognize?
Are there flaws that all readers can perceive?
Are the value or faults of novels entirely subjective?
Have these reviewers found insights I missed?
Are novels merely Rorschach tests or do novelists have something specific to say?
Do we waste our time by reading books that aren’t worth discussing?
I like this group review by the Science Fiction Alliance. Kalandai doesn’t seem to be part of the group but her review fits in. I hope this group does other group reviews. Some novels are worth the extra focus.
The primary value of science fiction is introducing readers to new concepts. Take time travel – it’s a mind-blowing concept. But how many stories about time travel do we have to read before the concept loses its sense of wonder, or even becomes boring? When do we say: “Hey, I get the idea!”
My mother spent her whole life reading who-done-its, but I got burned out on the concept in my twenties. On the other hand, I’ve been reading about certain science fictional concepts my whole life. Why don’t I get burned out? I think I did, but I just keep reading science fiction hoping to find new concepts that will reignite those old thrills. Along the way, I’ve had to read mouldy concepts so many times that they’ve become boring.
However, let me clarify something. Fiction can approach a theme in two ways. First, the theme can be the focus of the story, or second, it can be the setting. When a theme is new, writers tend to explore it, but when it’s old, they use it for the background of their plot.
After finishing Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and Martin H. Greenberg, an anthology of twenty-one post-apocalyptic stories about atomic warfare, I realized I’m burned out on that theme even though it’s always been one of my favorites? Why? That’s hard to say, but some stories overcame the problem of overexposure by focusing instead on the storytelling and characters and using the theme as a background. Others were original classics that I exempt from aging.
Walter M. Miller, Jr. is famous for writing A Canticle For Leibowitz, an uber-classic SF novel on the theme of a post-apocalypse caused by nuclear war. However, he had disappeared from the genre in the 1960s and 1970s. Evidently, he saw the 1984 British film, Threads, about surviving a nuclear war winter and it inspired him to edit this anthology. He mentions Threads several times in his main introduction and in the introductions to the stories. Miller said the main focus of the anthology was nuclear wars, especially a large-scale conflict which he called megawar.
It’s possible to read one post-apocalyptic novel or short story every so often and keep the theme interesting. You just don’t notice that writers seem to find a limited number of insights into that concept. Reading twenty-one stories in a row only emphasizes the finite number of subthemes. Miller chose to only focus on nuclear war apocalypses but I’m not sure how civilization is destroyed that matters for some of the subthemes.
I’m going to try and define those subthemes by citing the different stories. And I’m going to point out how some stories stand above the theme and why.
Because Beyond Armageddon is out of print I’ll link the first mention of the story titles to ISFDB.org to show where the story has been reprinted. You might already have another anthology or collection that has it. If there’s a significant article about the story in Wikipedia or elsewhere, I’ll link it in the second mention of the title. This anthology is being discussed on Facebook and if you’d like to read the threads about each story follow this link.
#1 – “Salvador” by Lucius Shepard (F&SF April 1984)
“Salvador” doesn’t involve nuclear war, but it’s about the dangers of escalating wars on civilian life and civilization. The protagonist, Dantzler, is a soldier in the near future fighting in Central America. Remember, this was written during Reagan’s administration and our secret war in Nicaragua. In the story, the Army uses powerful mind drugs to make soldiers super-aware, aggressive, and brave. The story feels like a cross between Carlos Casteneda’s books and the film Platoon.
I don’t think “Salvador” fits the theme of Beyond Armageddon, but it was an extremely popular story that came out during the time the book was being edited. I think it resonated with Miller’s anti-war feelings so he included it. It’s also the second newest story in the anthology. It doesn’t deal with the subject of this essay either. I would have left it out and picked another story that did. However, “Salvador” is an impressive story.
“The Store of the Worlds” is a story that at first doesn’t seem to fit the theme of the anthology either, however, Robert Sheckley is brilliant at tricking us into seeing a philosophical insight about nuclear war. When our reading group discussed “The Store of the Worlds” it was highly admired.
This story is one that focused on the theme of a nuclear war post-apocalypse and is squarely aimed at the theme, but I believe “The Store of the Worlds” should have been the last story in the anthology.
“The Big Flash” is about a rock and roll band that has explosive success. Its satirical humor reminds me of the film Dr. Strangelove, and the storytelling outshines the theme. Like the movies Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, the story is pre-apocalyptic. The first three stories in this anthology are really about our madness. Science fiction does two things. It promotes futures we’d like to see, and warns us about futures we should avoid. The first three stories in this anthology are all warnings about humanity being insane.
I’m not sure Spinrad wrote this story to protest nuclear bombs. It’s a gonzo story about rock and roll.
“Lot” is the story that should have been first in this anthology. It came out in 1953, probably during the peak era of atomic war paranoia. “Lot” is completely focused on the theme and defines many of the standard attributes of post-apocalyptic fiction. “Lot” is a wet dream for survivalists and preppers, defining their key philosophical creed. Once civilization falls, survival of the fittest is everything. Mr. Jimmon and his family flee Los Angeles just after it’s been nuked. Mr. Jimmon instantly embraces survivalist thinking while his family can’t stop thinking with a civilized mindset even as they race away from the mushroom clouds.
“Lot” is one of my all-time favorite science fiction short stories. It’s brutal. It’s a story of cold equations before the classic Tom Godwin story. It’s one of my prime pieces of evidence that 1953 was the peak year for short science fiction.
“Day at the Beach” is another story that focuses beautifully on the theme. Carol Emshwiller describes life after the bomb, living with radiation. Like many science fiction stories in the 1950s, it speculates about mutations as a consequence of radioactive fallout. Myra and her husband Ben, who are bald, take their son, Littleboy, who has lots of hair, for a day out at the beach. Littleboy is a mutant. Life is grim, but people keep on living.
This story features two of the main subthemes of a nuclear post-apocalypse. The primary one is survival after the bomb and the second is mutants.
#6 – “The Wheel” by John Wyndham (Startling Stories, January 1952)
“The Wheel” introduces us to another classic subtheme of post-apocalyptic fiction. It suggests that after civilization collapses society will revert to earlier social constructs. I’ll call that subtheme, a devolved society. In this case, a superstitious society like early America and the Puritans. This was common speculation about post-apocalyptic life in the 1950s. A classic example is The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. “The Wheel” is tightly focused on painting the theme. The concepts are in the foreground, although there’s a good story.
Interestingly, “The Wheel,” “The Store of the Worlds,” and “Lot” have surprise endings. I wonder if that’s a factor in them being remembered and reprinted. All these stories are jammed with ideas about how post-apocalyptic life will be different. Yet, they all use good storytelling techniques to express these ideas. In other words, they have a message, but it doesn’t dominate the story.
As we progress through Beyond Armageddon these speculative ideas get repeated and newer writers elaborate on them. But eventually, I believe it gets harder to come up with fresh perspectives.
“Jody After the War” is where the theme shifts from the focus of the story to the background. The eastern U.S. has been destroyed in a nuclear war, and the capital is now in Denver. Paul and Jody are up in the hills and are having a day outside like Myra and Ben, but they have no child. Jody can’t have children because she’s a survivor of an atomic bomb explosion. This story is more about their relationship and less about the post-apocalypse. Civilization hasn’t been destroyed, but it’s been wounded and suffers from PTSD.
In “The Terminal Beach,” Traven, a deeply depressed man sneaks onto an island where they’ve been testing atomic bombs. This surreal tale is one of my favorites in the anthology. Because I’ve been reading and watching documentaries about South Pacific atom bomb tests, this story was exceedingly vivid to me. This is another story that’s not post-apocalyptic, at least for the whole world, but Traven inhabits a post-apocalyptic landscape. I feel “The Terminal Beach” captures the psychic horror we felt back in the 1960s.
“Tomorrow’s Children” is another story about mutants. There’s quite a bit of scientific talk in this story. Coming just two years after Hiroshima I’m sure the world was full of such speculation. Interestingly, the focus of this story is anti-prejudice. Anderson’s message tells people to ignore what people look like and accept everyone for being human.
In “Heirs Apparent,” Robert Abernathy puts his American protagonist, Leroy Smith, a visiting scientist, in Russia after a nuclear war has destroyed both countries. Russia has been bombed back to serfdom. Smith helps survivors trying to restart agriculture with his professional knowledge. Unfortunately, for a small village, a survivor, Bogomazov arrives there. He’s a member of the Communist party and demands to be the leader forcing everyone to work collectively. Smith goes along. He has no choice. Abernathy uses this story for a lot of infodumping and speculation, but the main gist of the story is capitalism and communism will be useless after the apocalypse.
This is another old favorite of mine, but an ideal form of post-apocalyptic fiction for me too. 76-year-old Brian Van Anda survives the apocalypse alone, living in a flooded New York City in the Hall of Music museum. I love post-apocalyptic stories about the last man on Earth, but as usual, they are never the very last person. Van Anda survives inside the decay of the city, scourging food the best he can. Weather permitting, he doesn’t even wear clothes. His only regard to civilization is playing the piano, working to learn a very complicated piece he wanted to perform before the bombs. Eventually, two young people find him. They live like primitive nomads. They had a leader, an old person who guided them, that’s died. They are out searching for a replacement old person because they need guidance. They also want to get married and that requires an old person.
The two major subthemes are living alone after the apocalypse and society reverting to tribal hunting and gatherers.
“Game Preserve” is another story of mutants, but a rather sad, painful one. It’s told by Elf, a child who lives in a strange tribe of human-like creatures. Their cognitive abilities are about equal to chimpanzees, but they all have a fetish. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it’s brutal. It’s another cold equations story.
“Game Preserve” takes the theme and uses it for a rather unusual setting. The focus is no longer the post-apocalypse, but something deep and psychological. I don’t know if Phillips was merely being sensational, or if he wanted to bring up a philosophical conundrum.
“By the Waters of Babylon” is a classic. If Stephen Vincent Benét had read and known about “The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London and After London by Richard Jefferies then his story is an update of those classic post-apocalyptic tales. If he hadn’t read those classics, then it’s a case of rediscovery of a classic concept. I don’t know how old the idea is that if civilization collapsed it would revert to a tribal society. I’d love to read a literary study of that idea.
I’ve seen this reversion theme over and over again. Sometimes it’s back to a hunting and gathering, sometimes the apocalypse knocks us back to a tribal society, and sometimes to a feudal society. And sometimes just to the 19th century. It’s very logical when you think about it.
I love “By the Waters of Babylon.” It has a tremendous sense of wonder. However, over the decades I feel subtheme has been overused. I sometimes wonder if writers merely want a setting that’s pre-modern and use an apocalypse to get them there.
This subtheme demands two other themes. First, why don’t we see new forms of society? And second, why don’t we see more stories about a healed, mutated, or changed modern civilization. “Jody After the War” was one possible example, but it didn’t work out the ideas of the subgenre in the way I’m suggesting. Think about it, what if a nuclear war killed 50% of current Americans but left the other 50% to rebuild. Wouldn’t we just patch up the broken parts and keep going the way we were? Japan and Germany rebuilt and became better than ever. Why don’t we see that in this post-apocalyptic tales?
“There Will Come Soft Rains” is another classic. Ray Bradbury imagines people completely gone, and our automated civilization working without us – for a while. We don’t know if this is world-wide or just in the city that got bombed. This rare subtheme, life after people, is one I love to contemplate. Bradbury anticipates the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction book about what would the world be like if people suddenly disappeared. It inspired two television shows. Follow the link to read more.
“To the Chicago Abyss” reminds me of the Sheckley story. In it an old man annoys people in a post-apocalyptic world by constantly reminding them of things that no longer exist. Since we have two stories in this anthology on this topic I guess that makes a subtheme – what we’ll miss.
#16 – “Lucifer” by Roger Zelazny (Worlds of Tomorrow, June 1964)
“Lucifer” is another story about what we’ll miss. It feels like a last man on Earth story. Carlson, the protagonist returns to a dead city to repair generators and get the lights going. The light flare up for a few seconds, and then go out again. But it’s enough to remind Carlson of what life was once like. This story reminds me of the 1959 Harry Belafonte film, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.
William Tenn cleverly unwinds the clock on Europeans settling North America. He imagines Native Americans reestablishing control of the continent after a nuclear war. The title, “Eastward Ho!” is a play on the famous saying “Go west, young man.” The story really isn’t focused on the post-apocalypse theme, but instead it’s a satire on American hubris. It’s a fun story. It really belongs to the subtheme of what will we build next. That subtheme gave authors a chance to imagine all kinds of societies.
The thing is, no civilization lasts for long, The history of our species is trying out all the possible combinations of societies. So apocalypses just the way we start over and try something new.
“The Feast of Saint Janis” is the second story in this anthology that uses the apocalypse to create an exciting rock and roll story. I guess the subtheme could be called rebuilding America, but like Spinrad and Ellison, Swanwick is using the postapocalyptic setting to stage a gonzo story. And I consider this one superior to the other two. Swanwick imagines a situation where a woman volunteers to become the reembodiment of Janis Joplin. It’s a striking story.
“A Boy and His Dog” is a famous novella by Harlan Ellison that earned a Nebula award and was made into a movie in 1975. The setting is a post-apocalyptic America where on the surface men live like a Mad Max movie, but in silos beneath the surface, the good and righteous exist in clean and orderly cities. This is a perfect example where Ellison uses the post-apocalypse as a setting for his story about sex and violence. It has nothing to say about the theme, and its real goal is to be sensational. And boy is it sensational. It’s an exciting and classic science fiction story but I don’t think it fits in this anthology.
Miller maintains an outrage about politics throughout all his introductions, and he’s seriously protesting against nuclear war. I don’t see this story as a protest, nor is it a serious take on his theme. And it will be problematic for modern readers because Vic, the protagonist is a serial rapist who uses a mutant dog to find women to attack. The story is misogynistic through and through.
Rating: **** (but it’s definitely politically incorrect, even I might want to cancel culture it)
“My Life in the Jungle” by Jim Aiken is another story that doesn’t fit the theme of our anthology. It’s about a man, a mathematics professor, who suddenly finds himself in the body of a chimpanzee. The story is a surreal fantasy that symbolizes the tragic stupidity of our species. The ending can be seen as a post-apocalypse, but it’s more of an analogy for ecological self-destruction than nuclear self-destruction.
However, “My Life in the Jungle” is a powerful story and the newest of the anthology. My guess is Miller read it while editing Beyond Armageddon and just wanted to promote a new writer. This anthology is its only reprint.
I may have had my fill of post-apocalyptic fiction, at least for stories about nuclear war. However, I’m tempted to read other anthologies on the subject to see if anyone found something uniquely different to say. I do have several of them. See my post on “End of the World Anthologies.”
What I really need to decide is if I just like vicariously living in post-apocalyptic worlds. That’s kind of sick when you think about it, and if true, maybe I need psychoanalysis. I’ll have to contemplate that. I’ve always loved tales like Robinson Crusoe. On the other hand, I need to consider that there’s nothing new to be learned from reading speculations about nuclear war. That I should go on to other topics. Time is limited in this life, especially now that I’m 71, so why waste so much reading time on such a narrow subject when there’s zillions of interesting other subjects to explore?
For most of my life I’ve had a prejudice against the fantasy genre. When I was ten I was crazy about the Oz books, but not long after that I discovered science fiction. I know it’s possible to enjoy both science fiction and fantasy, but I associate fantasy with the unscientific, with religions and myths, and with the belief in magic. On rare occasions I’ve fallen for fantasy tales, like the Harry Potter books and The Golden Compass trilogy. I believe they were acceptable to me because they were for kids and I assume fantasy stories are fine for children. Although, that might suggest that part of my prejudice against fantasy is because I believe fantasy is for children — and that at a certain age we should give it up.
However, I mainly dislike fantasy stories because fantasy embraces magic. I hate the concept of magic for scientific and philosophical reasons. I have always hoped that scientific thinking would supplant religious thinking. Christianity has a problem with magic too. Christianity has always hoped to supplant belief in magic, and I can understand why. Because for a new paradigm to take old the old one has to be erased. But for me, Christianity is just another form of magical thinking, and I expected science to replace it.
You might be thinking this is a weird way to review a book, but reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany deals with these philosophical issues — and I wonder if it’s message isn’t anti-magic. I’m not sure what it’s exact stance on the subject is, which is why I want to talk about it. And you might think I’m even more confused because I’m reading a classic adult fantasy novel when I just declared I’m too old for fantasy novels.
I decided to read The King of Elfland’s Daughter when the unnamed reviewer on Bookpilled, my favorite science fiction reviewer channel on YouTube, reviewed it. The Bookpilled guy praised The King Of Elfland’s Daughter so highly I felt I should try and overcome my fantasy prejudice and give it a read.
The King Of Elfland’s Daughter came out in 1924, and according to Wikipedia it made quite an impact. Over the years, some of my favorite science fiction writers from the mid-20th century mentioned an admiration for Lord Dunsany. In 1969 Ballantine reprinted the novel as the second book in its second series of Adult Fantasy novels. That series if often cited as reviving fantasy as a popular genre for adult readers. I remember that Ballantine Adult Fantasy books coming out back then, and I liked them for their covers, but never wanted to read them. Over the years, I have ended up reading a few of them. I wish I had bought and saved those Ballantine editions because many of them sell for hundreds nowadays.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter might not appeal to modern fans of fantasy though. It’s prose sounds like something out of Chaucer, and there is very little character development, dramatic action, or even dialogue. Lurulu, the troll, who is mostly a comic character seems to have had the most lines. I say that because in the audiobook edition I listened to the narrator did voices for the characters and about the only one that stood out was the troll’s. I also read along with a 99 cent Kindle edition from Amazon.
The story is set in the village/valley of Erl and the neighboring fantasyland of Elfland. The setting is sometime before 1530 — Dunsany makes a specific point of bringing that up. Erl is ruled by a hereditary lord who lives in a castle, but a Parliament of elders comes to visit the lord of Erl telling him they want more magic in their land. The lord tells his son, Alveric, to go into Elfland, find and bring back the King of Elfland’s daughter, Lirazel, and marry her. This happens early in the book and they have a son named Orion. Unfortunately, Lirazel can’t adapt to human ways and returns to Elfland. Most of the rest of the story is about Alveric trying to find his way back to Elfland to recapture Lirazel, and Orion growing up to be a hunter, first of stags, but then of unicorns.
This novel was pleasant enough to read, but it’s structure was primitive, much like a long fairytale. Alveric and Lirazel have practically no personal traits at all, and there’s barely any for Orion. Lirazel is beautiful, and that’s about it. Orion is good at hunting and loves his hunting dogs.
On the other land, the prose is rather nice.
The real meat of this story is the contrast between Earth and Elfland. Elfland is another dimension that borders Erl on the east. Elfland is timeless. Immortal beings that leave Elfland to visit Earth age. When Alveric is in Elfland capturing Lirazel, ten years pass by in Erl. Lord Dunsany sets up his story so that Erl is Christian and its citizens believe they will go to heaven. But we’re also told there is no path to heaven from Elfland. The choice for some of the characters is between living, growing old, dying and going to heaven, or choosing to live in Elfland where nothing happens and everything is eternal. Dunsany constantly reminds us of the timelessness of Elfland.
Sometimes I picture everything in Elfland frozen in one beautiful tableau. When Lirazel returns she sits on her father’s knee the entire time Orion grows up. I tried to get Midjourney to create an image of that scene but it kept making Lirazel a little girl in her father’s lap. I settled for what I have above.
During that same time, Alveric is on a never ending quest to reenter Elfland. His quest is longer than Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War.
Eventually, Orion discovers the edge of Elfland and sees a unicorn. Now, in this story, unicorns are magical, but not special like in modern fantasy stories. In fact, Orion hunts them, and mounts their heads. I bet modern readers will be horrified at that. Orion also discovers trolls and the trolls start visiting Erl.
I’m not sure if I should tell the whole story, but I’m going to say that the Parliament of Erl come to regret their desire for more magic in their land. They thought it would make their valley famous, but instead magic scares them. And it’s here where I wonder if Dunsany isn’t making a case against magic. At one point the Freer (friar?) speaks to the village:
I won’t tell what the ending is but it involves a transformation that I can’t decide if it’s wonderful or horrifying.
My theory is belief in magic existed before Christianity all across Europe, and for two thousand years the Church has been trying to stamp it out. Lovers of fantasy hate to let magic go. And I wonder if Lord Dunsany’s book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter isn’t about that. On one hand, I tend to think Dunsany is siding with Christianity and is against magic, but on the other hand, I think he’s just as enchanted by the magical.
The reason why I believed fantasy is for children is because I felt pretending is something kids like to do. But I also assume when we grow up we need to get real. Now, I’m no longer sure if it is okay to allow fantasy in books for children. Too many kids never grow up. I thought reading science fiction was taking the road to realism, but I realized late in life that much of science fiction is just as magical as fantasy. The reality is we don’t like reality and wish it was something its not. On the other hand, fiction allows us to cope with a reality that is difficult to comprehend.
Back in the 1800s there was a lot of opposition to reading fiction. Serious people thought it rotted the mind. People thought fiction mainly appealed to children, women, and men who couldn’t cope with the real world. I’m not sure they were wrong. And I wonder if Lord Dunsany wasn’t touching on this issue in The King of Elfland’s Daughter.
If I had the time I would like to make a case comparing the L. Frank Baum Oz books to The King of Elfland’s Daughter. There were 14 Oz books published from 1900 to 1920. The King of Elfland’s Daughter came out in 1924. I’d like to study what people thought of fantasy in the years 1900 to 1940 before science fiction started getting popular.
As a ten-year-old I wanted Oz to exist like Elfland. As a teenager, and even into my twenties, I used to tell people I never wanted to adultify.
Does anyone know of a good study on the evolution of fantasy fiction? I might not want to read it but I might want to read about it.
As I’ve mentioned, our short story club is reading Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg. Its specific theme is megawars, which is what Miller calls all-out nuclear conflicts that destroy civilization. Tuesday’s story discussion was on “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson which first appeared in the March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction but was probably written in 1946. Coincidentally, today I finished the short novel The Murder of the U.S.A. by Will F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster) which was published in 1946. Both of these stories were written in the year after we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and imagine the United States nearly destroyed by a sneak attack using hundreds of atomic bombs.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been consuming science fiction stories, nonfiction, and documentary films about the development of atomic weapons in the 1940s and 1950s. I want to discover where the common ideas we hold today about surviving an atomic wars come from. Are they from science fiction stories or from general public knowledge? As Civil Defense programs emerged after WWII, Americans were told about what an atomic bomb attack would be like and how to prepare and survive it. It was assumed we’d survive such a war. But as the years went by many people started believing we wouldn’t.
Darker assumptions became the norm. Books, and especially movies and television shows, based on a growing list of memes about atomic wars have shaped what we expected. Over the decades, those fears have taken a back seat to other fears, especially about climate change, and occasionally about plagues, cosmic disasters, and the return of gods. For some reason, we all entertain various scenarios about the end of the world.
For some reason, reading all this old science fiction about nuclear war has shown me we were too worried, and mostly scaring ourselves. Sure, such wars were possible, but not as likely as everyone feared. That makes me wonder if we’re too worried about climatic change, or economic collapse, or pandemics? Of course, all these things can actually kill us, but what are the odds that they will kill as many people as fiction imagines?
In “Tomorrow’s Children” Anderson imagines Americans in small towns rebuilding after the war but still suffering from widespread fallout of radioactive dust and germs from biological weapons. Anderson pictures both human and animal births being overwhelmed with horrible mutations. It’s a grim story, but ultimately positive. His solution is we must give up all prejudices about what people should look like. “Tomorrow’s Children” was well anthologized.
Anderson also pictures many of the tropes we’ll see used in most post-apocalyptic novels that have been published since then. I often wonder if the success of AR-15 sales isn’t due to apocalyptic fears? Are survivalists and preppers living with assumptions that are probably more science fiction than fact?
Anderson wrote three other stories that were “sequels” to this one that was collected in a fix-up novel called Twilight World. Radioactivity that caused mutations was a big theme in science fiction in the late 1940s and 1950s. Remember all the movies about giant invading insects or post-apocalyptic novels where normal people battled tribes of human mutants?
Murray Leinster’s novel, The Murder of the U.S.A. has a rather unique plot. America is destroyed by a sneak attack that leaves all the major cities in ruins. However, we don’t know who attacked us because the rockets came in over the poles. This was well before ICBMs were invented, so impressive speculation by Jenkins. However, in this story, Americans built over a hundred deeply buried silos where the military could survive and launch retaliative attacks. The novel is about the men of Burrow 89 who do detective work to find out who murdered the U.S.A. It’s not a very good novel and has been out of print until recently when Wildside Press reprinted it.
After reading all these stories and watching all those documentaries, I’m not sure an atomic war will be like what science fiction imagined. I believe fiction has assumed we’d go to extremes. As far as I know, radioactive fallout has not caused weird human mutations or giant insects. And we haven’t had any all-out wars that destroyed most of humanity. What I’m afraid of is a limited nuclear war. I’m afraid politicians will discover they can get away with using nukes. I believe all this post-apocalyptic fiction has scared us so much that we fear any use of them will destroy everything. I keep reading about the times our presidents considered using nuclear weapons. And we have to assume leaders and other countries have had similar thoughts. What if we start having limited wars with atomic weapons and they don’t destroy the world? Isn’t that something to fear even more?
Science fiction often imagines the worse possible ways for us to destroy ourselves. What I’m beginning to fear are all the ways we can merely make everyday life worse because of these fears. I have to admit, that science fiction has given me a lot to worry about over my lifetime. Science fiction has always been about our hopes and fears for the future. Reading all these stories about nuclear doom shows how we incorporated that one fear into our consciousness.
Here is Hiroshima in 1945 and 2020. Did we imagine such a recovery in 1945? It’s pretty weird that it’s taken me over fifty years to begin to distrust science fiction.
But there is something else we should consider. Why have these stories been so popular for so long? Sure, the causes of apocalypses keep changing, but we still delight in fiction about surviving something big and awful. Maybe they imply another kind of psychological issue. Instead of worrying about the worse than can happen, maybe we subconsciously want cataclysmic change? That deep down we don’t like how civilization has evolved and want a do-over. That’s not healthy either.
Now I’m starting to wonder if my life-long addiction to science fiction isn’t a psychological symptom suggesting I have a problem with reality. Think about it. Why would anyone really want to live on Mars? Why would anyone picture themselves living in a post-apocalyptic world? Why would anyone imagine time-traveling to the past or future? And really, why are dystopian novels so popular as escapist fiction?
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.
Once again I’m gorging on post-apocalyptic novels where a few people survive a horrific civilization-destroying catastrophe. Usually, they hope to rebuild civilization. But not always. I recently finished The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff first published in 1939 which I’ve already reviewed. And I just finished The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson first published in 1936. This has gotten me to think about all the books, movies, and television shows I read or watched because of this theme. I’ve listed and rated all that I can remember in the table below. But what I want to talk about first is the appeal and common plot elements of this sub-genre of science fiction. I have written about this a number of times before and have linked to those essays at the end — just in case this essay got you interested. I do know that other science fiction fans love this theme too.
[HBO just started a new series based on this theme. It appears people never get tired of it.]
There are many kinds of post-apocalyptic novels. See the long comprehensive overview on Wikipedia on Post-Apocalyptic fiction The ones I like best are those that focus just on a few survivors. You might call this version of the theme the Robinson Crusoe Post-Apocalypse. Some people also call them Cozy Catastrophes — but the exact definition is often argued over. For example, I disagree with many of the choices in “Jane Rogers’s top 10 cozy catastrophes” from The Guardian.
Here are my favorite elements in a cozy catastrophe:
I like stories that follow just a few characters who survive the end of the world and try to rebuild. I would even enjoy it if it was just one person, which happens in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, but usually, these stories start with one survivor who eventually finds a few more.
How They Survive
I also love the details of how they survive, whether it’s raiding grocery stores, becoming a hunter, or starting a garden. I love seeing how people start over from scratch and accomplish all the things we depend on civilization to give us now. This appeals to my younger self who wanted to move back to nature and subscribed to Mother Earth News. I loved the idea of being self-sufficient on five acres.
I also love reading about how people get along. In American fiction written by men, the stories can get rather violent. American guys believe the collapse of civilization means no laws, grab your guns, and everyone out for themselves. Think Mad Max or The Postman. Female Americans see starting over as a lot less violent. Consider Station Eleven. English writers of either gender, see post-apocalyptic affairs as being much less violent.
I just read The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson, first published in 1936. D. E. is for Dorothy Emily, and her books were light romances aimed at shop girls. The Empty World did have some violence. Right after the catastrophe we are told two-thirds of the surviving group of men are civilized and one-third are not, and the civilized men must get the few surviving women away from the uncivilized. Stevenson seemed to enjoy showing how the brutish lower-class Englishmen would fight and kill to possess a woman. Stevenson’s early cozy catastrophe anticipated many of the common elements that would emerge in this sub-genre, but her focus seemed to be on the women finding the right husband. Her premise for how civilization was wiped out was mumbo-jumbo science but that didn’t seem to hurt the story. Jo Walton gives a short review of the novel in her Tor.com column. I wonder if Stevenson had read London’s The Scarlet Plague?
My all-time favorite novel of this theme, Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart tells about how Ish, the protagonist wants to educate the first generation after the collapse. He was a college professor who wanted to preserve knowledge but realized the vastness of human learning couldn’t be passed on. My favorite TV show that covers this theme, Survivors (1975 BBC) focuses on how a few people can work together to start a farm, and eventually, build coalitions between survivor groups. Survivors the TV show has an excellent novelization by Terry Nation. It’s currently for sale at Amazon for the Kindle for just $1.99. The complete series on DVD is just $22. But a warning, the production was low-budget and modern TV watchers might not like it. Episodes of the show are available in low-resolution on YouTube, but not streaming anywhere else.
How Would You Do It
Probably the most fun aspect of this genre is picturing myself in the same situation as in the story and fantasizing about how I would have dealt with it. I have to admit, those fantasies have changed over the years. When I was younger, I pictured a post-apocalyptic world as more of an adventure. As I got older, it became more about how to farm and take care of myself. Now that I’m old, I realize if I found myself becoming one of the last people on Earth, my solutions for how to live would be much different. I don’t have the strength to farm. I now see myself just hiding out, scrounging for preserved food, and reading books, while contemplating the end of the world.
Hope for the Future
Another thing I love about this theme is seeing how the characters hope to rebuild things. I believe part of the appeal of this genre comes from disliking the way things are now. And readers love to imagine a better society. One thing I was very impressed with in Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript is how he predicted that people don’t change and we’d just quickly go back to our bad ways. That’s depressing but I believe philosophically correct.
Some stories, like On the Beach by Nevil Shute and The Road by Cormac McCarthy imply there is no hope for mankind.
Misanthropic – A Subconscious Urge For Fewer People
I also believe these stories appeal to us because deep down we wish there were a lot fewer people on Earth. The question is how fewer? Would you want to be the last person? Just a few friends? A small community? Maybe a world where the total population is just ten million? And do we want to bring back civilization?
Post-Apocalyptic Stories I Remember
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
After London by Richard Jefferies
The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel
The Scarlet Plague by Jack London
Goslings by J. D. Beresford
The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson
The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Death of Grass by John Christopher
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
On the Beach U.S. film
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil MGM
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
Survivors by Terry Nation
The Postman by David Brin
The Quiet Earth New Zealand film
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Survivors BBC remake
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Last Man On Earth Fox TV
Y: The Last Man FX on Hulu
Essays About Post-Apocalyptic Fiction I’ve Written Before
Normally I avoid reading fantasy books but will make an exception for outstanding works of the genre, such as Babel by R. F. Kuang. I became intrigued by this novel when reviews described it being a fantasy about language translation, set in Oxford at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. I love reading about how books are translated, and I’m fond of poking around in the 19th century. Then I saw that LitHub found Babel on 7 best-books-of-2022 lists. That convinced me to try it.
I find most fantasy novels to be mediocre. This is due to the genre being flooded with works, and because exceptional works of fantasy have set the bar so high that reading anything less is boring. Babel reminded me of Harry Potter books, The Golden Compass trilogy, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
Babel is mostly set in Oxford, England in the 1830s. Follows four students who study at the Royal Institute of Translation – known as Babel. It is the most powerful college at Oxford in Kuang’s fantasy world. Babel is a fantasy novel rather than a historical one because silver can be embued with powerful charms via knowledge in language translation. This magical silver powers the industrial revolution and is a metaphor for capitalism. Actually, for the evils of capitalism.
I would call this a YA novel except that the protagonists are college students. Kuang is impressively creative in her writing and plotting but I was somewhat disappointed with her characterization. I would say they were excellent for genre writing — because genre fans will love them. But I thought her characters lacking compared to literary writing. The main character, Robin Swift, is half Chinese and half English and grew up in Canton, China before being taken to England to study languages. He never felt Chinese. He always felt English. Ramy is a Muslim kid from India, his cultural background doesn’t come through either. People are prejudiced against these two for their physical appearance, but I never felt they were different from the English characters internally. The only character that emotionally acts a bit different is Victoire, a girl originally from Haiti. Letty, the fourth in the cohort, is a privileged English girl and acts exactly that.
Even though this is a fantasy it focused on the historical sins of England in the 19th century. It judges Imperial England harshly, which it deserves. Actual history is like studying the Holocaust — full of horrors. There is an infinite amount of history to hate, but finding any real understanding is rare. I question making an attack on the past for the basis of a fantasy novel, but then I don’t take fantasy novels seriously. I feel they are mostly fun, and mostly for young people.
The story comes across as another YA tale of Blows Against the Empire that’s no more realistic than a Star Wars sequel or The Hunger Games. It’s hard to take its plot seriously since it involves magic. But maybe young readers will be inspired to read nonfiction history about the period, such as Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert. On the other hand, the plot is compelling from a reading point of view.
And I do believe R. F. Kuang is deadly serious. That makes me worry about her solution supporting violence. Her novel is really a metaphor for our times. It asks: How can we enjoy the fruits of evil when we know the price of them will be so much suffering? But the woken judge the past so severely without realizing the future will judge them just as harshly. We all need to read What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill. I’m afraid the future will look back on the 21st century and judge anyone who flew in an airplane or ate meat like we feel about 19th-century slave owners.
If Babel is just a fun fantasy that mixes in history and uses the English imperialists as its bad guys, how should we judge it? But what if it’s a philosophically deep challenge to history? Then, how should we judge Babel? Does it condemn the past fairly? Or is it more complicated? How many nonfiction books will we have to read to really answer that question?
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.