The End Of The World As We Know It

It’s not the end of Science Fiction Britannia, which appears to continue at least until the fan-focused documentary My Science Fiction Life on December 27th, but it’s the end of the series, and the end of the world. The talking heads this time around are Stableford, Newman, Luckhurst and Aldiss again, Doris Lessing, Sam Youd, Christopher Priest, Kadwo Eshua, and Will Self — plus the litblogosphere’s current least favourite man, John Sutherland, although the worst I can say about his contributions is that I bridled slightly when he lauded J.G. Ballard’s “extraordinary imagination” in a way that implied he felt writers like John Wyndham weren’t imaginative because they told their stories in a plausible manner — and the range of texts discussed makes up, at least a bit, for some of the deficiencies of the earlier installments.

Which means that the third and final part of The Martians and Us is probably the best. And that’s not only because, having told a story about evolution that ended in 1968 and a story about dystopia that ended in 1986, this episode ends up in the present, although that’s a factor. It’s also because the episode gives a much greater sense of science fiction as a living genre, even if at times it seems to be a living genre composed of grumpy old men. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Part of it is the nature of the subject matter, since a greater proportion of the works discussed were written in living memory, and since tales of catastrophe have gained a level of popular traction that transcendental and ‘topian science fiction can’t quite match. Even leaving aside disaster movies — since, as Kim Newman rightly points out, those are mostly an American tradition, and British doomsday sf is more interested in the day after the day after tomorrow — something like The Day of the Triffids is, or was, a mass-market book in a way that I’m not sure is true of The Time Machine or Nineteen Eighty-Four. And there’s no parody of their tropes quite as deft as The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s parody of the end of the world.

But equally, this episode somehow gives the impression of a sense of dialogue, of community, in a way that the earlier ones somehow just didn’t. There’s Brian Aldiss, defending his use of the term “cosy catastrophe” to describe John Wyndham’s work; there’s Christopher Priest, arguing that maybe it’s useful to think of Wyndham as a satirist; there’s Roger Luckhurst, suggesting that what Aldiss has missed is the sense of social exploration in Wyndham, a commitment to a quite ruthless social Darwinism. Or there’s Chris Priest again, this time talking about how a cover for New Worlds — “What is the exact nature of the catastrophe?”, which we are told was part of the genre discussion of Ballard’s The Drowned World — and talking about how it fed into Fugue for a Darkening Island (which of all Priest’s novels that I haven’t read is possibly the one I most want to get around to reading). Or there’s the discussion of 28 Days Later — according to Newman, the most important British sf film of the last ten years, and I can’t immediately think of an example to counter him with — and its obvious debt to Wyndham.

If science fiction in the first two episodes felt a bit like a told story, this time around it feels more like the telling is still going on — although, somewhat ironically, part of the episode’s argument is that the catastrophe novel as a subgenre of sf has had its day. The episode proposes a clear (according to John Sutherland, at any rate, and I have no particular reason to distrust him on this one) starting point for the subgenre, The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel, and links it and most of the examples discussed later on to their social context, whether they were written at the pinnacle of Empire (Shiel), or between the wars (Sydney Foster Wright, Deluge), or at the disintegration of the postwar consensus (Priest), and so on. The world ends in a satisfying variety of ways, although perhaps surprisingly, only once by nuclear apocalypse, and that — Threads — was from tv. Various commentators nod knowledgeably about the reasons for the popularity of catastrophe stories, from the dramatic power of “if this goes on” to the practicality of thinking out worst-case scenarios.

And then we get to the end, and the narrator asks whether the time of the catastrophe story is past. In the closing minutes, it feels like almost all the contributors leap at the chance to say that it is, and explain why that might be so — the real world is being far too efficient at giving us catastrophes that are already happening (Priest); the media are making sure we know about them in detail, there’s no room for fiction (Lessing); we’re not going to be able to stop the catastrophe from happening (Sutherland). You sense that Kim Stanley Robinson might want to have words on that last point, although strictly speaking his Science in the Capitol trilogy is more about mitigation and adaptation, and you might also point to Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead or (a bit more tenuously) Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as recent catastrophe novels — except that all three writers are American, and two of them are very definitely not genre sf writers. In Britain, for whatever reason (and if we discount books like, say, Accelerando, where the end of the world is an incidental background blip), the only recent example I can think of is The Snow by Adam Roberts, and in the end that’s arguably not a catastrophe novel of the sort the programme talks about anyway.

So the episode doesn’t even try to get into specifics, but it might have a point. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, given the overall pretty high quality of the series. I tuned in to the Parallel Worlds documentary the other day, and it wasn’t nearly on the same level; despite many of the same talking heads, the discussion was much more lightweight, much less contextualised. The Martians and Us has looked in detail at three major stands of British sf, integrated discussion of film, tv and other non-book media smoothly where appropriate, and had intelligent and interesting people commenting on it all, and is generally a pretty impressive accomplishment. My caveat is only that the more I think about it, the more I think it could really have done with one more episode. For a theme, I think colonialism and postcolonialism, touched on this episode and the first episode but not really explored in either, could have legs, and it would do the two things I was really waiting for the series to do — bring the story more current, and point out that people other than grumpy old men have been writing sf too. You can see why, given the argument the series has been presenting, they haven’t mentioned Mary Shelley, but it would have been nice to see mentions of, say, Josephine Saxton or Naomi Mitchison, or discussions of Doris Lessing’s actual books, or latterly discussion of a writer like Gwyneth Jones. (Come to think of it, she should have been a talking head, too.) The stumbling block, I would guess, is that there isn’t a big-name author or text to hang that theme on, in the way that Wells, Orwell and Wyndham provided hangers for the episodes they did make (unless, perhaps, they went back to Wells for a different angle on The War of the Worlds); but by this point, I think most people would trust the series to tell them an interesting story anyway.

18 thoughts on “The End Of The World As We Know It

  1. only twice by nuclear apocalypse, and both of those — Threads and the Jericho-antecedent Survivors

    Boring pedantry, I know, but the cause of the catastrophe in Survivors was not nuclear but biological: the escape of a broad-spectrum pathogen from a laboratory and its spread around the world by cheap air travel.

  2. Thanks for the correction — I haven’t actually seen it, and I’m not sure what in the documentary made me think it was nuclear. I’ll edit the post.

    Still, it’s interesting that Threads is the only nuclear one, and I can’t even think of that many other British nuclear catastrophes full stop. There’s The Chrysalids, of course, but that wasn’t really discussed. I wonder whether maybe there’s a distinction to be made between “post-apocalyptic” and “catastrophe” stories, with the latter taking place while the catastrophe is actually happening? Which would rule out most nuclear stories.

  3. Grumpy old men? I see what you’re getting at, of course, though Wells and Priest were in their 20s when their key discussed works were published and the likes of Stross, MacLeod and Banks are in their 40s and 50s now…

    I’d like to have seen more all round. There wasn’t much on the traditional space travel/exploration theme, which might have fitted into your colonialism idea. Or perhaps the “Apes to Aliens” could have been spread over two episodes to incorporate both interstellar aliens and transhumanism/ AI/ the Singularity/ robots. Apes to Aliens is quite a broad swathe in the way that post-catastrophe isn’t, though catastrophe is more newsworthy right now.

    And catastrophe isn’t completely passe to my mind – I did a post-apocalyptic short story set in Cheddar Gorge! Yay! (Interzone #198).

  4. though Wells and Priest were in their 20s when their key discussed works were published and the likes of Stross, MacLeod and Banks are in their 40s and 50s now …

    Fair point. It was more the spread of people doing the discussing than the works under discussion I was getting it — I think it was the segment cutting between Brian Aldiss/Sam Youd/Brian Stableford that really got to me, particularly with Aldiss saying things like, “I don’t know why anyone takes Wyndham seriously.” But on the flipside, as I said, it was good to get discussion of “cosy catastrophes” from the horse’s mouth.

    You’re right that “Apes to Aliens” could easily have been extended into a second episode. You could probably also bring two themes together, and argue that singularity stories are the modern catastrophe stories — they take what the commentators were saying about there being too many things happening in the world for us to be able to predict which one is going to kil us to a logical conclusion,if you like. (Relatedly, when did technothrillers, in the sense of Michael Crichton-esque stories about catastrophe narrowly averted, come into vogue?)

    Of course, what we really need is a counterpart series about British fantasy …

  5. I can’t even think of that many other British nuclear catastrophes full stop.

    Did you read Brother In The Land by Robert Swindells at school?

    There is also Peter Watkins terrifying mockumentary The War Game.

  6. According to wikipedia it is indeed Crichton with The Andromeda Strain in 1969 who is considered grandfather of the genre and the novel that immediately came to mind, though on reflection I’d have thought the likes of Red Alertby Peter George (1958 and a source of Dr Strangelove) and Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler (1962) were along the same lines.

  7. Martin: nope, not familiar with the Swindells novel at all (we did The Chrysalids at school). Good point about The War Game, though.

  8. I can’t even think of that many other British nuclear catastrophes full stop.

    There’s Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

  9. Of course, yes. And indeed (just to prove that my brain isn’t completely switched off today) Nevil Shute’s On the Beach would probably count as well.

  10. If Sutherland thinks that the catastrophe sub-genre only dates back as far as The Purple Cloud he is missing an awful lot of stuff. You’ve got to go back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and you could probably make a decent case for going back to something like Isle of Pines (1675). We Brits have been doing catastrophe since long before M.P. Shiel.

  11. If Sutherland thinks that the catastrophe sub-genre only dates back as far as The Purple Cloud

    I think the phrase was something like “no catastrophes before the end of the 19th century”. So he may have had something else in mind as well as Shiel, but it certainly wasn’t Shelley.

    he is missing an awful lot of stuff.

    Somehow, I’m not surprised …

    Could you argue, though, that it wasn’t until the time of The Purple Cloud that catastrophes started to become an identifiable literary subgenre? Although even if that’s the case, I suppose it would be an open question whether it’s meaningful or just the result of an expansion in the number of books being published.

  12. There was a whole raft of novels throughout the 19th century that dealt with the last man on earth, London flooded, and such catastrophe scenarios. How many variations on a theme does it take before you have a subgenre?

  13. Though, of course, Russell Hoban is American.

    So he is. I was confused by RWalker being set in England. And I see he’s lived here since 1969.

    I’m in good company, parts of his own publisher Bloomsbury seem to think he is British: is their catalogue entry for Come Dance With Me.

  14. I have said this before but I just don’t get the ‘cosy’ part of ‘cosy catastrophe’ in relation to The Chrysalids. It has some incredibly nasty moments and some disturbing overtones that suggest Wyndham the satirist may not be inappropriate.

    I’m sure I have at least one catastrophe novel pre-The Last man floating around somewhere but I can’t find it right now.

  15. Aldiss’s sneer seemed, at least from this last episode, mostly directed at Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids as being a sort of disguised wish-fullfillment fantasy: that with everyone else removed (or incapacitated by blindness) the hero and heroine find the luxuries of civilisation laid open merely for the taking (tinned salmon, swanky hotel rooms, clothes…). Of course, this initial state of affairs would only a few last days at best with no power or infrastructure, before the food spoiled and the rats and scavengers moved in. And it’s equally a charge you could lay – perhaps with more conviction – against Mike Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels, which combine scenes of equally hedonistic wish fullfillment with sharp and bleak satire.
    However, I don’t think it’s true of other Wyndham novels. There’s no sense of it in, say, The Chrysalids, and attempting to pin it on the Midwich Cuckoos is both misguided and betrays a pretty deep seated sexism.

    I remember seeing the film of Death of Grass at school.

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