Rather later than originally planned, for which I apologise profusely, I begin the discussion of Sarah Hall’s Tiptree-winning The Carhullan Army (published in the US as Daughters of the North, and that’s the last time I’m going to use that title – it’s not a bad one, but it’s not Hall’s). It’s a novel that provoked a wide range of responses, and it’s worth going and reading some of the reviews that Niall Harrison lists here, as well as Nick Hubble’s excellent piece from Vector 258.
When I first read this novel, in 2008 in the wake of its nomination for the Arthur C. Clarke award, I wrote the following:
This has been often compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and one can see why. There is the same notion of an anti-feminist dystopia, in which women have no rights over their own reproductive processes. But it’s very English as well. It has the same sense of place as to be found in Alan Garner (I could easily picture where the novel is set). There’s also more than a hint of John Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophes’. I also admire the way Hall constructs her narrative presentation in order to skip over the boring bits (and I have realized from a comment somewhere else in the blogosphere that the framing device employed is, like the historical section at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a means of signalling that this oppression will not last). It’s very well-written (and refreshingly short), but in the end it’s just not quite as good as two other novels on the shortlist.
In the light of a comment made by Hall towards the end of this interview, I would probably modify the comment about the framing device – the fact that the novel is supposedly a recovered but corrupted interrogation file (though as others have pointed out, it doesn’t read like that) implies something has happened in the wake of the events of the novel, but doesn’t necessarily imply what. (In my mind, that the Carhullan army’s call for revolution was heeded elsewhere, though it may not have been successful.)
But here I want to pick up the issue of the ‘cosy catastrophe’, Brian Aldiss’ term for a certain type of British disaster novel. As many have pointed out since, even Wyndham isn’t that cosy, but there is a strain in British dystopian novels in which they explore the collapse of British (or more often English) society, and the attempt to preserve values in the face of catastrophe. The Carhullan Army fits into that tradition, whilst placing a few spins on it. It is a novel that seems rooted in past sf traditions. Cheryl Morgan talks about the ‘real date’ of the novel being around 2005, and there is something to that – Hall herself has talked about the importance of the 2005 Carlisle floods as a spur to the novel. But much of the rest, as a number of critics have noted, to varying degrees of approbation or not, seems rooted in social attitudes of the 1970s.
The work that The Carhullan Army now most resonates with for me is Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s 1980s graphic novel V For Vendetta (which I didn’t mention in the passage above, but which plenty of others have). Both works feature the rise of an authoritarian (in V explicitly Fascist) government in England, in response to disaster. (Karen Burnham attacks the plausibility of this in The Carhullan Army, but that disaster rapidly precipitates extreme authoritarianism remains a regular topos of British dystopian fiction; it is something Russell T. Davies is obsessed with, as shown in the Doctor Who episode ‘Turn Left’ and the two most recent Torchwood stories, Children of Earth and Miracle Day.)
But V is very much set at the core of this government – bar a few flashbacks, almost all the action takes place in London. The Carhullan Army almost presents the provincial mirror to this – it explores how the authoritarian regime plays out in the regions.
But what region this plays out in is important. ‘Cosy catastrophe’ novels often take place in the south-east of England. The Carhullan Army is set in the north-west, in Cumbria (as, it should be noted, does the climax of John Christopher’s The Death of Grass). It actually seems slightly jarring to see the setting referred to as ‘rural England’, with the connotations that has for me of Kent or Somerset. Hall’s is not that landscape (I’ll discuss Hall’s sense of place in more detail tomorrow).
The rural stronghold, a place of safety that remains nevertheless vulnerable, has always played an important role in the British disaster novel – think of Bill Masen’s Sussex farm in The Day of the Triffids, the potato farm that is John Custance’s objective in The Death of Grass, or the community set up in Terry Nation’s 1970s tv series Survivors. But what is less often seen is the provincial city. When a post-apocalyptic city is visited, it is often, as in Day of the Triffids, or the Survivors episode ‘The Lights of London’, the nation’s capital (the recent Survivors reboot filmed in Manchester and Birmingham, but in both cases the city seems intended to stand in for London). The Carhullan Army begins and ends in Penrith (here renamed Rith), and shows a provincial city at work (or not) after the apocalypse. London is too remote to play any significant role – it is the seat of government, and supplies occasionally come from the south, but most people’s horizons have shrunk. This exploration of the post-apocalyptic city is little commented upon, but may well be one of The Carhullan Army‘s more novel features.