The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North – City vs. country in dystopia

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.

Coming up: Lavinia

Next up in reading the Future Classics is a novel set in ancient Latium.

For November, what’s left of it, I’ll be looking at Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin’s retelling of part of the Aeneid from the perspective of a character who, in the original, has no lines. The book was contentious as science fiction at the time: does it even count as part of that genre? Whether or not it does – we’ll reconsider the arguments – it’s certainly a fascinating and admirable book. It won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was shortlisted for the BSFA Award.

Lavinia was published in 2008 (meaning we’ve skipped 2007). In that year, Fidel Castro resigned as president of Cuba, Bill Gates as chairman of Microsoft, the island of Sark lost its distinction for preserving feudalism, the summer Olympics were held in Beijing, and the Large Hadron Collider was officially opened. Arthur C Clarke died, and Terry Pratchett announced that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The BSFA began its experiment with running Matrix as an online magazine.

I can promise you a discussion of Lavinia before the end of the month. I’ll be posting on it starting a week from today.

P.S. These year recaps paid off at the BristolCon quiz for me, when, thanks to doing them, I knew in which year Pluto lost its planetary status.

Science Fiction Foundation SF Criticism Masterclass 2012

Class Leaders:
Edward James
M. John Harrison
Kari Sperring

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the sixth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2012.

Dates: June 22nd, 23rd, 24th 2012.

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon).
Delegate costs will be £190 per person, excluding accommodation.
Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is available from the administrator (

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at Applicants are asked to provide a CV and a writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Graham Sleight and Andy Sawyer. Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2012.

BSFA Event Nov 23rd: STEPHEN BAXTER interviewed by Paul Cornell

On Wednesday 23rd November 2011* from around 7pm:

STEPHEN BAXTER (President, British Science Fiction Association)

will be interviewed by Paul Cornell (Writer of books, tv, comics, etc.)

Upstairs Room, The Antelope Tavern
22 Eaton Terrace, Belgravia
London, United Kingdom


View Larger Map
Nearest Tube: Sloane Square (District/Circle)

All welcome! (No entry fee or tickets. Non-members welcome.)
Interview will commence at 7.00 pm, but the room is open from 6.00 (and fans in the downstairs bar from 5).
There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.


(No meeting in December.)

25th January 2012 – CHRISTOPHER PRIEST interviewed by Paul Kincaid

22nd February 2012* – LIZ WILLIAMS interviewed by Ian Whates

28th March 2012 – BSFA Awards Meeting

(Please note that future events will not take place in the Antelope.  A new venue will be announced soon.)

* Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays.  The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.

Vector 268

The latest BSFA mailing arrived with the post this morning! I’d been expecting it any day now for the last week or so, after it been sent off to the black box of the publisher. And here it is, Focus (TOC) and Vector both.

This quarter’s Vector is primarily devoted to Diana Wynne Jones, who died in March this year. When I started putting the issue together, I’d hoped she would be with us for years to come, that she would be able to see the issue for herself. Instead, it became a memorial issue to a much-missed author whose influence was formative for many (including me).

Vector 268 contains…

2011 BSFA Awards – Donna Scott
An Excerpt from a Conversation with Diana Wynne Jones – Charlie Butler
Translating Diana Wynne Jones – Gili Bar-Hillel Semo
Diana Wynne Jones in the Context of Children’s Fantasy – Jessica Yates
The Mistress of Magic – Meredith MacArdle
On Screen: Two Filmed Versions of Books by Diana Wynne Jones – Gill Othen
Diana Wynne Jones: A BSFA Discussion – Farah Mendlesohn & Charlie Butler, transcribed by Shana Worthen
Infertility in Science Fiction as a Consequence of Warfare – Victor Grech with Clare Thake-Vassallo & Ivan Callus

Resonances – Stephen Baxter
Kincaid in Short: The Heat Death of the Universe – Paul Kincaid
Foundation Favourites: Forbidden Planet – Andy Sawyer
Now and Then: Invisible Words – Terry Martin

The BSFA Review – edited by Martin Lewis 

My apologies to Meredith, whose first name is missing an ‘h’ in the table of contents.