The Empty World by D.E. Stevenson

Did you know that D.E. Stevenson had written a post-apocalyptic novel? I didn’t, until I read the description of this one and was intrigued by how different it sounded from her usual light romances and family sagas. First published in 1936, it’s available in ebook format from independent publisher Lume Books. I’m not sure whether ebooks count towards Karen and Lizzy’s #ReadIndies month, but this book seems to be currently out of print in physical form.

The Empty World begins with historical novelist Jane Forrest and her secretary, Maisie, boarding a flight from New York to London. Jane is prepared for a turbulent journey, but she and the other passengers are alarmed when a particularly violent electrical storm seems to knock them off course and cut off communication with the world below. Finally managing to land in Glasgow, the passengers and crew immediately sense that something is horribly wrong – the airport is eerily deserted and nobody comes to meet the plane. And it’s not just the airport…the city of Glasgow itself also appears to be completely empty of people, animals, birds and any other form of life. Eventually, Jane and her companions are forced to face the possibility that they could be the only human beings left in the whole world.

I don’t want to go into the plot in too much more detail as part of the enjoyment of reading this book was first in wondering what had happened to destroy life on earth and then in wondering how Jane and the other survivors would react. It would be nice to think that if a disaster threw you together with a random group of people you would all work together and cooperate, but of course that’s not what happens here and divisions and tensions within the group are apparent from the start. Some of these are romantic tensions, due to there being seventeen men in the group and only five women. Others arise from different views over how their new society should be run and whether everyone should be allowed to be part of it.

It seemed at first that the whole book would be written from Jane’s perspective and I did find her a likeable heroine, but we also get to know the other people who survived the disaster – thirteen passengers and nine crew members – and some of them go off and have adventures of their own as the novel progresses. As well as Jane and her secretary, these include newspaper proprietor Sir Richard Barton, who becomes the de facto leader of the group, Hollywood actress Iris Bright and her bullying manager, two elderly spinster sisters, and an assortment of pilots and engineers.

A few pages into the book, it began to occur to me that something didn’t feel quite right. I eventually looked back at the first page and discovered that although the book was published in 1936, the story is actually set in 1973, Stevenson’s future. That obviously hadn’t registered with me when I first started reading, although the description of a transatlantic flight only taking twelve hours should have told me it wasn’t the 1930s! To be fair, the setting is only vaguely futuristic and overall it does feel much more like the 30s than the 70s.

I don’t read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, but Stevenson seems to explore most of the issues that are usually raised in this kind of novel. Why did some people survive and not others? How should they go about rebuilding their lives and how will each survivor fit into the new community that begins to emerge from the ruins? Which ideas, inventions and customs of the former civilisation are worth preserving and which should be consigned to history? Money, for example, no longer has any meaning when you can walk into an abandoned shop and take whatever you need.

I loved the eerie atmosphere Stevenson creates as she describes a world without life, with inanimate objects frozen in place exactly as they were when the catastrophe struck. Trying to travel anywhere is an ordeal as the roads are blocked with crashed or stationary vehicles (although I don’t think Stevenson had fully appreciated how much busier the roads would have become between the 1930s and 1970s – and can you imagine how bad this problem would be in 2023!). I found it particularly poignant when three members of the party take a small plane and fly to Europe, only to find that the places they’d always dreamed of visiting – Rome and Venice, for example – have completely lost their magic now they are devoid of life. At least you can have the museums and galleries all to yourself!

It’s sad that The Empty World seems to have been almost forgotten and has never received the attention or acclaim of other dystopian novels. Maybe it was just too different from Stevenson’s other work to appeal to her existing readers while her reputation as an author of gentle, domestic fiction may have led to the book being overlooked by science fiction fans. I loved it anyway and found it a fascinating, thought provoking read. I would definitely recommend trying it if you can get hold of it – if you need it in physical format, used copies seem to be quite rare and expensive but maybe you’ll be lucky. The book has also been published in the US under the title of A World in Spell.

22 thoughts on “The Empty World by D.E. Stevenson

    • Helen says:

      It’s completely different from everything else I’ve read by her! I hope it gets brought back into print in physical format eventually, as I’m sure a lot of people would enjoy this one who wouldn’t normally read her books.

  1. Calmgrove says:

    A shame it’s just in electronic form, this really needs to be reissued in a physical format, doesn’t it! And ironic that it’s set in 1973 which happens to be the year of Stevenson’s death… Thanks for alerting us, shall keep an eye out for this in charity shops!

    • Helen says:

      A lot of Stevenson’s other books have been reissued as paperbacks recently so I’m hoping this one will join them eventually, although it’s so different from her other books maybe they’re not sure of the target audience. And yes, it’s quite a coincidence that she chose to set the book in the year of her death!

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    Definitely my sort of thing. I really like the post-apocalypse sub-genre when its done right. Pity its only really available on Kindle. Maybe if its popular enough it’ll come out in a reasonably priced paperback?

    • Helen says:

      Really? That’s weird! They’re selling the Kindle version through Amazon, which is where I bought it from. I just looked and it’s still available.

  3. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    Good for her for trying something so different! I wish she were around to share her motivation or if she thought she succeeded with it. By the end of your review, I had decided I would read this when it turns up, although that is definitely not my genre.

    • Helen says:

      It’s not one of my usual genres either, but I did enjoy it. Yes, it would be interesting to hear Stevenson’s own thoughts about this book and why she never wrote anything like it again.

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