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.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids is the book that was chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. The deadline for posting our Spin book reviews was supposed to be yesterday, but I got confused with the dates and am a day late! Anyway, after enjoying all of the books I’ve previously read by John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky and The Day of the Triffids – I had high hopes for this one and wasn’t disappointed. It’s another fascinating, exciting and thought-provoking novel – although not quite what I’d been expecting.

I deliberately tried not to read too much about this book before I started it, so I assumed the Chrysalids must be some sort of monstrous alien beings similar to the Triffids. However, this is not really that kind of book at all; it’s a post-apocalyptic novel exploring the changes in society brought about by an unspecified (though presumably nuclear) disaster known as the ‘Tribulation’. There are no monsters, although some of the characters view their fellow humans that way.

Our narrator, David Strorm, was born many years after the Tribulation in rural Labrador, a part of the world where normal life has resumed to some extent, although the ‘Old People’ have been almost forgotten and their technological advances have been lost in the mists of time. The people of Labrador are living an almost medieval existence, ruled by religious zealots who believe that as God created humans in his image, all human life should conform to a set of strict specifications. Anyone who is found to deviate from this in any way is considered a blasphemy and exiled to the Fringes, a wild and lawless region to the south. Unfortunately, as a result of the nuclear apocalypse, mutations have become very common.

David is still a child when his best friend Sophie is banished to the Fringes after her shoe comes off, revealing a sixth toe. Having witnessed Sophie’s fate, David becomes aware of the importance of keeping his own mutation – the power of telepathy – a secret. A mental abnormality should be easier to hide than a physical one, but the very fact that he and his telepathic friends look just like everyone else makes them a bigger threat to the religious leaders who are determined to identify and drive out every blasphemy. Can David and the others continue to keep their special ability hidden – and what will happen if they get caught?

What makes The Chrysalids so interesting is that although it was published in 1955 and set in some distant point in the future, the themes and ideas it explores are still very relevant to our lives today. Intolerance, bigotry and prejudice have sadly not gone away and there is still a tendency for some groups to judge others for not being ‘people like us’. The Chrysalids raises the interesting question of what being normal actually means and why any of us should have the right to decide whether another person is normal or not. Later in the novel another community is introduced who also consider their own way of life to be superior and to them it’s the religious fundamentalists of Labrador who are seen as primitive and savage.

Like the other Wyndham novels I’ve read, the science fiction elements in this one are really quite understated; the main focus is on the changes in society and in daily life caused by an apocalyptic or paranormal incident. I think this is why I enjoy reading Wyndham so much even though I don’t consider myself a big fan of science fiction in general. However, although I loved most of this book and found it quite gripping, I felt that the message became a bit unclear towards the end, possibly intentionally, with the introduction of that other community (it’s difficult to discuss it properly here while trying to avoid spoilers). Still, I was left with a lot to think about, which is always a good thing, and I wished there had been a sequel, or at least a few more chapters, as it seemed there was a lot more to learn about this world and our characters’ place in it. If you’ve read this book I would love to hear your thoughts!

This is book 31/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I read The Testaments at the beginning of March, when life still felt relatively normal, and I’m glad I did because now that I feel as though I’m living inside the pages of a dystopian novel I’m not sure I would have been in the mood for reading one! I hope everyone is staying safe and coping with this strange and unfamiliar world we’ve found ourselves in. It’s been another stressful week for me – on Monday I started working from home and was just settling into a new routine when I was informed yesterday that I was being placed on furlough, so now I won’t be able to work at all until further notice and will only receive 80% of my salary during that time. Not great, but I’m hoping this at least means the company will be able to stay afloat and I will still have a job to go back to once all of this is over. On the plus side, I’m going to have plenty of time for reading and blogging now – if I could only get out of the slump I’ve been in for the last few weeks!

Anyway, back to The Testaments. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel from 1985, but for some reason I didn’t feel any immediate compulsion to read the sequel when it was published last year, not even after it was named joint winner of the Booker Prize. I knew I would get around to reading it eventually, though, and as I’ve mentioned, I finally picked it up earlier this month.

The first thing I will say is that I do think you should read The Handmaid’s Tale before starting The Testaments as otherwise you will be making it difficult for yourself to fully understand what is happening. Even leaving a gap of several years, as I did, made it difficult to get straight back into the story – I should really have found time for a re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale first.

Both books are set in the fictional state of Gilead (formerly the USA), where a patriarchal regime has risen to power and restricted women to a small number of clearly defined roles: Wives – women from higher ranking families who are married off to men known as ‘Commanders’; Handmaids – fertile women tasked with bearing children for Commanders whose Wives are unable to conceive; Marthas – domestic servants; and Aunts – women who have sacrificed the chance of marriage and childbirth and devoted themselves to the running of Gilead. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we saw Gilead through the eyes of Offred, a Handmaid, but The Testaments gives us a different perspective…three different perspectives, in fact.

The first narrator is Aunt Lydia, one of the founding Aunts of Gilead, who has helped to create the rules women must follow in this grim, oppressive society. Lydia’s story unfolds in the form of a secret manuscript describing her work as an Aunt and offering insights into the inner workings of Gilead and the corruption at its heart. The other two testaments are told in the voices of two young women who have led very different lives. One, Agnes, is the adopted child of a Gilead family and has been raised to become the Wife of a Commander. The other, Daisy, has grown up across the border in Canada with all the freedoms and opportunities that have been denied to Agnes.

These three testaments, taken as a whole, give us a much wider view of Gilead than we received from Offred’s rather limited perspective in The Handmaid’s Tale. I found Lydia’s the most interesting, as she has the best understanding of how things work in Gilead, but Agnes’ first-hand account of what it is like to grow up there is valuable too, as is Daisy’s account of how Gilead is viewed by the outside world. What struck me about the latter two narratives is that some (though not all) of the things Daisy sees as wrong and terrible about Gilead are things that Agnes considers right and reasonable. It made me wonder what sort of things any of us could come to accept as normal after years of being conditioned to think a certain way.

I didn’t find this book quite as powerful as The Handmaid’s Tale – and there were some plot developments towards the end that I found a little bit unconvincing. Like its predecessor, though, this is the sort of book that leaves you with a lot to think about.

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

I’ve been curious about The Chronicles of St Mary’s for a while; I enjoy anything to do with time travel, so I thought there was a good chance that I would like these books, but you can never be sure. That’s why, when the publisher made several of the books in the series available through NetGalley a few months ago, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try the first one and see what it was like.

Just One Damned Thing After Another (the title is taken from a quote by Arnold Toynbee) introduces us to Madeleine Maxwell who, as the novel opens, is encouraged by her old schoolteacher and mentor, Mrs de Winter, to apply for the position of historian at St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. Max, as she is known, is instantly intrigued; she has had a passion for history since discovering a book about Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt as a child. She applies for the job and is invited for an interview, but as she is shown around her future place of work, she quickly becomes aware that this is no ordinary academic institute…and that the historians of St Mary’s are no ordinary historians.

The Institute has developed a form of time travel which allows the historians to travel back in time inside fully equipped ‘pods’ in order to investigate some of history’s many mysteries – large and small – at first-hand. From “being able to say with authority, ‘Yes, the Princes in the Tower were alive at the end of Richard III’s reign, I know because I saw them with my own eyes’” to understanding the secret of Greek Fire and how to handle a Roman chariot, the possibilities are endless. But so are the dangers: pods that malfunction with terrifying results, hostile groups of rival time travellers, as well as all the other hazards you would expect to find on a journey into a less enlightened time. Max and her friends are constantly getting into trouble – particularly Max, who seems to attract disaster like a magnet – but they see it as a risk worth taking in return for being able to see and experience so many wonderful things.

We don’t learn a huge amount about any of the historical periods to which Max travels (only the Cretaceous period has a significant amount of time devoted to it), but that’s not really the point of the book. The enjoyment is in following the adventures Max and the other St Mary’s historians have as they travel through time – and in sympathising with Max’s various accidents and mishaps, some of which are her own fault, but certainly not all! The story is narrated in Max’s own strong and humorous voice, which adds to the sense of fun.

Apart from Max herself, though, I didn’t feel that I got to know any of the other characters very well, but maybe they will be developed further in future books. Although I don’t feel the compulsion to continue with this series immediately (I did enjoy meeting Max, but I think I would find it a bit overwhelming to spend too long in her company), I do still plan to read the second book and am looking forward to finding out where the historians will travel to next. And of course, now I’m wondering where I would choose to go if I had one of the St Mary’s pods at my disposal…

This is book 9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Chocky by John Wyndham – #1968Club

When I read The Day of the Triffids earlier this year a few people recommended Chocky as my next Wyndham. Chocky was published in 1968 (developed from an earlier novella which appeared in the magazine Amazing Stories in 1963) so it seemed a perfect choice for this week’s 1968 Club, the latest of the events hosted by Karen and Simon in which participants read and write about books from a chosen year.

David Gore, the narrator of Chocky, becomes concerned when he overhears his adopted son, Matthew, having a conversation with what he assumes is an imaginary friend. Apart from the fact that Matthew is almost twelve years old and is surely past the age when he should be playing this sort of game, it also seems to be a very strange conversation, not the sort you would expect children to have. Soon Matthew is asking some unusual questions: Why are there only seven days in a week and not eight? Where is Earth? And, more bizarrely, why do cows stop?

David and his wife, Mary, have had some experience with this sort of thing. Just a few years earlier, their daughter Polly had been inseparable from her own invisible friend, Piff. They can sense, though, that this is different. While Polly – who had been five years old at the time – had been very much in control of Piff, it appears to be the other way round with Matthew and Chocky. Matthew is unable to tell his parents Chocky’s age, where Chocky comes from or even whether Chocky is male or female (he eventually settles on female). It’s all quite worrying for David and Mary who don’t know how to help their son – or even if he really needs to be helped at all.

Who or what is Chocky? Is she a positive influence on Matthew or a harmful one? And what should his parents do about it? This is a very short novel – about 160 pages in the edition I read – so I am not going to say much more about the plot. What I will say is that it’s not difficult to guess what is going on; I made my mind up about Chocky almost immediately and I was right. David and Mary, however, are unaware of the truth and so the interest is in watching them each try to deal with the situation in their own way. Should they just ignore all mentions of Chocky and hope she goes away, as Piff did? Do they need to get a doctor involved? The only thing they agree on is that, although Matthew doesn’t seem at all frightened or unhappy, his behaviour is certainly not normal.

I loved Chocky; it’s the perfect sort of science fiction for me – that is, for someone who doesn’t usually choose to read it! Like The Midwich Cuckoos (my favourite of the three Wyndham novels I’ve read so far), this book features ordinary people living quiet, uneventful lives…until something slightly out of the ordinary happens and shakes them out of their peaceful existence. The science fiction elements are subtle – in fact, until the final chapter, it’s as much a domestic novel about the relationship between parents and children as it is a science fiction one.

This was a great choice for 1968 Club and I’m already looking forward to my next John Wyndham book, whichever that will be. I have also read another book from 1968 for the club, but haven’t finished my review yet so that one will be coming later in the week.


More 1968 books previously read and reviewed:

Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer

Usually I am able to post a list of books from the relevant year which I’ve previously reviewed on my blog, but this time I can only find one. It seems that 1968 books have not featured very strongly in my reading until now!

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

A few years ago I read John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and loved it, which was a nice surprise as I very rarely choose to read science fiction. It has taken me a while to get round to reading another book by Wyndham, but now that I’ve finally read The Day of the Triffids I’m pleased to report that I found this another enjoyable, if unsettling, read.

The story is set in a world very similar to our own, but for one small but very significant difference: the presence of a species of plant known as the triffid:

There must have been plenty of them about, growing up quietly and inoffensively, with nobody taking any particular notice of them – at least, it seemed so, for if the biological or botanical experts were excited over them, no news of their interest percolated to the general public. And so the one in our garden continued its growth peacefully, as did thousands like it in neglected spots all over the world.

It was some little time later that the first one picked up its roots and walked.

Apart from the ability to walk, another characteristic of the triffid is its long stinging arm with which it lashes out with unnerving accuracy at anyone who gets too close. At the beginning of the novel, our narrator, Bill Masen, is in a London hospital with a bandage over his eyes, having been stung in the face by one of these vicious plants. Because of this, Bill misses out on seeing a spectacular display of meteors which light up the sky with green flashes all over the world.

The next day, when he tentatively removes his bandages, Bill is relieved to find that no damage has been done to his eyes – but on venturing out of his hospital ward, which is strangely quiet that morning, he makes a shocking discovery. It seems that everyone who watched the meteor shower in the sky last night has suddenly and mysteriously gone blind, meaning that Bill is one of the few people left in the world who is able to see.

When I read The Midwich Cuckoos, one of the reasons I liked it so much was that the focus was on a small community trying to deal with the consequences of one strange occurrence and the ‘science fiction’ elements were quite subtle. With giant killer plants, flashing lights in the sky and sudden worldwide blindness, those elements are a lot stronger in The Day of the Triffids, but there’s still the same sense of the ordinary blending with the extraordinary.

It’s never entirely clear what caused the blindness – or the introduction of the triffid to the planet – but there are hints of biological and chemical warfare (it’s worth remembering that the book was published in 1951, in the early years of the Cold War). But maybe the causes are not really important; what is important is the reaction of the characters to the post-apocalyptic world in which they find themselves. And I found the way most people reacted quite depressing – fighting, rioting, looting shops and stealing food. The most memorable section of the novel, for me, was the part immediately following the onset of the blindness, where Bill leaves the hospital to find that the world – or London at least – has descended into chaos:

We had turned a corner to see the street seventy yards ahead of us filled with people. They were coming toward us at a stumbling run, with their arms outstretched before them. A mingled crying and screaming came from them. Even as we came into sight of them a woman at the front tripped and fell; others tumbled over her, and she disappeared beneath a kicking, struggling heap. Beyond the mob we had a glimpse of the cause of it all: three dark-leaved stems swaying beyond the panic-stricken heads.

Personally, I think the idea of seven-foot tall plants uprooting themselves and walking around the streets is terrifying enough without all the other things that happen in the novel! The triffids play a surprisingly small part in the novel, though; much more time is spent on the implications of the blindness, the opportunity for shaping a new society and the varying opinions of what that society should be like. The role of the triffids in the story, I think, is to show how precarious our position is in the world and how just one small change (such as the loss of our eyesight) can result in the conditions being right for another species to gain superiority.

Although I preferred The Midwich Cuckoos, The Day of the Triffids really is a fascinating novel. Now I need to decide which John Wyndham book to read next.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine I don’t often read science fiction, but when I do I usually find that I enjoy it. H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine, is an early classic of the genre and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to decide to read it – especially as I’ve previously read and liked two of his other books, The Island of Dr Moreau and Ann Veronica (although the latter is not science fiction).

The Time Machine follows the adventures of a Victorian scientist known only as the Time Traveller who believes he has created a machine which can travel into the past and the future. After describing his invention to a group of friends and explaining how it works, he announces that he intends to use the machine to explore time. Assembling at a dinner party the following week, the gentlemen await the appearance of the Time Traveller – who arrives late, looking dirty and exhausted, and proceeds to narrate an incredible story.

The Time Traveller tells of his journey to the year 802,701, a world populated by the Eloi, a race of beautiful, innocent, childlike people who, far from being the advanced society he had expected, are leading surprisingly lazy, directionless lives and appear to be weaker and less intelligent than ourselves. Due to a change in language, he is unable to communicate with them to find out more about their way of life, although he does form a friendship of sorts with an Eloi woman whose name is Weena.

Later, the Time Traveller discovers that the Eloi are not the only inhabitants of this futuristic world; another race of human-like creatures live below ground, only coming to the surface at night. Known as the Morlocks, these creatures are brutish and savage but appear to be carrying out all the work and industry which enables the Eloi to live their simple lives of leisure on the land above. They also appear to have stolen the time machine, which means that unless the Time Traveller can find a way to retrieve it, he could be trapped in the future forever!

The Time Traveller comes up with several theories to explain what is happening in this futuristic world, but has to revise his opinion as more information comes to light. He speculates that the human race must have evolved at some point into two species, the rich and privileged becoming the Eloi and the working classes becoming the Morlocks. The Eloi, he thinks, have led such comfortable lives and faced so few challenges, that they have had no further need to grow and adapt:

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of time travel and although I personally would be more interested in visiting the past than the future, I find it fascinating to see what people think the future will hold. Remembering when this novel was published, Wells’ vision of a future world has been developed from some of the issues which would have seemed relevant at the end of the 19th century, such as widening class divisions, theories of evolution and Darwinism. It’s a bleak and depressing view of the future – and if that really is what we have to look forward to, then imperfect as our current society may be, I’m very glad to be living in 2016!

While I enjoyed reading The Time Machine, I thought there could have been more to the story. I hadn’t realised it was such a short book (there are just over 100 pages in my edition, so it can easily be read in a few hours), and I would have liked it to have been a bit longer which would have allowed some of the ideas in the novel to be developed in more depth. Still, I’m pleased to have read such an important and influential science fiction novel and will think about reading more of Wells’ work at some point.