Brexit is an act of secession, the breaking away of one polity from another, and say what you want about it, the fact that not a single shot has been fired over Brexit is a compliment to the patience and forbearance of both the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Here in the States, our two big acts of secession didn’t go so well. We exchanged cannonballs with the British Empire to establish an idealized land of freedom and liberty, and 244 years afterward we’re still striving to live up to those goals. Later, some of us wanted to break away to preserve an ideal of nostalgia and, more precisely, slavery, and by war’s end an estimated 800,000 men and women lay dead. We Americans have seen both flips of the coin, the good act of secession and the bad one too, a heads where people sought to establish a radical new order and a tails where they fought to preserve a dying status quo.
The driving force behind secession is a particular vision of the future, a dream conforming to the ideals of the secessionists. In other words: secession is utopian. At stake in Brexit are multiple conflicting models of what the UK could be. Even now, for example, with a break from the EU truly on the horizon, there appears to be little consensus about the precise relationship between an independent UK and its former partners on the continent. Which vision will coalesce into reality? Take it from a citizen of a country that’s been there before: with so many cooks in the kitchen, the finished meal won’t be to anybody’s taste.
In the meantime, post-apocalyptic fiction can provide us with some insights because, similar to secessionism, it’s a utopian art form. Unlike secondary world fantasy or science fiction set on alien planets, post-apoc is about our world with the slate wiped clean — it explores what social constructs would develop on an Earth unshackled from history, a landscape where civilization can begin again from the grassroots. It imagines what secession often seeks to accomplish.
Throughout 2019, I read a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels written by British authors and set in Britain. Their interpretations of what their country would look like stripped of its conventions varied but certain themes and motifs recurred. Presented here are my glimmers into their futures, their observations, and their judgments about what it means to be British.
One of the more telling observations of history is that many of the great migrations of our planet, if not most, have involved people trying to escape their own government. There’s even a word for it: democide.
Set in a post-zombie UK, M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts (2014) introduces us to Melanie, who, along with her classmates, is sequestered at an army-run research base located north of London, far from the last outpost of English civilization on the southern shore called Beacon. Unraveling why the children are crucial for the scientists’ research absorbs the early chapters, until eventually the base is compromised and a ragtag group of action-movie archetypes — including Melanie, the star student — must trudge back to Beacon, surrounded on all sides by the running dead.
Girl started as a short story, which, due to popular demand — and by popular, I mean Hollywood — Carey later expanded into both a screenplay and a novel, written concurrently. It must be a nice problem to have. Perhaps for just that reason the book is divided into halves: the first, which includes the original story, is rich and well-written, while the second descends into cinematic, easily storyboarded clichés (I’m looking at you, guy-who-goes-off-by-himself-and-gets-eaten).
If you’ve ever watched a Romero movie or an episode of that HBO franchise, you’ve probably already read this story of a familiar survivors’ march across the countryside. Still, Carey’s expository unwinding of the collapse, particularly of a government that turned against its citizens in its death throes, entertains nonetheless. The darkness of a zombie apocalypse is always tempered by its fantastical impossibility and so, at its foundation, remains a joke — but a government bombing its own people to save itself? That’s all too believable.
A better expression of peregrination as plot device is Adrian J. Walker’s The End of the World Running Club (2014). Edgar lives the life of a middle-class Englishman in the suburbs, working his days in an office, boozing his nights at the pub, not exercising, not eating well, and most of all, not being a terribly good father or husband. When an intense meteor shower devastates Earth’s northern hemisphere, Edgar and his family escape to their basement just in time.
After being rescued by soldiers from a nearby barracks, Edgar returns one day from a scavenging mission to find his family has been evacuated by an international agency to Cornwall, where ships intend to transport survivors to new lives in the southern hemisphere. He and the remaining left-behinds have until Christmas day to hoof from Edinburgh to Falmouth if they ever want to be reunited with their loved ones.
The band’s journey through a crater-pocked countryside makes for a different landscape than most books centered around zombies or nukes. As with Girl, the ragtag bunch of runners (the roads are too badly marred for vehicles) is a motley of stereotypes — the soldier, the pensioner, the tattooed biker with a heart of gold — but Walker colors outside their lines to develop them into something better.
The same can’t be said for many of the villains they encounter; the band is constantly attacked and captured by a series of highwaymen and gangsters, all of whom originate from the lower classes. In fact, the only bit of charity they receive is from a minor nobleman dwelling in a secluded manor. Walker, who lives in London, is very specific about who’s responsible for tearing the UK apart, whether by resorting to predatory violence in the aftermath of an asteroid strike or by voting Leave. It’s the tragic flaw of the English: they can’t help but be snobs, even when the protagonist’s arc aims to mold him into the ideal of the modern progressive Labour-voter.
For a people who live on an island, the theme of running away from your problems is surprisingly common in British post-apoc. In Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964), the titular character and his friends begin an odyssey down the Thames after their village descends into anarchy, incited by a rumor of an impending invasion by stoats (a kind of weasel, if you remember your Wind in the Willows).
It seems trifling, but as the novel is set decades after the last child has been born due to humanity’s sterilization by nuclear fallout, the townsfolk — none of them under the age of 50 — are prone to hysterias and panics. Fearing the mob mentality of their neighbors more than the stoats, Greybeard (born Algernon Timberlane) and his companions cast off in a boat to find a new home along the riverbank.
The lack of young bodies able to perform the maintenance necessary to keep civilization running has reduced Britain to a land of social atomization among the ruins. Aldiss cuts their journey with interstitials about Timberlane’s life before, during, and after the disaster, painting a cheerless picture of a society fallen into nihilism in the face of self-caused extinction. Are so many of the characters given to quarreling, grudges, jealousies, and even casual violence because they’re demented by age, or because deep down that’s who they’ve always been?
“We are happy!” says one character. “For all that everyone has lost since the terrible Accident of 1981, one thing at least we have gained — there is no longer need for the hypocrisies and shams of civilization; we can be our natural selves.”
Released from the manacles of society and the bonds to other countries — or even to their own countrymen — the dwindling inhabitants of England are left unencumbered and free. “All of which pointed to a moral that they should have learned long before,” says one character to himself: “Never trust a bunch of lousy politicians to do your thinking for you.” Spoken like a true American.
March of the Zombies
“One of the basic weaknesses of science fiction,” wrote John Christopher in his 2014 preface to When the Tripods Came (1988), is that “it is not very good at guessing the future.” Christopher was responding to criticism of his Tripod Trilogy that the alien invaders are technologically advanced in some senses and yet seem woefully backwards in others — a perception largely due to the original series, written in the late 60s, having been outpaced by real-world developments. Christopher penned the fourth book in part to explain the aliens’ technological deficiencies. “Scientific knowledge doesn’t have to follow the pattern we’re familiar with,” says one character, citing historical examples to reinforce the suspension of disbelief.
Science fiction frequently gets the details wrong but just as often predicts a larger truth, especially because human behavior doesn’t change. In Christopher’s prequel, we learn how the invading Masters, outmatched by Earth’s more sophisticated weapons, conquered the planet anyway. After the first Tripods are easily destroyed, their memory insidiously lingers in a children’s television show, which eventually splits humanity into pro-Tripod “Trippies” and the rest of mankind who, like the parents of Fortnite-addicted kids, assume the whole thing is a fad that will blow over. Hoo boy, are they wrong.
The true dread is in the benignity of the invasion. The Trippies aren’t always violent, and the real menace lies in the subtle changes in their behavior. Our protagonists make several attempts to escape the Trippies only to be roadblocked by provincial prejudice or nationalism, something they’ve never experienced before. The shared threat of invasion from another world, rather than bonding people together Watchmen style, instead makes Trippies and non-Trippies alike hostile to refugees. “It would make it easier to keep us under control,” theorizes one character about the newfound xenophobia. “Divide and rule.”
Christopher’s prescient suggestion — made way back in the days of Reagan and Thatcher — of the divisive potential of pop culture and mass media adds a layer of contemporary terror to an otherwise pulse-pounding narrative of a boy and his family increasingly surrounded by pod people. As the book is a prequel to a series published in the 1960s, it’s no spoiler to tell you the sinister narrative slides from cozy horror into full-on jailbreak, and I stayed up late finishing it, unable to turn the pages fast enough. If you’ve ever felt unease at discovering that a loved one possesses some unsavory political views, When the Tripods Came may make you relive the sensation.
Of all the books in this list, Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) is the most relevant to Brexit. It’s also the most bleak. The story follows Alan Whitman, an upper middle-class English everyman: he’s a college history professor who wears corduroys and lives in the London suburbs; his politics are liberal; he has one child and a loveless marriage; he’s carried on a comical number of affairs with students and colleagues. He is mashed potatoes of a man, someone who’s never made hard decisions or strongly believed in anything except an erection.
When drought and famine culminate in a limited nuclear exchange in Africa, millions flee the continent for less-irradiated climes, including two million who land in Britain. The influx overwhelms the housing and labor markets, creating civil unrest and eventually all-out civil war. Whitman and his family find themselves among the displaced, and much of the narrative (told as an achronological clip show) involves their wanderings in the southern English countryside as they duck combatants and their allied militias.
Priest takes great pains to avoid demonizing the refugees, stressing that the violence is between African militants (suggested to be former soldiers supplied arms by a provocative USSR) and the fascist nativist government. The war is further complicated by a third interracial faction which seeks to restore peace and the constitutional monarchy. Throughout it all, Whitman insists on maintaining the absolute neutrality of his pre-war life, which reduces him and his dependents to the status of wretched drifters, skulking around deserted villages and scavenging for tinned food.
Priest’s point is that nonalignment is an illusion; after all, the simple fact of Whitman’s white skin means certain groups treat him better than others. Because of this, some critics accuse Fugue of racism. In his introduction to the 2011 edition — Priest revised the book to make it less detached as well as to clean up the language — Priest says he modeled the catastrophe on the Troubles of Northern Island, and speculated what would happen if its sectarian violence spread to the whole of the UK.
Priest’s argument isn’t so much about whites versus blacks as it is against neutrality itself, bringing to mind Sophie Scholl’s quote about the fecklessness of the nonpartisan in the face of emergency: “But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe.” Being born white or black or Catholic or Protestant means you’ve already been assigned to a side, so being uninvolved is out of the question. The real dilemma is what to do with that fact and whether a man should succumb to blind tribalism or act upon his principles to fight, and maybe even kill, for something better.
No survey of British post-apoc would be complete without John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), which I regard as among the best of the genre. I’m not alone; the opening in which the protagonist Bill Masen finds himself waking in a hospital after a global catastrophe inspired the film 28 Days Later; and with its scenes of triffids breaking through fences by the sheer weight of numbers or lingering hungrily over corpses, it can be argued that Wyndham single-handedly inspired the zombie apocalypse whole cloth.
Masen, a biochemist who works with the mysterious ambulatory plants known as triffids, is recovering from a triffid sting to his eyes when he wakes up to learn that a cosmic light show the night before has blinded anyone who saw it. When he removes his bandages, Masen finds he can see but mostly everyone else cannot. The adjective “cozy” is sometimes used to describe Wyndham’s book, which is an odd label considering that many of the victims soon succumb to starvation, suicide, or disease due to society’s plunge into eternal night.
Once again, our hero begins an odyssey, first through London and then eventually through a southern England in which the carnivorous triffids, once a rung below us on the food chain, have been promoted. Unlike most post-apoc, however, Triffids culminates in a revelation not often repeated in the almost 70 years since its publication: the apocalypse was not brought about by a single event — humanity can weather a lone catastrophe — but rather by a series of them.
Society is too complex a machine to be disabled by a mere broken cogwheel, Wyndham reminds us; but should too many parts shatter, then the thing collapses. This metaphor in mind, one questions whether Brexit, the Good Friday Accord, and mutterings of a second Scottish referendum are but a single straw or too many for the burro to bear.
Wyndham’s plotting is impeccable, sprinkling scenes of triffid horror between showcases of the different societies that form after the disaster. A college professor establishes a kind of benign Handmaid’s Gilead (chalk another tally on the inspiration wall) in which repopulating the Earth is the primary goal; but a splinter group soon shears off into matriarchal Christian socialism. Another character enslaves the sighted for the benefit of the blind, another group fortifies themselves in a castle, and still another seeks to reestablish medieval feudalism.
Throughout his adventures, Masen repeatedly encounters people hopeful that Americans will soon arrive to save them — they can’t imagine a world in which the US is just as crippled as they are. This “Micawber fixation on American fairy godmothers” arriving with crates of chlorinated chicken and paprika full of rat hairs is the hope that keeps many of them hanging on. It’s the most utopian of all the groupthinks Masen runs into, a salvation fantasy held by too many in the real world.
Arguments over Brexit have been no exception to a common rhetorical device in which each side accuses the other of being retrograde and reactionary. Who are the more conservative, the Remain voters who wanted to keep things as they are or the Leave voters who wanted a change? Is the desire for sovereignty over the affairs of one’s country forward thinking or a throwback? It’s a question without a clear answer.
For Gen-X readers, Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985) will either summon memories of watching The Day After on TV or of reading Children in school. Judging by the reviews left on Goodreads and Amazon, the novel was a popular assignment for Commonwealth kids in the 80s, and copies are easy to pick up on second-hand sites — mine is an ex-library edition from an elementary school in Burnaby, British Columbia.
With its young protagonists and grim description of nuclear warfare, it’s easy to see why teachers would assign it to middle-grade readers. Mutually Assured Destruction occurs on page one, and from that dark start we follow several generations of the Harnden family as they deal with the immediate devastation, the rebuilding efforts a few decades later, and a reborn England some fifty years afterward. Lawrence doesn’t spare the gruesome details: after quickly throwing together a makeshift bomb shelter in their house, the initial group of protagonists slowly succumbs to starvation and sickness, all while smelling the stink from their own poop bucket in the corner. The Dion-soundtracked apocalypse of Fallout 4, this isn’t.
Strife eventually develops between those who endured outdoors and those survivors in government bunkers who seek to restore Britain as it was — and who see the outsiders as a means to that end. The perception of the outsiders as deformed bumpkins, even though they’ve persevered through radiation sickness and nuclear winter, stems from the vault dwellers’ own snobbery, who believe a return to agrarianism is a step backwards. Meanwhile the pacifist outsiders have no such phobias about the bunker people and welcome their preserved technology, with the caveat that it be used for ploughshares instead of swords.
Lawrence makes it clear who she thinks is the more old-fashioned, but at the end of her no-nukes, back-to-nature, can’t-we-all-just-get-along sermon is a warning about the ultimate dangers of conformity, the attachment to old and irrelevant ideas. All the science in the world isn’t worth much if you’re just going to blow it up.
Richard Jeffries was a British naturalist whose novel After London (1885) likely appealed to Grand Tourists who had to journey to the Mediterranean to see monumental ruins. Jeffries goes into great detail about the reversion of the southern English landscape after an unspecified catastrophe, with the book divided into two sections; the first, “The Relapse Into Barbarism,” reads like a supplement for a roleplaying game, with much verbiage spent on the encroachment of vegetation.
The upshot is that the mouths of the Avon and Thames both became silted, with the backed-up water forming a massive freshwater lake between the Bristol Channel and an uninhabited London, now a swamp haunted by fatal mists and vapors: as went the pyramids and the Colosseum, so too went Buckingham and Westminster. Civilization along the lake has reverted to feudalism, with various noblemen warring with republican city-states and each other.
The second section relates the adventures of Felix Aquilas, eldest son of a mechanically inclined baron who reintroduced the trebuchet to siege warfare, only to find himself victim of court jealousies because of his innovation. The result is a fine levied against him that he cannot hope to pay. Left without an inheritance, Felix sets off across the inland sea to establish his own barony.
Our hero’s voyage isn’t terribly exciting. Many words are again spent on descriptions of wind, water, flora, and fauna, but Jeffries’s message is 180-degrees to Lawrence’s: screw primitivism — the only way to get ahead in this world is to out-innovate and technologically crush your enemies. Throughout, Felix is stymied by distrust and lack of imagination for his improvements and he suffers the indignities of a Great Man among backwards yokels.
Precisely because of its age, the book’s pro-technology, anti-Luddite stance is refreshing, accompanied by none of the modern hand-wringing over new scientific developments. Jeffries leaves no doubt who the regressives are. “The richer and upper classes made use of their money to escape,” Jeffries tells us regarding the ambiguous cataclysm. “Those left behind were mainly the lower and most ignorant.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re the elite or the prole: either way, it’s always the other one who’s the bitter-ender.
As always, there are probably a hundred other books that could’ve been included here, so feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments. And don’t think I’m picking on the Brits — in 2017, I took a look at what post-apoc fiction says about the USA.
In the meantime, pull on your jumper, lace your trainers, and let’s hope we survive to meet again at the bottom of 2020.