A Season of Brook Farm

The Hive was the communal heart of Brook Farm. During his stay, Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in the front right room.

On Thursday, my novel A Season of Whispers drops in print and ebook editions.

Season is set in 1844 in a fictional transcendentalist commune called Bonaventure, located in eastern Connecticut. Bonaventure was influenced by two real-life transcendentalist communities, one of which is Brook Farm, located in the outskirts of Boston.

Brook Farm was founded by George Ripley, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Sophia as an experiment in societal reform. Both had been inspired after visiting at least one intentional community founded by German immigrants (in Ohio, IIRC) and after spending the summer of 1840 on a farm in West Roxbury reading about the French socialist Charles Fourier.

The Ripleys sought to establish a communal arrangement that ensured “a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor,” separate and apart from “the pressures of our competitive institutions.” Their sense of socialism was much less rigid or ideological than what we may think of. Brook Farm was organized as a joint-stock company, in which members bought shares (at $500 a pop, equivalent to about $13,900 in today’s money) in exchange for three hots and a cot and a dividend from the profits. Only a very few Brook Farmers actually paid that much, however, and it’s doubtful anyone saw a penny in return. Brook Farm was also nondenominational, notable as most utopian settlements usually required subscribers to uphold a specific religion or creed.

For a few years, Brook Farm became a kind of sun around which the transcendentalists orbited. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, editrix of The Dial (which was The Atlantic or New Yorker of the movement), declined to join but were frequent visitors.

Nathaniel Hawthorne joined in April 1841 after purchasing two shares, the other for his future wife Sophia. Hawthorne soon became disillusioned with farm work, particularly with all the manure, and found the labor left him too tired to write. After vacationing in Salem for a few weeks in September, he finally left the farm permanently in November — without ever receiving a refund of his shares. A decade later, Hawthorne fictionalized his Brook Farm experience in The Blithedale Romance, a comical novel I can’t recommend highly enough.

A Season of Whispers

One of the issues the Brook Farmers struggled with was how exactly society should be reformed. What would a perfect society look like? What did “reform” mean in practical, everyday terms?

Although the farm grew crops with middling success, Brook Farm supported itself mainly through the day school run by the Ripleys. By 1844, the enterprise was successful enough for them to shift into a new phase, in which they leaned heavily into Fourierism, costing them several members as a result. Fourier was quite specific how people would live under his system, even down to the architecture; and so the Brook Farmers embraced austere poverty in order to build a Phalanstery on the property, a sort of communal dormitory constructed around a common green space. Construction continued until March 1846, when the nearly completed Phalanstery burned to the ground.

The disaster ruined Brook Farm, and while the Ripleys eventually recovered — George Ripley went on to become a successful journalist and editor of Harper’s Magazine — it took them 13 years to pay off the debts accrued by their utopian experiment.

Today you can visit the Brook Farm Historic Site but you may be disappointed as nothing from the era remains (the oldest building is a print shop built in 1890 or so). Still, you can roam the area, which includes a cemetery, and get a feel for the land.

You can read more about Hawthorne’s stay at Brook Farm here.

Short News, Reclusive Scriveners Edition

Interior (Model Reading) by Edward Hopper, 1925

Don’t Engage. At Litreactor, Cina Pelayo, author and editor of Gothic Blue Book, offered her advice to writers regarding social media.

There are some authors who only tweet about writing. There are some authors who tweet about writing, and just a little bit about themselves. Then, there are some authors who tweet about their work, themselves, and are very active in social and political causes online, engaging opponents, and being vocal overall. What image are you trying to present? Think about it and frame yourself as such.

Pelayo confines herself to Twitter and Instagram, which coincidentally are the only two platforms I use beyond this blog. I find Twitter helpful for learning and sharing news but impossible for any kind of meaningful communication unless I already know the person, so my hat’s off to anyone who can build a following there.

Instagram is, I think, a better platform. I attended a social-media panel at StokerCon 2018 and Paul Tremblay offered some good advice: He suggested people may not want your links to buy stuff but they may be interested in your life as a writer, so consider showcasing that. This is my approach toward Instagram. Alas, 90 percent of my life is cooking meals for the fam, sitting at the keyboard, exercising, or working on household projects, and the internet doesn’t need more food porn, gym selfies, or shelf blogs. So I don’t post often.

Pelayo is a little more cautious than I am. I believe writing, whether it’s journalism, novel writing, or whatever, is inherently a political act and thus writers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from putting their opinions out there, assuming those opinions aren’t superficial or impulsive. Our worldviews are already hardwired into what we do — it’s just a matter of how on the nose we want to be in public.

In the last few years I’ve made an effort to be positive on Twitter, something I’ve been working on IRL as I strive to be more optimistic and grateful. But I also aim to avoid letting fear drive my interactions. As Philip K. Dick wrote, “If you’re afraid you don’t commit yourself to life completely. Fear makes you always, always hold something back.”

Piranesi. Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — which I consider to be the greatest fantasy novel written in my lifetime, if not ever — has a new book out, her first in 16 years. She discusses it in this terrific New Yorker interview.

Rest in Peace. Charles Saunders, author of the Imaro and Dossouye series of African-based sword-and-sorcery novels, passed away in May but his death was only announced this month. Saunders was a very prolific journalist and author, writing four nonfiction books in addition to his novels, as well as numerous essays, columns, and short stories. He was 73.

We All Live in Lovecraft Country

This Sunday, Jordan Peele’s series Lovecraft Country will debut on HBO, based on the novel by Matt Ruff. Here’s a review of the book I wrote back in 2016.

Lovecraft Country
by Matt Ruff
Harper (384 pages, $26.99 hardback, $7.99 digital, February 2016)

Pam Noles grew up the daughter of a mother who was very active in the NAACP and a father who, because of his color, had to sue their city after being turned down eight times for a firefighting job. Noles also grew up loving all things science fiction — books and B movies — even though nobody on those book covers or in those movies resembled her family.

On Saturday nights Noles watched schlocky movies hosted by an Elvira knockoff called The Ghoul, backed by a cast of weirdos (every big market had something similar — in Philly we had Saturday Night Dead, hosted by Stella “The Maneater From Manayunk”). During breaks in the movie they performed skits.

Usually it would be just me in the basement sprawled on the floor surrounded by snacks, Legos and books to read during the commercials. If he was off shift, sometimes Dad would come down and join me in his leather recliner by the stairs. Every once in a while Mom called down from the kitchen Are you letting her watch those weird things? And we’d lie in unison, No. If she came down to check for herself, Dad would get in trouble.

Dad had his own names for the movies.

What’s this? ‘Escape to a White Planet?’

It’s called ‘When Worlds Collide.’ I’m sure I sounded indignant.

‘Mars Kills the White People.’ I love this one.

Daaaaad. It says it right there. ‘War of the Worlds’. I know I sighed heavily, but was careful to turn back to the tv before rolling my eyes.

Once he asked me which was more real, the movie or the skits between. I didn’t get it, and told him that they were both stories, so they were both fake. He didn’t bring it up again until a skit came on. I can’t remember if it was a ‘Soulman’ skit or one of the caveman gags (the cavemen were multicultural — basic white, Polish, Italian, and black). But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story. When he didn’t say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn’t say anything else.

Matt Ruff credits Noles as inspiration in the acknowledgments of his latest novel, Lovecraft Country, and it’s easy to see why: her father’s acuity echoes throughout in the voice of the character Montrose Turner.

Much like Noles herself, Montrose’s son Atticus has been raised on a steady diet of sci-fi — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tom Swift, pulp magazines — and like Noles’s dad, Montrose never stops pointing out the implicit racism of that media: on the covers Nordic he-men rescue blonde damsels from villains of darker complexion, while inside fair-skinned men save the world from ethnics and monsters.

When a young Atticus describes his newfound love of the writer H.P. Lovecraft, Montrose responds with a trip to the library. His voice has “the perverse mix of anger and glee” when he returns home with a certain infamous 1912 poem penned by Lovecraft to show his son. The doggerel ruins Lovecraft for him.

Nowadays Lovecraft’s legacy is mixed nuts. The Library of America has published a thick collection of his work, the unpronounceable name of his most well-known creation is a Twitter hashtag, and there’s a line of beers dedicated to him; and yet after 40 years the World Fantasy Convention remodeled their awards, shaped as a stylized bust of HPL, over complaints of his racism. All of this makes 2016 either the best or worst of times to release a novel set in 1950s America about Atticus and his African-American friends and relations caught in a Lovecraftian conspiracy.

Ruff addresses the chamber pachyderm in chapter one. When Atticus complains to his uncle about Montrose’s constant harassment over his choice of reading materials, his uncle reminds him that “stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though.”

With that mic dropped, Atticus and company depart for the wilds of Massachusetts in search of Montrose, who has been abducted by cultists for sinister purposes. What follows is a series of connected short stories and novellas, each featuring a different member of Atticus’s circle as its protagonist, as the group struggles to extricate themselves from a war between dueling — and, more notably, Caucasian — sorcerers.

There’s fewer tentacles and asylum incarcerations than Lovecraft fans might expect; with its haunted houses and devil dolls and weird science, it’s more Trilogy of Terror than “Dunwich Horror.” But as each chapter bled into the next, I found it increasingly unputdownable.

The real malevolence Atticus and the rest confront is the same shoggoth Montrose continuously stabs at with a yardstick, a gibbering Great Old One of police harassment and Brown v. Board of Education and this morning’s news. Theirs is the landscape Lovecraft inhabited rather than the one he made up.

When two black boys try to buy a Coke from a machine outside a store called Perch’s that advertises White Customers Only, Montrose pushes them away. “‘This here?’” he says of the machine. “‘This is a slap in the face. Every time you put in a nickel, you’re telling Mr. Perch, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ A man who respects himself will never do that.’”

But the boys don’t get it — they insult him and run away. Like Noles, they won’t understand until much later.

I Got Some Groceries, Some Peanut Butter

Have you suddenly found yourself at home with time on your hands? Are you looking for books to read about the end of the world while you wait out the end of the world?

Man, have you come to the right place. I love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and sometimes I even write about what I’ve read.

In 2017, I read books set (mostly) in a post-apocalyptic USA. I strongly recommend JG Ballard’s Hello America and Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow.

Last year I read post-apoc novels set in the UK, including some really great ones like When the Tripods Came, Fugue for a Darkening Island, and of course, The Day of the Triffids. All of those books were written by Brit authors.

And in 2018 I read some gonzo adventures featuring robots and mutants written by C. Robert Cargill, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and others.

JG Ballard’s The Drowned World is okay but I liked his collection Memories of the Space Age better, particularly his short story, “The Cage of Sand.”

I’m also a huge fan of Jeffrey Barlough’s Western Lights novels, which are Victorian gaslamp mystery adventures set in a post-apocalyptic alternate Ice Age. In 2013, I interviewed Barlough about the series.

The Unstrung Harp

Mr. Earbrass has been rashly skimming through the early chapters

This week I completed the eighth draft of my fourth and latest book. It’s not the final version by any means, but it’s the version I’m comfortable showing to people while I consider improvements. There’s never a final version to any book, even once it’s sent to the printer; I keep a running list of corrections if a revised edition of Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer should ever be requested.

Often when I reach this milestone, I pull out my copy of Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey, a collection of his first 15 books, and reread the The Unstrung Harp. The story details the process of CF Earbrass, renowned English novelist, as he writes and publishes his latest work. The Unstrung Harp spans the period just before he begins writing and concludes with his escape from the reactions and reviews by suddenly going on holiday.

Never before or since The Unstrung Harp has a better rendering of the authorial journey been set to paper. Having read it first as a teen, it’s become a nostradamic document for me, a compilation of quatrains describing events and experiences that have come to pass.

In one panel Earbrass writes so long and hard that he skips lunch, whereupon he retreats to the kitchen to eat a jelly sandwich. That’s practically my daily routine.

Upon finishing a chapter, Earbrass sits and ponders “where the plot is to go and what will happen to it on arrival.” How else do you write a book?

Earbrass finds a presentation copy of an old novel in a second-hand bin but can’t remember who Angus is. A friend of mine once found a presentation copy of Smedley at a used-book sale and apologized to me, as if he was the one who gave it away.

Earbrass is cornered by an irate reader, who believes a character in the novel is modeled on him. Not only has this happened with my fiction, I also have a Smedley stalker who shows up at places to argue with me.

What’s amazing is that The Unstrung Harp was Gorey’s first book, originally published in 1953, and yet reading it, you’d think it was written by an established author reflecting on his career by way of self-mockery. Nope. Instead Gorey wrote a prophetic parody of the writing life, a blueprint of absurdity. For me, the humor only grows with each re-read.

Reading the Brexit Apocalypse

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.

Salvation Road

The Girl With All the Gifts

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.

The End of the World Running Club

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

When the Tripods Came

“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.

Fugue for a Darkening Island

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.

The Day of the Triffids

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.

Scrapheap City

Children of the Dust

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.

After London

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.