Friday, 19 April 2013

A Very British Apocalypse

Post-apocalyptic narratives form a significant part of British science fiction, particularly following the end of the Second World War. The legacy of bombed-out cities, rationing, and the mass-mobilisation of a whole nation for war provided a fertile environment for the sci-fi writer: the utopian ideas of much inter-war science fiction being replaced by a more disillusioned and hardened nihilism.

In post-war British science fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction seems to be broadly divided into two distinct types; the so-called ‘cosy catastrophe’ fiction, in which pockets of humanity survive some destructive event and are able to pull together and survive relatively unchanged, while the other type of post-apocalyptic fiction takes a much more nihilistic strain, in which the psychology of humanity is transformed, and which raises questions about the malleability of the human psyche. 

In his novel, The Drowned World, J.G.Ballard explores the effects of a world transformed due to the melting of the solar ice caps upon the surviving members of humanity. The novel’s central characters find that their whole psychology is transformed through their interaction with the changed landscape of the world; a landscape in which the risen sea levels have ‘drowned’ the cities of Europe and North America, turning them into tropical lagoons. The central characters are part of a scientific survey team, sent to study these new lagoons. When the other members of the survey team leave, three of the characters remain behind, content in the isolation of their new environment. The central character of Dr Kerans becomes obsessed with the psychoanalytic relationship he feels to the environment, seeing its regression mirrored in the regression of his own humanity: ‘Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs.’

Ballard seems to suggest that the apocalypse acts as a kind of release for humanity’s subconscious desires: the apocalyptic event reverses the relationship of man to his environment, so that the environment is no longer shaped by him but rather he is shaped by the environment. Thus freed from this state, man is able to pursue his subconscious desires without fear or care of social ostracism. Throughout the novel, and much of Ballard’s work, there is a tension regarding this ‘liberation’ of the human psyche from social norms: while his environment acts on the one hand as a means of disengaging man from society, on the other hand it reduces him to a near-bestial condition, which suggests that man's conception of humanity may be less a social construct and more a reaction to his environment.

The Drowned World
Special Collections (Uni of Leeds)

Similarly, in The Death of Grass, John Christopher presents a terrifying portrait of a future humanity that, through a desperate desire to survive, has abandoned much of the morality that defined it prior to the apocalyptic ‘event’. In this instance, the event is a virus that has wiped out nearly all the crops in Asia and Europe, causing widespread famine. The novel follows the struggles of two friends, John Custance and Roger Buckley, and their families, as they make their way north from London to Custance’s brother’s farm in the Lake District. Their journey takes them through an England rapidly descending into anarchy and chaos, as the population grows increasingly desperate for food.
Throughout the novel, the central characters are forced to confront the reality of the need for survival that their changed environment has forced upon them. Much of the tension derives from whether the characters can continue to maintain a sense of civility and humanity, or whether they will succumb to the survival-of-the-fittest laws of nature that they witness around them. Christopher’s post-apocalyptic landscape is one in which barbarism quickly replaces civility, suggesting that, for Christopher, the instinct for survival is stronger in man than the impulse to act morally. Indeed, a turning point in the novel occurs when the protagonists, having run out of food, kill a family just for their bread. In crossing this line the protagonists leave behind any semblance of their previous morality; their need to survive changes their psychology from the civilised and human to the instinctive and animal. In this respect the apocalypse, as with The Drowned World, becomes a psychological event, in which humanity is placed in a cycle of de-evolution.

In contrast to this bleak post-apocalyptic view of humanity, John Wyndham presents a more hopeful vision of the ravaged future in his novel The Day of the Triffids. The cataclysmic event that begins the novel is the rendering of the vast majority of the Earth’s population blind, due to a meteor shower that nearly everyone witnesses due its beautiful display of colours in the atmosphere. The novel’s central protagonist, Bill Masen, was unable to see the meteor shower as he was convalescing in hospital due to a triffid attack that necessitated his eyes being bandaged. As he wakes and wanders around London, he finds the city descending into anarchy, as people desperately clamour blindly for help and food. In these scenes, The Day of the Triffids does closely resemble the panic-driven anarchy witnessed in The Death of Grass. However, whereas the latter novel depicts humanity in a state of regression, The Day of the Triffids suggests that this regression is not necessarily universal, and that by holding on to vestiges of civilisation, humanity could find a way to survive and rebuild. 

The Day of the Triffids
Special Collections (Uni of Leeds)

The group of sighted-survivors that Masen encounters at a London university show a determination to rebuild civilisation by establishing a colony in the countryside, with the long-term aim of rebuilding the population by having sighted men take more than one ‘wife’. Although this idea initially appals Masen and his partner, – indeed, it causes another group to split off and form their own colony – he begins to realise that in order for humanity to survive, personal sacrifices have to be made. It is this rationalistic response to the apocalypse that suggests that, rather than instinctively de-evolving, by working together to maintain an idea of ‘society’, mankind could survive. However, this is not to say that everyone’s vision of society is necessarily a desirable one. At the end of the novel, Masen, his partner, and some other survivors, find their peaceful existence on an isolated farm disrupted by the arrival of a group of soldiers who represent a despotic new form of government that is trying to establish itself throughout the country. This group, which seeks to forcibly split up the survivors at the farm to put them in charge of blind survivors, represents the reactionary aspect of humanity; the rush to socio-political extremes in times of panic.

Wyndham’s novel ends on a note of defiant optimism: the characters escape from the soldiers and head to a colony on the Isle of Wight, where we learn that humans have begun to rebuild and plan for the future. Indeed, the novel ends with Masen declaring there will come a day when ‘[we] will cross the narrow straits on the great crusade to drive the triffids back and back… until we have wiped the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.’ Wyndham’s defiant challenge to the apocalypse finds its origins in the siege-mentality of Second World War Britain, where a population facing daily bombing raids, food shortages, and the threat of invasion refused to be broken. In this respect, The Day of the Triffids perhaps presents a more realistic portrait of the British response to crisis, as under the strain of war the population remained united and civilised.

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