In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores a forgotten work of post-apocalyptic fiction
March opened on a comparatively milder note, but there was still no thaw. Food prices, which had been rising for some time, began to rocket, and there was a wave of strikes throughout the country. … The Government, which had proclaimed a State of Emergency and taken necessary powers, showed no sign of yielding them again. There was strict censorship, and the police were armed. Rationing and price controls were introduced for a wide range of foods; patient queues lengthened in the grubby snow outside provision shops. Press and television called on the people to endure, to show their ancient phlegm. ‘If winter comes,’ quoted the Prime Minister in his clipped and confident voice, ‘can spring be far behind?’
This passage comes near the beginning of Chapter 7 of The World in Winter, a novel, now thankfully back in print as The World in Winter (Penguin Worlds), by a forgotten author who I was switched onto by Christopher Fowler in his brilliant and revelatory The Book of Forgotten Authors (which I reviewed here).
British science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s seems to have been dominated by disaster novels: speculative fictions about the end of the world. This is hardly surprising, given the Cold War and growing threat of nuclear annihilation. In the decades that followed, the nuclear threat gave way to apocalyptic novels about a world ravaged and destroyed by climate change – a narrative obviously still very much with us, both in post-apocalyptic fiction and in the media.
I’ve been reading quite a lot of disaster fiction from the 1960s recently: John Wyndham, J. G. Ballard, and John Brunner. But there is another writer to add to this trio, who is far less well-known nowadays: John Christopher, who was born Sam Youd and is probably best-remembered for his Tripods trilogy of novels for young adults (adapted for British television in the 1980s) and his disaster novel The Death of Grass, in which the world’s wheat crops fail, leading to global famine and chaos as the world descends into anarchy. All of this is, topically, caused by a new virus that arises in East Asia.
But after The Death of Grass – which appeared in 1956 – Christopher went on to publish a number of other disaster novels, including The World in Winter (1962) and A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965). The latter novel, which I’ll have to blog about at a later date, is about a world plunged into chaos after a series of severe earthquakes. But the focus of today’s Secret Library column is The World in Winter.
The novel focuses on Andrew Leedon, a thirtysomething man living in London. He works in television, has a wife named Carol, and two children. After Carol leaves him for his friend David, Andrew becomes friendly with David’s abandoned wife Maddie. All of this domestic upheaval takes place against a backdrop of rapidly unfolding climate disaster: not global warming, but global cooling. The cooler, northern regions of the planet, including Britain, are becoming even colder, until they will soon be subsumed under snow and all life as we know it – transport, housing, agriculture – will be rendered impossible.
What follows is a vision of Britain, and the rest of Europe, coming apart rapidly in the face of global climate change. Every Briton becomes a climate refugee, seeking warmer lands nearer the tropics and the equator, in Africa. Instead of people living in hotter countries fleeing for the relative coolness of northern Europe, Britons are forced to relocate to Nigeria and neighbouring countries which were once under British imperial rule.
Now, of course, in terms of the balance of power the shoe is on the other foot, and native Nigerians welcome their former colonisers into their country as citizens, but citizens with far less clout and status than the black African population. This allows Christopher to explore the tensions that arose out of post-imperial Africa between Britain and countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and others. There is internecine war brewing between black and white Africans, too, in South Africa. It’s worth remembering that The World in Winter was published just two years after Harold Macmillan gave his famous ‘Wind of Change’ speech in Cape Town, in 1960.
Once established as (lesser) citizens of Nigeria, Andy, Carol, and Maddie each struggle to make enough money to keep a roof over their heads. David has stayed behind in snow-blasted London, with a few others, braving out the cold. Carol goes and works in the service of a wealthy Nigerian man (effectively, as a form of handmaid – yes, in the Margaret Atwood sense). Maddie, meanwhile, is offered a career in sex work but says no. In the end, she and Andy grow closer together – the two spurned spouses finding solace in each other’s arms – and Andy eventually enjoys a change of fortune … but I won’t say any more for fear of offering spoilers.
What John Christopher lacks as a writer of disaster fiction – he hasn’t the talent for vivid apocalyptic imagery that Ballard has, or Wyndham’s hold of a good central concept – he more than makes up for as a great storyteller. He also wrote thrillers, and he is an arch-manipulator of his readers’ emotions as all good thriller writers are. Whereas Ballard tends to focus on solitary (invariably male) figures exploring drowned, blasted, or anarchic urban landscapes, Christopher spends the first quarter of The World in Winter establishing the central relationships: Andy and Carol, Andy and David, and then Carol and David, and Andy and Maddie.
More than Ballard and Wyndham, Christopher seems to have understood that global disasters don’t just happen to an insentient world: they happen to individuals whose own private worlds might be collapsing and being remade at the same time. This lends the catastrophe of The World in Winter extra power and urgency; just as one can never be sure whether Andy and Maddie will actually survive in the slums of Nigeria, so we can never be sure whether Andy and Maddie’s relationship will survive.
The World in Winter (Penguin Worlds) may have got its central premise about-face – the world would burn up rather than freeze over – but what it lacks in prophetic power it makes up for in storytelling.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.