The Land of Nod

Photo © C A Lovegrove

The Death of Grass
by John Christopher,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1956)

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
— William Blake.

Imagine, if you will, a deadly virus emanating from China, one that seems unstoppable despite efforts to find an antiviral solution, and which disrupts societies and causes widespread deaths as it moves across the globe. How will humans, collectively and individually, react, and will their actions be altruistic or selfish?

John Christopher envisaged such a scenario over six decades ago, a few years after the Second World War, but his imaginary Chung-Li virus, unlike coronavirus, didn’t directly affect humans: instead it killed off the grass on which herbivores such as cattle and sheep fed, and grains like rice, wheat, barley and rye which provided many of the staple food products humans relied on.

Against this unfolding catastrophe the author tells the story of how John Custance, his family, friends and others struggle to survive, and how they aim to reach the safety of a secluded defensible valley in Cumbria to establish a new settlement.

Continue reading “The Land of Nod”

Walled in or out?

Nina Bawden: Off the Road
Puffin Books 2000 (1998)

It is the near future — 12th June 2040, to be precise. Britain is divided, east and west: the civilised part, the Urbs, is separated from the barbarians in the west by a wall. Young Tom, an only child, is accompanying his parents and his grandfather north to a Memory Theme Park and they stop their journey to recharge their electric vehicle at a service station just by the Wall. And then 65-year-old James Makepeace Jacobs, like a human White Rabbit, disappears through an exit at the back of the toilets. Tom feels compelled to follow his grandfather, and we’re almost immediately propelled into the action of Nina Bawden’s dystopian children’s novel.

Tom’s world provides an ordered existence, with everything organised and in its place, and that includes humans. There’s a one-child policy strictly in force, so any reference to siblings, aunts or uncles is taboo. Workers cease working at 60 and have five years in retirement — until the call comes for their enrolment in a Nostalgia Block of the nearest Memory Theme Park. Here Oldies spend a couple of days with their family reliving the world their childhood in a kind of virtual reality before they are left to be “gently and permanently cared for”.

The author, clearly, is heavily hinting at a form of state euthanasia, but before young readers can fully assimilate this Tom’s grandfather is on the run with Tom in hot pursuit. With this dark beginning Nina Bawden takes us in unexpected directions, with an apt ending I didn’t see coming.

Continue reading “Walled in or out?”

All at sea

Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Introduction by Adam Roberts
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010 (1974)

This is a beguiling read. We’re presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed ‘facts’ about what is happening, about what we’re supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left — literally and figuratively — all at sea; and though it’s indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.

The opening seems to suggest we’re on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It’s towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it’s imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward’s point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann’s autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider’s perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.

I shall follow convention and not reveal the ‘twist’ that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn’t take much to fathom what the ‘reality’ of this future world was well before the final sections.

Continue reading “All at sea”

Don’t pass it on: pass on it

barcodeMax Barry Jennifer Government
Abacus 2004 (2002)

Jennifer Government is a novel that tries to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand it is an obvious satire on corporate power and greed and the inability of states to control these wayward creatures, on the other hand the story highlights individuals who by either opposing or aspiring to be major players in this selfish corporatism quite frequently espouse the self-same macho values that got corporatism where it is. While castigating the whole set-up Max Barry also revels in the rogue survivalist attitudes and actions that many of the characters display. Is it irony, or is he hedging his bets? Continue reading “Don’t pass it on: pass on it”