What a story is

1849 print by William Miller, after Francis Danby, ‘Sunset at Sea, after a Storm’ (1824)

The Wall
by John Lanchester,
Faber & Faber 2019

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

No, The Wall doesn’t actually begin like this, but the hackneyed and often parodied opening is close. Imagine, if you will, an unsettling meld of Kafka’s The Trial, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and current world politics, all nested uncomfortably together in a cli-fi dystopia, and then you may start to have an inkling of the nature of Lanchester’s novel.

And unsettling and uncomfortable it certainly is. We are in some future Britain following an indefinable (and ongoing) climatic disaster called the Change, when the island has been surrounded by a concrete structure to keep out rising sea levels and what are loosely termed the Others. Joseph K’s parents are of a generation who remember a time before the Change and the Wall; Kavanagh himself feels alienated from them and their nostalgia for a life he never knew, yet only has vague dreams of becoming one of the elite who are able to fly around the world.

First of all though he has to do a tour of duty on the Wall, to help defend the country from the Others determined to escape from intolerable conditions elsewhere. But how would he feel if he were to be in the position of one of the Others, how would he behave, how would he react?

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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.

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Three legs bad

An Alpine acalanche

The White Mountains
by John Christopher.
The Tripods trilogy I.
Collier Books / Macmillan Publishing 1988 (1967)

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

There’s nothing like a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel to take your mind off current ills, providing that what’s described doesn’t approach too closely to reality. That’s the case with the first of Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, which seems to describe a time which may be in the 2060s, roughly a century after when the novel was first published. There are echoes of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) along with aspects of medievalism which are reminiscent of Keith Roberts’ alternative history novel Pavane (published a year after The White Mountains) and Peter Dickinson’s dystopia in The Weathermonger (also 1968), but Christopher’s novel has a quality all of its own.

Will is thirteen years old, living in the village of Wherton somewhere in Hampshire, not far from Winchester. He has not yet been Capped by the Tripods but his friend Jack is about to be, in what is evidently a coming of age ritual. He has anxieties about how this will change him, a state that is compounded by conversations with a mad-seeming Vagrant, who spouts bits of Shakespeare and Shelley — he calls himself Ozymandias and sings fragments of songs like Tom O’ Bedlam — but informs Will of resistance to the Tripods in what is known as the White Mountains.

Will determines to escape the conformity that has been imposed on those Capped by the Tripods, but is encumbered by Henry, his bullying cousin, who discovers his plan and insists on accompanying him. And so begins a journey to the White Mountains that involves a sea journey, a traverse of an abandoned French capital, a horse-drawn journey by chemin de fer and a spell in a French château. All the while there is the menace of the Tripods and the fear that the cousins and their new companion Beanpole are being tracked.

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