Christopher John

Penguin Worlds

Readers of this blog (if there are any left after months of inactivity: sorry, and hello again) will know that I’m a sucker for a series design. If something in me aligns with what Trinny and Susannah would have called matchy-matchy, then I justify it on the basis that it’s less judging a book by its cover than allowing my eyes to be opened to new things. And the Penguin Worlds series is just that: a mixture of science fiction, horror and urban fantasy from across the 20th century, chosen and introduced by Naomi Alderman and Hari Kunzru. And they come in aptly garish stylishly retro covers by La Boca. These are genres I’ve only ever dipped a toenail into, but the curated approach – and the enthusiasm I heard when I tweeted about them – won me over. I’ve read three of them so far, which I’ll whip through below.

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Joanna Russ: We Who Are About To… [1976]
I started with the slimmest of the series (old habits), which also turned out to be perhaps the oddest, and certainly the most subtly unsettling, of the three I’ve read. If the title is the first I’ve seen that contains a cliffhanger, then the opening words of the novel contain its own spoiler: “About to die. And so on.” The we who are about to die (“We’re nowhere. We’ll die alone”) are a group of five women and three men, around the year 2040, whose spaceship has failed and stranded them on an Earth-like planet. “Goodbye, everybody,” continues our narrator, who has less faith than the others that the eight of them can survive on and even colonise their new home (“‘O pioneers,’ I added rather sourly”). She is recording her experiences on a vocoder (“This will never be found”), which enables a certain amount of ‘As you know, Bob’ explanatory dialogue. But Russ’s interest is not in detailing the nature of the new world, but exposing the fault lines underlying society that are exposed in extremis.

The unnamed narrator tries to warn her fellow shipwrecked sailors that the planet may not support life just because it looks like Earth (“like the Australian outback, which looks like New Jersey and can kill you in two hours”). “Civilization must be preserved,” says one, to which she replies, “Civilization is doing fine. We just don’t happen to be where it is.” There are hints that Earth has moved beyond a patriarchal society, only to find it returning among the eight travellers. It’s not long before it all gets pretty Shakespearean, and the teaser in the title proves well-founded. But amid the florid violence there are lighter moments, as when Lori, daughter of two of the other travellers, talks about her love of “serial music. You know, the late-twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement.”

We Who Are About To... looks inward and outward at the same time: at damage in society, at the troubled self, and the connection between the two. In particular, it looks at the role of women. One of the survivors suggests that our narrator and one of the men should start work on populating the planet. “‘I can’t see why you and Victor can’t start now, if you like.’ Victor said politely that he certainly wouldn’t mind as long as I wouldn’t mind. I said I would mind.” For Russ, politics, and feminism in particular, were not just present in her writing but essential to it. Her most famous novel was The Female Man, a satire of multiple parallel universes, and her story ‘When It Changed’ won a Nebula Award in 1973. This new edition of We Who Are About To…, uniquely in the Penguin Worlds series, contains introductions by both Alderman and Kunzru, which gives some measure of its value to both editors of the series. And it’s hard to argue with Alderman’s analysis of the book as simultaneously “bonkers” and “brilliant”.

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John Christopher, The World in Winter [1962]
I’ve previously written about John Christopher’s novel The Death of Grass, which was conceptually interesting and a bit slapdash in the writing (it took him “a matter of weeks”, and it showed). The World in Winter is, broadly, more of the same. Christopher’s output, under different names, of about 50 books in 25 years tells us that agonising over le mot juste wasn’t his way.

The World in Winter‘s high concept is in its title: a scientist named Fratellini has observed a decline in solar radiation, and the temperature of the Earth is falling. Fanciful as this seems now, when the book was published global cooling had been a fear for some years, and as late as 1970 the Washington Post was reporting “Colder Winters Herald Dawn of New Ice Age.” So, as with The Death of Grass, Christopher shrewdly used real concerns as a springboard for his fantasy. When Britain begins to freeze and fails to thaw, there isn’t much terror: more a very English tutting and eye-rolling. “Once over the initial shocks and discomforts, people got used to the new conditions.”

The narrative focuses on a handful of people framed by a love triangle. Being among society’s fortunate, they manage to leave England and fly to Nigeria, where the climate is still hospitable. This sets up the central thread of the book, where Africans hold the economic and social advantage, and white Europeans are beholden to them. As one local says: “Nigerians have nothing against whites, as long as there are not too many of them, and as long as they keep to their place. You have perhaps heard something like that before?” This seems a relatively progressive satire, though as Hari Kunzru says in his introduction, the book is nonetheless “animated by a sense that racial difference is a kind of abyss, and between black and white there can be no complete understanding or identification.” The plot itself is admirably bleak and uncompromising to the end, which is consolation of a sort.

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E. Nesbit, Horror Stories
The most attention-grabbing element of the Penguin Worlds series is the discovery that children’s writer E. Nesbit – The Railway Children, Five Children and It – also published, between 1893 and 1910, four collections of horror stories for adults. This volume collects fifteen from throughout her career.

These are traditional spooky fireside tales, and in every single one, I think (they do tend to blend into one another when read sequentially), someone dies. Sometimes, however, the twist is that they have been dead all along. There are strange drugs, mysterious models and plenty of sinister buildings. Love, thwarted and determined, is a regular visitor.

Similarly frequent is the sort of framing introduction that we might expect from stories like these. In ‘The Violet Car’ our narrator begins by admitting that “I do not know how to weave a plot, nor how to embroider it.” In ‘The Shadow’, we are warned that “This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it…” This ‘who, me?’ approach both adds verisimilitude and takes it away, because it’s such a common feature. But if all stories require a level of submission, of submergence, by the reader, perhaps none depend on this more than traditional horror stories like these. The reader must approach them willing to be spooked, and is unmovable if they are not willing to meet the author halfway. Come to think of it, that’s a good lesson in how to read generally.


Also in the Penguin Worlds series are Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks [1987], which Naomi Alderman’s introduction describes as a pioneering work of urban fantasy which is also “really good fun”, and Vernor Vinge’s True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier. This is the most structurally unusual of the five books, comprising a 320-page book of which Vernor Vinge’s True Names [1981] makes up only 85. The rest is a series of thirteen essays, stories and afterwords emphasising the significance of Vinge’s novella. Rather predictably, the reason I haven’t read these two books yet is that they’re longer than the other three; but if you have, please comment below.

John Christopher: The Death of Grass

The Death of Grass (1956) has been praised highly by trusted sources on the blogosphere, and so when I learned that Penguin were to reissue the book as a Modern Classic, my curiosity was all the more piqued. This is a welcome addition to Penguin’s lengthening list of the genres which contain classics. The back cover of a 1970 film tie-in edition proclaims that the book “invites comparison with the novels of John Wyndham.” OK, here we go then: it’s not as good as the novels of John Wyndham. (Well, they did invite it.)

The main problem is that it’s not very well written, and it’s no surprise to read in the new introduction by Robert Macfarlane that the book was written “in ‘a matter of weeks’, with revisions being made only to the first chapter.” The opening scenes are full of people telling each other things for the benefit of the reader, and few of the characters are strongly distinguished – though there are a couple, such as the firearms store owner, Pirrie, who stand out. There’s an inevitably dated quality too (“There’s an awful lot of Chinks in China. They’ll breed ’em back again in a couple of generations”).

Nonetheless The Death of Grass is a gripping story. It might be considered a sort of prequel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – less evolved in both chronological and literary terms – as the world succumbs to a virus which kills off all grasses around the world and leads to the breakdown of civilisation. The main storyline details the attempts by one family to journey the length of England to find a safe haven in a relative’s farm. Their travels coincide with the swift development of barbarism and violence among the British people.

There is plenty missing here: little description to evoke the image of a world without fields or crops, and only the odd reference to mass suicide or panic.

‘Did you ever see those old pictures of the rabbit plagues in Australia? Wire-netting fences ten feet high, and rabbits – hundreds, thousands of rabbits – piled up against them, leap-frogging over each other until in the end they scaled the fences or the fences went down under their weight. That’s Hong Kong right now, except that it’s not rabbits piled against the fence but human beings.’

At the same time where the book surpasses Wyndham is in the lack of cosiness elsewhere – characters do not hesitate to turn violent, and the closing scenes provide satisfying turns in the narrative. There is also the occasional nice image, as in one character’s anticipation of remembrance:

There will be legends, he thought, of broad avenues celestially lit, of the hurrying millions who lived together without plotting each other’s deaths, of railway trains and aeroplanes and motor-cars, of food in all its diversity. Most of all, perhaps, of policemen – custodians, without anger or malice, of a law that stretched to the ends of the earth.

(That last sentence contains within it a pretty cosy presumption to begin with.)

The book is also suitably depressing, particularly with environmental and social breakdown seeming ever more relevant topics. (A common conception: the end of the world always seems more imminent than it did a few decades ago.) The moral voice of the narrative is contained in one paragraph early in the book, when a character says:

‘In a way, I think it would be more right for the virus to win, anyway. For years now, we’ve treated the land as though it were a piggy-bank, to be raided. And the land, after all, is life itself.’

Robert Macfarlane’s introduction places the book in the mid-20th century tradition of the ‘floral apocalypse’ story, detailing Triffids but also less well known examples as Thomas Disch’s The Genocides and Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think (and, less obviously, it occurs to me, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse). John Christopher, whose real name is Samuel Youd and who is in his 87th year, has written around 70 novels under several different names. Given his rampant – virus-like – productivity, the real surprise is that The Death of Grass is as good as it is.


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