Monday, February 14, 2011

London is a posionous swamp - the wishful thinking of After London

After London, or Wild England, by Richard Jefferies, 1885.  The premise has two connected pieces.

First, a comet, or some other meaningless device, caused massive environmental changes to England, and presumably the rest of the world.  Most dramatically, central England is now covered by a huge freshwater lake.  The catastrophe destroyed civilization, which has returned, in terms of technology, population, and social organization, to the early Middle Ages.

Second, the accumulated filth of London so overwhelmed its infrastructure that the city literally exploded, becoming a toxic swamp, death to any living creature who enters it.

The novel has an odd structure.  The first fifty pages are a description of this new world by some sort of scholar who compares the current day to what little is known of the past.  Chapters are titled “The Lake” and “Wild Animals,” things like that.  Wildlife, political structures, geography.  There follows the story of Felix Aquila, a restless young man from the impoverished nobility who, it turns out, will become the first person to seriously explore The Lake.  The scholar seems to be telling this story as well, although it is, mostly, written like a third person novel, from the limited point of view of Felix.

When the “story” part of the novel began, I knew nothing about it, or, really, just one thing – if Felix did not somehow make it into, and, I guess, out of, that nightmarish, poisonous London, then the novel would be a complete failure.  But of course, he does, and it is not.  I’m just saying, to dangle that in front of the reader and not use it!

Although the genre had not been invented yet, we are clearly at the beginnings of the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel.  I kept picking up little flashes of later examples, other novels set in a ravaged England, some of which I certainly do not remember in any detail.  J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) also puts London, and most of England, underwater.  Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964) features a similarly empty England, as does a novel I almost dread mentioning, because it is so much more accomplished than any of these: Russell Hoban’s ingenious Riddley Walker (1980). Please see Fred’s Place for a taste of Riddley Walker.

I first heard of After London in another clever book, In Ruins (2003), by architectural historian Christopher Woodward, a cultural history of ruins that deftly blends literature, art, and architecture.  One chapter, as I remember it, is devoted to fantastic ruins, imaginary ruins, and one key example is After London.  Woodward describes Jefferies, a great nature lover, trapped by his poverty in a London slum, so desperate in his hatred of the city that he repeatedly destroys it in one fictional cataclysm after another.  The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Jeffereis that I have includes one of the alternatives, in which a blizzard is so severe and lasts so long that it literally demolishes English civilization in a mere six pages.

Not bad.  But the symbolic potential of the industrial sewage swamp is much richer.  A day or two more with After London, and then maybe we’ll destroy the city a different way.


  1. This sounds interesting. I shall add it to my search list.

    It's been a long time since I've heard mention of either _Greybeard_ or _The Drowned World_ and probably longer since I've read them.

  2. Ah - a solution to the Mike Davis problem. Read his books as science fiction, as visionary novels. I hadn't thought of that.

    I thought someone would get a kick out of seeing Ballard and Aldiss here. Yes, keep an eye out for Jefferies - it's more than a curiosity, as I hope will be clear over the next couple of days.

  3. And though some think it impossible, I believe Humans are much more capable of destroying themselves and the world.

    It's fascinating to read such novels at such times because one is likely to think that most classics are all about love/relationships, social class and royalty.

    Thanks for this AR.

  4. I have a copy of this. I read the first section once online or somewhere and was intrigued enough to buy a copy when it changed to the narrative section. I must restart it.

    It's weird isn't it? The structure is so unusual. Apparently there was quite a lot of Edwardian post-apocalyptic fiction little of which is still in print (not that this is really still in print).

    The references to Aldiss are well made.

    The Mike Davis problem? City of Quartz is one I have my eye on. What's the issue?

  5. Nana - oh, yes, Jefferies was ahead of his time, thinking about problems that we're still fighting.

    Max - I'm really just learning about this early post-apocalyptic stuff. My new discovery is the realted genre of invasion literature. Wild.

    Now, Mike Davis - it's been years since I thought about this. The basic problem is that he makes strong claims based on weak evidence, and very strong claims based on very weak evidence. The tornado section of Ecology of Fear is the only episode I really remember, though. Like I said, years.