Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (9)

Draw a straight line from the novels of Douglas Adams, through early Ballard and the cosy catastrophes of John Wyndham, all the way back towards the early novels and stories of H.G. Wells. Pause at 1939, and you'll find R.C. Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript, an account of the end of Western civilisation after the Moon smashed into the Earth.  A foreword from the Imperial Research Press, Addis Ababa, sets the tone: the manuscript, ‘a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the gathering darkness of dying England’ is ‘almost valueless to the scholar and historian’, but seven hundred years after the smash, the story of its eponymous narrator is all that is left of what was once a great empire.

Sherriff expertly uses first-person narration to play on Hopkins’ blindness to his own faults. Cambridge-educated, living on a comfortable inheritance in a small village where he plays at gentleman farmer, he’s a Pooterish fellow hyperaware of his social status, preoccupied by small slights and setbacks, and obsessed with chicken breeding; yet there’s a genuine warmth to his character, and an abiding decency that deepens into something like heroism during the countdown towards cataclysm.  As a member of the Lunar Society, Hopkins is one of the first to learn of the impending disaster: his initial reaction is one of relief, for he feared the extraordinary meeting was about the ruinous expense of a new telescope he championed, and a melancholy dread of the End of Things is soon washed away as he continues his life in the village much as normal, his smug sense of superiority bolstered by his secret knowledge. After the revelation becomes public, announced in the village at a church service where many in the congregation mistake the vicar's news for an attempt to better his predecessors's fire and brimstone sermons, the narrative tension sharpens as the government attempts to prepare for the inevitable, and the clock ticks down to doomsday.

Sherriff’s sketches of preparations for disaster are crammed with telling and bathetic details. Hopkins briefly contemplates spending his last days in London, which ‘blazed with light as if it would squander its glittering wealth before it died’.  By day, people stockpile warm clothes and stout boots, wander about public places to no good purpose, and exhibit the ‘faint, pathetic smiles of brave passengers upon a sinking liner’; but at night, they fear to walk the streets despite the presence of soldiers and armed policemen, and there are rumours of banditry. Like the protagonists in The Day of the Triffids or The Death of Grass, 28 Days Later or Survivors, Hopkins yields to the atavistic English belief that cities are teeming pits of crime, while the countryside offers a chance at setting up one’s own pocket empire. He returns to his beloved village in time for a last cricket match, survives the hurricanes and floods that follow the impact, takes in the orphaned daughter and son of the local squire, shows unexpected resilience as he does his bit to help to restore civilisation. Sherriff rightly skimps the details of the reconstruction, generally the most tedious part of any disaster novel, and quickly introduces a new twist: it turns out that the Moon, ancient and hollow (a pseudoscientific theory used Wells in The First Men in the Moon) has collapsed into the Atlantic, bridging Europe and America. At first the new territory appears to be a desert of useless rubble, but then it’s discovered to be rich in minerals, and gas and oil reserves. Europe and America go to war over these riches. Like Toad of The Wind in the Willows, Hopkins has become a wiser and better man, but his incipient heroism has a tragic flaw: no one takes any notice of him. He gives a fine and passionate speech when the squire’s son decides to enlist, but it does no good.  England slowly empties; Hopkins retreats to London, where only a thousand or so people inhabit ruins like ghosts. His story ends on a note of quiet despair, amid rumours of a conquering army advancing from east.

Sherriff, better known as a playwright than a novelist, fought in the First World War and incorporated his experiences in his most famous play, Journey’s End. There are echoes of the themes of that play in The Hopkins Manuscript, and the novel’s account of the inability of ordinary people to look beyond their footling routines and little lives at the bigger picture have parallels with the period of appeasement before the outbreak of the Second World War. But it is above all a very fine catastrophe novel, its cynicism about human nature leavened by sympathetic comedy and shot through with images of otherworldly eeriness transforming quintessential English scenes:
The breathless glory of that rising moon robbed all terror from it and left me humbled and speechless: a blazing, golden mountain range that seemed to press the dark earth from it: clear rays of amber that caught the hills beyond the Manor House and crept down to drink the jet-black darkness of the valley - that flowed over the church and towards the cricket ground, emblazoning that shabby marquee and the threadbare bowling screens into a Field of the Cloth of Gold.


Blogger PeteY said...

I was hoping the book might be out of copyright and so available free online, but no dice, presumably because he only died in 1975. It's worth mentioning, though, that R.C. Sherriff also wrote the screenplay for The Dam Busters.

December 23, 2010 1:13 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

It's available as a trade paperback from Persephone books, with introductions by George Gamow and Michael Moorcock. A bit pricey, though... Good point about the Dam Busters screenplay. Sherriff also wrote the screenplay for The Invisible Man.

The Hopkins Manuscript was revised and republished as The Cataclysm, by the way. I reviewed the original.

December 23, 2010 7:24 am  

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