When I was younger, one teller of science fiction takes I really liked was English author Sam Youd, who wrote under the pen name of John Christopher. I think my first exposure to Christopher was his Tripods Trilogy, which was written in the late 1960s, and which is now known as the Tripods Collection because he added a prequel in 1988 explaining how everything came to be.
The original trilogy describes a post-apocalyptic world about 100 years in our future. Humanity has been enslaved by “Tripods,” which are gigantic three-legged walking machines piloted by unseen alien entities. Humans are controlled from the age of 14 by implants called “Caps”, which suppress curiosity and creativity. As a result, human society is largely pastoral, with few habitations larger than villages and with a lifestyle reminiscent of the Middle Ages. Shortly before his capping ceremony, our hero, Will Parker, hears about a place where a small group of people remain free and uncapped, and he sets out on an adventure that eventually results in the overthrowing of our alien masters.
I re-read all four books just a few weeks ago and they are still as good as they ever were — I only wish I could return to being 14 again so I could enjoy them for the first time.
Another classic Christopher was The Death of Grass (1956). Also known as No Blade of Grass in America (because the publisher thought the original title might confuse potential buyers into thinking the book was a treatise on gardening), this post-apocalyptic tale concerns a virus that kills off all forms of grass, including rice and wheat. Its publication provoked considerable reaction amongst its readers on account of its portrayal of the British government’s response to the unfolding worldwide crisis.
And then there was A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965), which commences on the island of Guernsey. Everything starts well, until a massive series of powerful earthquakes on a worldwide scale reduce towns and cities to rubble and plunge the few survivors into barbarism. The English Channel is transformed into a muddy desert, and the description of our protagonists trekking from Guernsey to England is both moving and chilling. And, before we know it, we’re back in post-apocalyptic territory.
It was only recently that I discovered Christopher had written a couple of other books of which I was previously unaware. I just read the first, Empty World (1977). I’m sure you will be as amazed as I to discover that this book has a hint of a sniff of the post-apocalyptic about it.
In this case, the lead character is a 15-year-old boy called Neil Miller who lives with his grandparents in Winchelsea, England. It isn’t long before we start to hear radio reports of a new plague that started in Calcutta, India. In this case, the plague — which causes people to prematurely age over the course of a couple of days — has extremely high transmission and mortality rates.
Considering that this book was written in 1977, the similarities to the current COVID-19 pandemic are extraordinary. For example, at first, news reports say that the plague only affects people who are older or infirm, but then it becomes apparent that younger people are also vulnerable. Also, the government quickly starts to put out messages that there’s nothing to worry about. After a while, they shut down travel and ban anyone from entering England, but they left things too late (quelle surprise). Does any of this sound familiar?
The virus starts to spread. Many people try to take precautions, while others continue to meander through life as if there’s nothing to worry about, and — of course — the authorities continue to communicate pointless platitudes.
It isn’t long before everyone Neil knows is dead, so he takes a neighbor’s car and — driving as best he can — heads for London to look for other survivors, which is when his troubles really start.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I have to say that the ending is brilliant. The last page will stay in my mind for a long, long time to come. The only problem is that I’m left desperately wondering what happened after he opened the door. Arrrggggh (and I mean that most sincerely).