Posts Tagged ‘catastrophe fiction’

It has become a bit of a truism that defining what science fiction actually is can be quite difficult – most people operate on an ‘I know it when I see it’ basis, after all. It must therefore follow that it’s at least as difficult to know what good science fiction. So, strictly speaking, one shouldn’t be too derisory about Richard Dawkins’ pronouncement that Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud is ‘one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written’. To be perfectly honest, though, it just reinforces my sense that Dawkins is a brilliant theorist and communicator about science, but any time he steps outside his own particular area of expertise he does tend to rather go off the deep end.

And I suppose, if you define ‘science fiction’ as ‘fiction in which people sit around talking about science’, Dawkins may have a point. But not in any serious sense. For all this, The Black Cloud does sit very comfortably in a particular school of mid-20th century British SF, that kind of Home Counties high-concept catastrophe story which found its finest expression in the books of John Wyndham and John Christopher. It’s just that, simply as a writer of fiction, Hoyle is nowhere near the class of either of them.

black cloud

The story opens promisingly enough with teams of scientists in California and London independently discovering a vast cloud of gas rapidly approaching the solar system out of interstellar space. It will envelop the sun and the Earth, and question is what this will mean for the human race, not to mention the rest of the planet. The narrative focus is on free-thinking super-boffin Chris Kingsley, who manages to have himself put in charge of an isolated scientific enclave somewhere in the Cotswolds, where he can put his own plans for the emergency into operation.

Things are complicated when the Cloud begins to display some frankly peculiar behaviour on its final approach: actively decelerating, for one thing, and selectively jamming Earth’s radio communications. Soon enough Kingsley and his chums are forced to a startling conclusion – the Cloud is a colossal living organism, and an intelligent one…

Well, so far, so good, but it’s not just the tale, it’s the telling of it, and this is where Hoyle repeatedly drops the ball. The story starts promisingly enough, with the initial discovery of the Cloud being briskly depicted. But then the story settles into the mode which it will keep for the rest of the book: which is long scenes of middle-aged male scientists sitting around smoking their pipes and discussing the science of everything which may be happening. That’s not quite true – a few civil servants occasionally sneak in, and get given a hard time by the boffins, and also a decorative female pianist. But mainly it’s just the boffins talking.

The boffins are a homogenous bunch, with the exception of the token Russian, who is a dodgy comic relief character, and Kingsley himself, who is a slightly alarming autocrat: he dismisses all politicians as stupid and self-serving, and has no difficulty with unilaterally taking decisions and seizing power for himself. All in the name of the greater good, of course, but again and again he makes frankly dubious choices which the book seems to tacitly approve of – knowing his little enclave is going to be cut off from the outside world for over a year, on security grounds, he arranges to have a woman he quite likes incarcerated with them, without her consent. Later on he is indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not millions, but this is not really dwelt upon.

Not much that happens outside smoky sitting rooms is dwelt on much, to be honest, which is odd given this is such a global story. Millions die during the arrival of the Cloud, with thousands of species of animals wiped out, and this is all just casually reported by the narrator of the book. The scale of the story is not captured by Hoyle’s clunky prose style.

Maybe Hoyle became a better writer later in his career, but here he clunks and clangs along throughout. ‘I think it could be something to do with the gas convection question,’ hazarded the tenacious American – this isn’t an actual quote from the book, but it’s fairly representative of Hoyle’s style, which ping-pongs between the wordy and the hackneyed. He really does like writing about science, and there are some interesting points about information theory and the scientific method, but in other places it is just tedious: someone does a lengthy calculation to work out the Cloud’s velocity, and Hoyle actually shows his working out.

Bearing all this in mind, it’s genuinely startling when a moment with real SF electricity comes along – there’s a dizzying shift in perspective when the Cloud expresses surprise at being contacted by the human race, having previously not believed planetary bodies to be suitable as locations for intelligent life to develop. But moments like this are very few and far between. Hoyle makes the point that the Cloud’s hyper-intelligence makes it effectively incomprehensible to human minds, but I’m not sure that it necessarily follows that the rest of the story has to feel so mundane and limited in scope.

The Black Cloud still has an enviable reputation in the British SF canon, but it does come across as an extremely dated piece of writing by someone still learning their trade as a storyteller. And quite apart from the mechanics of the plot, one has to wonder about Hoyle’s own world-view, and the extent to which benevolent-despot-in-the-making Kingsley reflects his own attitudes. (Or indeed those of Richard Dawkins.) A bit less cold science and a bit more human soul would have resulted in a much better book, but that probably wouldn’t be what Hoyle or Dawkins would recognise as SF.


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It was with bemusement, shading into horrified disbelief, that I realised not long ago that the classic BBC adaptation of The Day of the Triffids is thirty years old this Autumn. Thirty years? Thirty? But I remember watching it on-broadcast so vividly. It would mean that I’m… well, anyway, how old I am is irrelevant (honest).

The BBC had another go at adapting John Wyndham’s classic novel at Christmas 2009, and the result was an ugly travesty, which did no justice to the book and can’t have inspired anyone to read it. But seeing the 1981 version was a key moment in my life, one of those things which are so influential you can’t imagine how your life would have developed otherwise.

The Day of the Triffids was the first piece of grown-up TV I was allowed to watch – probably the first piece I even wanted to watch – and I was given special dispensation, bed-time-wise, in order to do so. Even then I was reluctant to do so alone, so addictively terrifying was this programme.

It’s a story which sounds ridiculous and pulpy – and, perhaps, a little incoherent. An unexplained celestial light-show blinds the vast majority of the world’s population, with the catastrophic results you’d expect. This would be bad enough, but the survivors are also preyed upon by mobile, lethal, and borderline-sentient carnivorous plants which have been bred for their oil – these are the triffids of the title, of course. A deadly plague is also a key plot element.

Picking his way through the aftermath is Wyndham’s narrator, Bill Masen, a biochemist and triffid-expert (portrayed in the TV show by John Duttine). Masen is a very typical Wyndham protagonist in that he doesn’t start off with any particular goal worth speaking of, he just wanders around watching more than doing anything. He eventually becomes involved with a wealthy young woman (Emma Relph) and after they are separated his determination to find her propels him through a fairly large chunk of the plot.

But, on the whole, the structure of the story is… well, if Wyndham turned up to a modern creative-writing class with his first draft of The Day of the Triffids, he’d have been told in no uncertain terms to go away and have a good hard think about the idea, because in some ways it’s sort of hopeless.

Bill Masen doesn’t have a particular goal he’s looking to achieve beyond simply staying alive. Most characters drift in and out of the book for one or two chapters. Even the triffids don’t show up that often; the TV show has to write a brand new triffid sequence unconnected to the main plot in order for them to make it into every episode. There isn’t what you’d call an actual antagonist, and the ending is very low-key. Even so, it’s not as if the book doesn’t contain blatant plot devices: Wyndham spends many chapters setting up a situation out of some ghastly nightmare, with the main characters having to choose between their own survival and helping the blind survivors who constitute the overwhelming majority. It’s a terrible moral dilemma, which Wyndham eventually resolves by means of a massive cop-out: a plague of unknown origins suddenly manifests and conveniently wipes out most of the blind population, freeing Masen and the others to get on with the plot.

And yet it’s an extraordinary, haunting book, one that essentially created a new genre. It’s fashionable to dismiss the works of Wyndham as ‘cosy catastrophes’ – civilisation falls without the protagonists seeming to suffer in any real way – but this is not the impression you get upon reading the book. Masen witnesses numerous suicides in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and later assists in a mercy-killing. You don’t notice the unwieldiness of the structure: society itself has fallen to pieces, so the collapse of conventional narrative seems somehow appropriate. Wyndham even manages to pull all his elements together, near the end, suggesting that all the diverse woes he’s inflicted on his characters are ultimately the result of science gone out of control.

One of the reasons the horrible 2009 adaptation is so horrible is because it attempts to fix all of the problems, by turning The Day of the Triffids into a much moreĀ conventional story: a proper bad guy is introduced (a relatively minor character is promoted to full-scale villain status), the convenient plague is snipped out, the long tail of the book (four chapters, over a period of six years, recount Masen and his adoptive family eking out a living on a farm in southern England) is collapsed into a much shorter period. And it’s awful. Awful, awful, awful. Only one moment is genuinely surprising, and that’s because a line of dialogue from the book makes an unexpected appearance.

The 1981 version is brilliant precisely because it sticks so closely to the hopeless plot of the book. Only one section has been cut, and it’s possibly the least vivid – where Masen and his associate Coker encounter a small group of other survivors and together try to set up a community – the rest of Wyndham’s story is there, entirely intact. Wyndham himself might not have approved (his family apparently weren’t impressed) – John Duttine plays Masen as rather more Northern and lower-middle-class, and less detached and wry, than he’s written in the book, and a lot of Masen and Coker’s discussions about post-apocalyptic ethics and sociology have been excised.

But, despite that, and the fact the TV show was clearly made on a fairly low budget, it works. Duttine holds the whole thing together admirably, though the biggest impression on the acting side is probably made by Maurice Colbourne as Coker – Colbourne had an edgy charisma that made him extremely watchable in this kind of drama (the reasons why such a powerful actor ended up fronting ridiculous yachting-soap Howard’s Way remain a mystery).

John Wyndham made a career out of Omegas – the destruction of Civilisation As We Know It looms large in most of his novels, one way or another. But for me he was an Alpha: not only was The Day of the Triffids the first piece of adult TV I watched, but the book was the first piece of adult SF I read. And from then on, I was surely lost. In its own way it was probably as crucial a moment in my life as my first episode of Doctor Who or the first time I saw Star Wars.

I’ve been drawn back to the end of the world, in its various different iterations, ever since – can it be any coincidence that my other favourite stories include The Death of Grass, Survivors, Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later? (28 Days Later in particular owes a massive debt to Wyndham and Triffids, which screenwriter Alex Garland openly admits.) And the last time I sat down to write for NaNoWriMo, my goal was to produce a very Wyndhamesque tale of the collapse of civilisation. And so I did, but where Wyndham abandoned structure to produce a chilling masterpiece, I only managed to come up with an unreadable shapeless mess. Still, one would have expected no less: there’s no point in copying genius. Recognising and appreciating it when you find it is surely enough.

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Boy, they sure do like to do things big-style over in the States. Last week I spent some time banging on about discussing the wouldn’t-it-be-horrible-if… drama-documentary The Taking of Prince Harry, wherein said royal has a nasty time with the Taliban but eventually escapes. The British press were not impressed. This week, however, complete silence seems to have greeted Life After Armageddon, a vastly more lavish and actually slightly frightening wouldn’t-it-be-horrible-if… about the aftermath of a flu pandemic which offs an unspecified but significant percentage of the global population.

I suspect this is because a) this was an American show b) it was broadcast on Channel 5, which is still really the lightweight of the main UK networks and c) most people perceive this kind of thing as being the stuff of science fiction and thus Not Worth Worrying About. Certainly I myself sometimes feel like I’ve been vicariously enjoying the collapse of civilisation pretty much non-stop since I was seven, starting with John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, then proceeding fairly briskly through the work of John Christopher, Threads, The Stand, Dawn of the Dead, Survivors (70s version, of course) on tape and DVD, 28 Days Later, World War Z and…well, you get the idea. (During the 2000 fuel crisis, when the fabric of society seemed to shudder in a way it very seldom does, many people’s response was to dig out their bicycles and do a spot of panic-buying. Mine was to sit down and watch the Survivors episode Something of Value, which seemed thematically appropriate. I wonder who feels more foolish now.)

Well, this was a solidly put-together show, with a range of talking-head boffins popping up to give their opinion of exactly how we’re all going to die (possibly). I particularly enjoyed Dr Joseph Tainter and his sonorous delivery. Possibly because this was made for a credulous/American/Channel 5 audience, of course, it was felt necessary to illustrate whatever they were saying with the insertion of dramatised scenes from the life of Mr and Mrs Average of Los Angeles and their desperate attempts to flee the dead city and make a new life for themselves. Either the drama or the documentary would have worked fine on their own, to be honest – both together (particularly with the amount of recapping around the ad breaks) just made me feel rather patronised.

It served Mr and Mrs Average right for living in LA, if you ask me. To be honest, they and Average Junior were just a bit too naive and bland to really engage my sympathy, particularly when they started doing very silly things like heading into the Mojave Desert with no real destination in mind. The drama-plotline had to engage in some rather unconvincing jinks and swerves just to keep them from getting themselves killed some time before the conclusion of the show.

The thing about this programme, which seems to me to be the case with a lot of bad post-apocalyptic narratives, was that the main characters seemed to be miraculously untouched by the general collapse of society and moral standards, looking on in aghast horror as the new realities of existence came into hard focus. The gangs of raiders and ad hoc militias they fell foul of were treated as one-dimensional, bogeyman figures. These people would have had lives before the disaster too, but despite the fact that they, also, were simply doing their best to survive (and generally rather more successfully than the Averages!) they were basically dismissed by the tellers of the story.

We’re going off on a bit of a tangent here, but I was reminded of one of my favourite pieces of apocalyptic fiction, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. In this story a virus causes a global famine, eventually leading to national governments ordering the use of nuclear weapons on their own major cities in order to cut down demand on food stocks. But what makes this story really special is the way in which the main character – very much akin to Mr Average at the story’s opening – forces himself to embrace the passing of the old order and its morality. By the end of the book he’s repeatedly committed murder, simply because it’s the only way he can be sure of keeping his family and friends alive, and he remains largely sympathetic throughout. This is a world away from the well-mannered catastrophes we’re normally presented with, especially on screen. A touch of that would have made Life After Armageddon a considerably more engaging and challenging viewing experience.

Then again, it was American TV, part-financed by Channel 5. I suspect challenging the audience did not appear on the list of programme goals. In the end this was a nicely-made riff on material that’s becoming slightly well worn – sometimes I think the only thing that’ll stop the flow of documentaries about armageddon is the onset of their subject matter. In which case, by all means keep ’em coming.


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