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When the Royal Society of Abyssinia discovered ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ two years ago in the ruins of Notting Hill it was hoped that some valuable light would at last be thrown upon the final, tragic days of London. – the opening words of the book

There’s a quote from the writer Angus Wilson that frequently pops up on the back of Michael Moorcock books, praising Moorcock for his leading role in breaking down ‘the artificial divisions that have grown up in novel writing’. You might wonder just what it is that Wilson is on about – aren’t these ‘artificial divisions’ just another way of talking about genre, which is an inherent part of fiction?

Well, maybe, maybe not. But then I wandered into the local bookshop the other day and came across a copy of RC Sherriff’s 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript, which I’d never heard of. It was in the general fiction section, presumably because Sherriff is best-remembered as a mainstream writer – these days, for the much-adapted play Journey’s End and the screenplay for that classic tale of British stoicism, ingenuity and inappropriately-christened dogs, The Dam Busters (his script for Dracula’s Daughter was apparently rejected) – but it is unquestionably science fiction, and unquestionably part of a great tradition of British SF. Back in the 1930s you could write SF without ending up in the ghetto, it would seem. I am reminded of the great Olaf Stapledon, who wrote several of the greatest SF novels of the first part of the century (most notably Last and First Men and Star Maker) without ever properly being aware of science fiction as a genre, and perhaps even John Wyndham, who hit upon a way of writing SF that was liked by people who didn’t like SF. No-one seems to think about this kind of crossover any more; even the great Iain Banks seemed to be quite careful to distinguish between his SF and non-SF output.

But The Hopkins Manuscript is SF, and part of the lineage that includes such famous stories as Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and Doyle’s The Poison Belt, not to mention films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire. These days, when we imagine the end of the world we tend to assume that the Horseman of the Apocalypse doing all the heavy lifting will be Pestilence, but there was a time when cosmic forces were more commonly the instrument of armageddon, and so it proves here.

The novel opens with a brief description of the circumstances in which the text was discovered: expeditions from civilised lands have begun to venture into the wastelands of the former Europe, and the manuscript is the only surviving document from the long-since vanished ancient civilisation of Britain (there are a couple of other artefacts, a ‘Keep Off the Grass’ notice amongst them). The editors lament the general poor quality of the text and uselessness of the author, and conclude that virtually everything that elapsed in the British Isles between Julius Caesar’s invasion and the collapse of civilisation has been obliterated, lost to posterity forever. It is an opening by turns both drily funny but also oddly haunting.

It soon becomes clear that the editors have a point, for we soon get to know the main narrator of the book – Edgar Hopkins, a middle-aged retired schoolteacher living in rural Hampshire. He is a settled bachelor, his life concerned with his various hobbies – stamp-collecting, metallurgy, but above all else, breeding poultry for show. Another interest is astronomy, which is how he comes to be one of the first people in the country to learn of a staggering, appalling discovery – some cosmic upheaval has dislodged the moon from its orbit, and in a mere seven months it will collide with the Earth.

The secret is kept back from the general population for a while, as preparations are made to mitigate the looming cataclysm as much as is possible: shelters are prepared, and so on. Unfortunately, Hopkins himself is supremely poorly-equipped as a recorder of these events, as he is unfailingly pompous, pre-occupied with his chickens, and unable to consider the wider picture. (When summoned to an emergency meeting of his astronomical society and told of the falling moon, Hopkins’ first response is enormous relief, as he has assumed the secret meeting concerns a risky venture he has foolishly volunteered to underwrite.) There is something of The Diary of a Nobody in Hopkins’ self-regard and petty frustration and resentment of the attitudes of the people around him, and the fact that not only does he not become an important man in his village when the truth is revealed, but it has a serious impact on the poultry show calendar as well.

Time passes, and the cataclysm comes. Obviously the world is not destroyed, as some feared – the moon strikes in the Atlantic Ocean and then collapses, forming a new landmass. Tidal waves and hurricanes devastate Britain. But, obviously, Hopkins survives, and lives through the initial aftermath of the catastrophe – before realising, too late, that the cosmic impact of a falling planetoid may pose less of a menace to the human race than human nature itself…

As I say, this is clearly part of a British SF tradition, but in another way it is equally obviously a book of its time. It was written in 1939, but it often seems to have an eerie prescience when it comes to what was to follow in the next few years. The story opens in 1945 – a startling coincidence – and there is obviously talk of people digging shelters, taking refuge in the London underground, and so on. Rationing is introduced at one point, and there is a brief mention of a war being fought in Normandy. Resonating through all this, and transcending the tragi-comic figure of Hopkins himself, is a sense of terrible sadness, an anticipation of tumult to come and the mortal wound it will inflict on a certain version of England. The night before the catastrophe, the villagers assemble to play cricket under the baleful light of the vast moon – the last time, for most of them. Hopkins laments the loss of many of the social niceties and is desperate to cling onto the others, particularly the class system – in the post-apocalyptic community he helps to found, he is palpably relieved when the only member who is working class offers to sleep in the shed rather than the house. Sherriff seems to have sensed that something terrible was on the horizon, and the England he knew would not survive it, and this book is frequently a desperately sad and moving lament for a doomed way of life.

That said, of course, there is a sense in which it also feels disturbingly timely today. There are some parts of the book which are rather simplistic (and the astronomy and astrophysics have not aged at all well), but the widespread inertia and indifference which greets the announcement of the coming disaster rings true, as people simply don’t pay attention to the world around them. Following the cataclysm, there is a brief rebirth of civilisation, and for a while it seems that Sherriff has invented the cosy catastrophe subgenre well before John Wyndham thought of it, but this is only a temporary respite, and it is a grotesquely warped sense of national pride and arrogant British jingoism which is ultimately responsible for the final downfall of civilisation. Perhaps some of the voices of an elder England which Sherriff captured so well here are still with us.

As I say, this is a profoundly sad and deeply moving book, for all of its grace notes of comedy. The only thing which leaves a sour note these days is the appearance, late on, of a plot element about a vast horde of Asians who invade the stricken lands of Europe and hasten the final end. These days it inevitably reads as racist, but again it’s a fairly common motif in a certain flavour of SF – Europe being supplanted by African nations following a global catastrophe is a key plot point in John Christopher’s The World in Winter, while Moorcock himself plays with the trope in The Land Leviathan, and as late as the mid-1990s Ian McCulloch apparently proposed using the notion in a revived version of the TV series Survivors. Perhaps the best we can say of this idea is that it arises from a deep, perhaps even subconscious awareness of how the imperial European powers abused their colonial possessions, and the guilt resulting from this.

Apart from this, and assuming you cut the book some slack with regard to a few elements that feel a little naïve nowadays, The Hopkins Manuscript is a very fine book, no matter which shelf of the book shop it ends up on. It doesn’t offer very much new as an actual piece of science fiction, but as a character piece and a snapshot of anxieties at a certain key moment in recent history, it is a book of a very high quality. An excellent novel, and one that deserves to be much better known.

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