Some Victorian post-apocalyptic fiction. After London is (obviously) out of copyright, and it’s on Project Gutenberg here.
Below is a longer version (read: I wrote the column, then added a bunch of extra thoughts to this post) of this weekend’s Left of Cool column.
Like many people, I suspect, I first encountered Sara Teasdale’s poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” in the Ray Bradbury story based on it. Bradbury tells of a far future in which human technology continues to go through the motions even as the humans these actions are for are long gone. Teasdale’s poem, though, describes a future in which, humans having wiped our species out through war, the world carries on existing barely noticing our absence.
What makes “There Will Come Soft Rains” rather startling is that it was published in 1920. Literature contains many pessimistic accounts of the future of the human race. The Victorians in particular seem to have been plagued by a general sense of doom–whether by means of the empire striking back in “yellow peril” novels, evil feminists or alien invasions of the H.G Wells variety. But until the invention of the atom bomb, rarely did they envision the wiping out of all, or even most, of the human race.
There are exceptions, of course. As early as 1826 pioneering science-fiction writer Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man, in which a plague has killed off most of mankind. M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901) is another work in which most of the species has been wiped out.
And then there’s Richard Jefferies’ After London, first published in 1885. We’re not told what terrible events caused the total destruction of London, wiping out most of England’s population and causing huge changes in the topography of the country. The first section of the book, titled “The Relapse into Barbarism” is told from the perspective of a scholar in the far future of this world, attempting to reconstruct events from the little material evidence that is still available to him, and in argument with other theorists. For all its lack of scientific fact this account of the end of human civilisation has a sort of narrative logic to it. But what it really is, and where it recalls Teasdale’s poem for me, is an account of nature quietly taking over and continuing to exist around and above, and with total disregard for, the remains of human existence; of wilderness coming to the city and domestic animals running wild, of unharvested crops feeding rodents or fertilising the ground for the next year.
Jefferies was primarily a nature writer, and this section of the book, almost devoid of humans except as objects for anthropological study (but do they have anthropology after the apocalypse?) is gorgeous. But what interests me, about After London, the Teasdale poem and the Bradbury story, is the ways in which each frames humankind’s relationship with the rest of the world.
Because Bradbury’s story isn’t really a straight adaptation of the events of Teasdale’s poem. Bradbury has highly technologised house, adapted to the needs of the humans who once lived there, continue with its routine for those humans, unaware that they are gone. And so mechanised mice keep things clean to human standards; nature is kept away.
Until this day, how well the house had kept its peace. How carefully it had inquired, “Who goes there? What’s the password?” and, getting no answer from lonely foxes and whining cats, it had shut up its windows and drawn shades in an old-maidenly preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia.
It quivered at each sound, the house did. If a sparrow brushed a window, the shade snapped up. The bird, startled, flew off! No, not even a bird must touch the house!
This isn’t a world where humans are forgotten- if the house carries on unaware it’s because the house isn’t sentient. Those whining cats, the dog “once huge and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered with sores”, they know that the humans are gone. Domesticated animals have been domesticated; humans have altered the world. “Robins will wear their feathery fire / Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire” says Teasdale. But sparrows in Bradbury’s future cannot brush against windows undisturbed. Humans have left a mark on this world that is, if not indelible, going to take a long time to erase. Teasdale’s humans barely seem to have changed the world. I wonder how much of this is because Teasdale’s writing in that space between humans being terribly insignificant (the end of the nineteenth century, evolution) and terribly significant (atomic weapons, discovering just how much destructive potential we have).
And Jefferies? He’s somewhere in the middle–civilisation crumbles quite easily, but whatever it is that we did to cause the catastrophe, its awful effects continue for centuries after.
The second part of After London, “Wild England” is a more straightforward story set in this world. Jefferies never tells us to what extent this disaster has affected the world outside England, and in a sense, for the book the rest of the world has ceased to exist. Things are infinitely smaller. Humans have reverted to a sort of feudal system, with small kingdoms that have very little interaction with one another. Felix, the brainy, unpopular son of an impoverished baron, sets out to explore the great lake that now exists at the heart of the country, hoping in the process to win his fortune and be worthy of the woman he loves. If this sounds like a classic fantasy adventure it is; Jefferies’ wild England is so far away from our own world as to be considered wholly fantastic. It’s also episodic; Felix encounters new groups of people, has adventures, escapes and continues his journey. This pattern is somewhat interrupted when he stumbles upon the ancient city of London, wholly destroyed, filled with buildings that are still standing but crumble when touched and skeletal outlines in the dust, and still emitting an evil miasma that drugs him and gives this entire section of the book a surreal feel.
“Wild England” will swerve away from the traditional fantasy story once again when we leave Felix, his story unresolved and his true love as yet unobtained. I suppose it’s fitting that the story should feel so incomplete, when the book itself isn’t any one definable thing. Part pastoral, part science fiction; it’s hard to know what to think of After London. It’s thoroughly strange, and frustrating, and compelling.