One of the interesting things about catastrophe stories is that the thing that’s blamed for the catastrophe is close to the deep fears of the moment. In the BBC drama series Survivors, now four episodes in, it’s a pandemic. Russell Hoban’s 1980 book Riddley Walker was set after a nuclear war. In John Christopher’s mid- 50s story The Death of Grass – written in a world where food rationing was a very recent experience – cereals and grass are destroyed by a virus.
Like Riddley Walker, Cormac McCarthy’sThe Road, published a couple of years ago, is set in a world in which the cataclysm is in the past. (The Road‘s disaster is an unidentified, mysterious extinction perhaps inspired by reports of the latest ‘great extinction‘). Russell Hoban’s book is written in a new post-holocaust dialect which readers have to master.
Survivors, like The Death of Grass (also published as No Blade of Grass) deals with the cataclysm itself. In Survivors, a flu epidemic has killed all but 1% of the population, and they have died in the space of a few days. For obvious reasons, the survivors have fled the cities.There’s a luxury about this, of course, since a population of 600,000 (lower than in Roman Britain) living off the leftovers of an advanced civilisation means that they’re not short, at least of whatever they can find.
But the recurring motif, so far, is of violence – or violence sometimes being held at bay. There are concerns about whether places can be defended, or how. The importance of basic skills (building a chicken coop) become clear. In such a world, people can de-inscribe, or re-inscribe their pasts, although after four episodes these are starting to push through the cracks (character never quite escapes history).
At first sight, The Death of Grass, now long out of print (and certainly worth republishing)[republished in 2009], seems old-fashioned. There are cars, but fewer. There are no motorways. In a world of fixed line phones, communication is harder. But in some ways, as catastrophe stories go, it is much more plausible. The virus that finally reaches Europe and the UK has been traced across Asia for some years, there have been international meetings about it, and yet no contingency plan has been put in place. The government remains confident that an antidote will be found. When it is finally clear that disaster has struck, the government seals the cities off – and is overthrown when its plans leak out to drop nuclear bombs on them to cull the population to cope with a world of potatoes and root crops.
The families at the centre of the story get out of London on a tip-off and fight their way north, heading for a family farm in Cumbria that can be secured. As in Survivors there is a rape (though actual rather than attempted). Being closer to the war, there are more guns to hand, and far more men who know how to use them. Unlike in Survivors, some localities organise themselves. The families lose their cars as they are commandeered by a militia on the edge of Wetherby (I recall from memory).
One of the telling moments in Survivors is in the first episode is when the mobile phone networks start packing up. Another is when one of the characters, whose car has run out of petrol, simply hauls a dead driver out of another one and drives on. The communications satellites still function, but they are failing, one by one. The electricity has gone down. In a highly centralised and specialised society, we are “nine meals away from anarchy“, to quote the title of a recent pamphlet by Andrew Simms of nef. One of the paradoxes of Survivors is how little of the apparent plenty surrounding them is available to them – without finding people who have useful skills, or re-learning them. As Rob Hopkins pointed out in The Transition Handbook, in terms of craft and physical skills, we may be the least competent generation in the history of the planet.
The survivors in Survivors will probably be OK, just because there are so few of them, especially when the cars stop working, and they can start to learn to look after themselves rather than foraging – as long as the millions of rotting bodies in the cities don’t create any new health hazards. I worried more about the survivors in The Death of Grass, as the rain starts to wash the topsoil away.