Friday, February 24, 2012

Empty World: A Review

John Christopher's Empty World. is almost the arche-type of the pandemic apocalypse-in-progress novel.  I say almost Mary Shelley wrote what is arguably the first apocalypse-in-progress The Last Man, in 1826 and they have been writing them intermittently ever since.

The best looking cover I could find.

A blurry version of what mine looks like.

If it is not fair to call Empty World the archetype of pandemic apocalypse-in-progress novels, it might be fair to call John Christopher the archetype of post World War 2 apocalyptic writers.  He is after all, one of the people that Brian Aldis was referring to (along with John Wyndham) when he coined the term Cosy Catastrophe (cosy = British spelling of cozy). 

I won't go too much into his biography, because I covered it fairly thoroughly when I did his (also classic) No Blade of Grass some time ago.  He is important enough within the genre that I could ramble on and never get to our story.  My only note in passing is that I really should do a review a John Wyndham novel now that I have reviewed two of Christopher's.

Empty World is a Young Adult (YA) novel.  It may have started the trend toward making apocalyptic YA novels.  Christopher actually does a good job of thinking through his pestilence and how it would be able to spread and reach so many people.  Essentially it is a two stage disease.  The first stage is a mild flu like disease.  People don't feel all that poorly so they go around spreading the disease for some time, and then get feeling better.  Then two weeks or so later the second stage kicks in.  It is a type of progeria specifically the Hutchinson-Guiilford Syndrome:  extremely rapid aging leading to death.  At first the disease only effects "old people": those over 40 - remember this a YA novel.  But as time goes on more and more people are affected.  The only survivors are the very youngest, but there chances are not good because few are left to take care of them.  They die in their cribs.

Our hero, Neil, is a comprehensive student in Rye, England, a relatively quiet cul de sac.  As a comprehensive student, which is roughly analogous to a combined U.S. Middle School - High School, he is somewhere in his teens.  Old enough to not be repulsed by young ladies, but with no particular experience in the matter.  Neil has lost his entire family in a horrific automobile accident just as the book is starting, and the loss of his family is used as a run up, a prequel if you will, to the greater horror soon to come.  Neal is a little shell shocked through much of the early going, but is a good enough person to make a valiant attempt to help some young children who have lost their parents.

The world is very empty.  Unlike Terry Nation's Survivors, there are so few people around that the great difficulty is not rival groups, but finding anyone at all- and that is where most of the adventure lies.  He eventually wanders of to London looking for people.  There are definitely cosy aspects to the story as he finds a Jaguar XJ to drive around for a little while.  All the dangerous adults die off very early on, and the most dangerous situation is a temporary plague of rats fueled by all the dead bodies.

1979 Jaguar XJ61

What the story best illustrates, besides being the YA version of a cosy, is the advantages of the pandemic apocalyptic as a story device.  It is very similar to the amnesia-device often used in fiction (think Bourne Identity). 

In an amnesia story, the protagonist forgets who they are, and they are generally in some location where nobody knows who they are.  This allows the protagonist a clean slate to work with.  They live what everyone dreams of: a fresh start.  Of course as time goes on the story line enmeshes the character, and they find a new set of complications, but the appeal of the initial amnesia is very attractive.

Well a pandemic novel is amnesia written large.  Everyone who is still alive gets there fresh start.  The author can reset society in any way that they wish.  And generally you get the same pattern as with the amnesia stories:  the fun of roaming an empty world, followed by complications.  It is very much like th attraction that many feel toward the survivalist style of post apocalyptic preparations.  They are not attracted to the idea of death and destruction, but to the idea of a new, less complicated start.

Did I enjoy the book?  Yes.  It is nice to read the occasionally YA novel.  They are usually faster reads, and tend to be a little less grizzly than the adult tales.  There are no paranoid U.N. militia moments.  The book can be read in two workday evenings.

We have our usual two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: realism and readability (1 to 7 with 7 being high.).

Realism?  It is not completely devoid of its gritty moments.  There are a few harrowing moments.  But the unlikely extent and speed of this type of catastrophe makes for an interesting plot line, but not a lot in common with real life.  There is almost nothing of sci-fi's speculative futuristic nature, and the people are very normal.  So I am going to put it in the middle at a 4.

Readability is the hallmark of a successful YA author.  And Christopher was a very successful YA author.  It is not a page turner: a little too introspective for that.  I will say that it is a 6.

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