A Novel Ian Likes: Empty World by John Christopher

Neil Miller has lost his family in a car accident. He goes to live with his grandparents and begins at a new school. Still in a state of shock, he barely notices the news about a plague beginning in India, one that directly attacks the body at its most vulnerable point and ages its victims to death. But soon he realises that it’s occurring closer to home and not long after that he finds himself alone, again, but in a way that he could never have imagined…  

John Christopher (1922-2012), born Samuel Youd but known under a truly breathtaking array of pseudonyms, was a successful and influential writer. With novels such as The Year Of The Comet, The Death Of Grass and The World In Winter under his belt, he was an acknowledged master of the post-apocalyptic novel, no mean feat at a time when it was a ridiculously popular genre already. His early work has a reputation for grimness, so it’s odd that at the time of his death he was most famous for his novels for children. His best-known are the books that make up The Tripods Trilogy (1966-69, with a prequel volume published in 1988) which tell of humanity’s struggle to regain their freedom from the brainwashing Masters, who roam the world in their massive tripod vehicles. Empty World (1977) tells a more intimate and frightening story.

Neil faces, in the suddenly depopulated world he finds himself, not just the standard post-apocalyptic issues like food and shelter, but also the crushing loneliness of being one of the few human beings left. Mourning his family means that he faces the onset of the plague fairly dispassionately, but he begins to snap out of it after his grandparents die.

He decides to leave the small country town he lives in and make his way to London where he assumes the chances of finding supplies and other survivors will be higher. He meets Clive, who deals with the collapse of civilisation by trying to accumulate as many material – and now useless – possessions as possible. Clive leaves him behind as a possible reminder of the world that was and Neil is forced to journey on alone. Once in London, though, Neil sets himself up in a comfortable apartment but soon meets up with Billie and Lucy, two girls who have gravitated to London for the same reasons as himself, and who welcome him with friendliness (Lucy) and suspicion (Billie).

Neil and Lucy begin to form an attachment that Billie resents and things come to a head when she tries to attack Neil in an abandoned store on a supply run. He escapes her and makes it back to their shared house. He and Lucy bar the doors against her but, in a surprising conclusion, they realise that they need each other as an extension of their tiny new society and let her back in.

It’s a thin book (my edition numbers just 134 pages) but it’s a cracking yarn and a lot more thoughtful than you might think.

I first read it when I was 12. I was fresh off the brilliance that was the Tripods novels and I was hoping that this could capture that same magic. I was not disappointed. This is a grim and, at times, hopeless novel, but it ends with a spark of hope for the future which a lot of the contemporary doomsday merchants couldn’t realistically deliver.

Because there was a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction doing the rounds at the time. Post-nuclear scenarios were the most popular, largely inspired by the oppressive gloom of the Cold War that we were living under, but mostly popularised by the success of films like Death Race 2000 or Mad Max 2. They were fun, but not terribly believable or realistic: most simulations of nuclear war rated the probability of enough people surviving to create a society run by leather-clad bikers and revheads to be quite low. So, the more realistic contributions to the genre often set themselves several hundred years into the future – after the world was beginning to rebuild itself – or just before/after the bombs fell (which, in the case of offerings such as Threads, The Day After or Robert Swindell’s Brother In The Land, were even more harrowing).

In this book, though, we get a much gentler end of the world. There is no mention of where the virus – known as The Calcutta Plague – originates, which differentiates it from similarly-themed stories, such as Terry Nation’s TV series, Survivors and Stephen King’s The Stand, which frequently place the blame for such things on clandestine government labs. And it doesn’t matter because that’s not the story Christopher is telling here. What we have is the story of a boy trying to survive in a world that has been almost-completely depopulated.

It completely captured my imagination at the time and it was a book I read and reread avidly over the course of a bit over a year. Neil is an interesting protagonist: he appears to be sleepwalking his way through the early parts of the book – which seemed perfectly natural for someone who had been through what he had been through – but he begins to be revitalised about a third of the way through the book when he encounters two young children who give him a renewed sense of purpose amidst the tragedy surrounding him. He is forced to think of things like preparing for the future and getting through to the next day as matters of life and death rather than the routine that he was used to.

Depressingly for me, it never occurred to me until a reread about ten or twelve years after I first encountered it, that what Neil goes through is entirely a metaphor for adolescence and the onset of adulthood and maturity. At the beginning of the novel, Neil feels alone and unloved, unable to join in with the concerns of those around him who are trying on the trappings of maturity. As the novel progresses his isolation and loneliness increase. He finds others that might suffice as companions but – like Clive – they are too concerned with their own version of the world, or – like Billie – openly hostile to what he wants or represents. At the book’s end, Neil finally realises that he needs other people, regardless of what they feel towards him. He knows that he has some positive relations and influences – Lucy – which can offset the negative. Which, if we’re lucky, is how we all come to terms with the complicated world of adulthood.

But, of course, we can’t discuss a world depopulated by a highly contagious virus without mentioning the current world situation. Thankfully, the current pandemic has been nowhere near as catastrophic, but it seems that a lot of what Christopher was talking about back in the 70s can be paralleled by a lot of recent events. Obviously, he was taking his cue from The Spanish Flu when he named the virus The Calcutta Plague, but the way that it was dealt with in the novel is eerily familiar to what has happened in recent years: travel bans, wealthy people and corrupt officials exploiting loopholes to escape danger, public land being co-opted as burial or morgue sites… We’ve seen a lot of the events of this book played out in different places across the globe over the last couple of years. But it’s a very civilised end of the world in this book, or so it seems; Neil, living in an out-of-the-way area, wouldn’t have been exposed to a lot of the unrest that other places may have experienced. There is a moment early on in which a gang of bikers race their machines through the small town he lives in but aside from throwing bottles around and making a bit of noise, even that feels anticlimactic.

In fact, the end of the world does feel climactic in this book: it goes out with a whimper, not a bang. The real story is, as all these stories are, about what happens next. And while Neil doesn’t concern himself with stockpiling toilet paper or baking banana bread or worrying about not writing King Lear, he does eventually realise that the concerns of any society, moving into an unknown future, lie with folks realising that nobody is of less value than anyone else.

You can find out more about John Christopher (or any of the names he wrote under!) at https://thesylepress.com/

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