The term “cosy catastrophe” was coined by the author Brian Aldiss and has a very specific meaning. “The essence of cosy catastrophe,” he said, “is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.” It is a limited and insulting definition, and Aldiss was using it to put John Wyndham firmly in his place. Or at least, the Wyndham of his most successful novels, The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes: even Aldiss admits that this definition does not fit Wyndham’s greatest novel, The Chrysalids.
“Cosy catastrophe” is a term I’ve been aware of for years, but I only read Aldiss’s definition when researching this top 10. I had attributed a rather different meaning to the term: I had taken it to mean, quite simply, fiction set in a recognisably realistic world, familiar and therefore cosy; a world that is blown apart by a catastrophic event. When the judges of the Arthur C Clarke award suggested that my novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb was a cosy catastrophe, I was very pleased, knowing the term had been coined to describe Wyndham’s work, and being a great Wyndham fan. I hope their understanding of it was as vague as mine!
In fact, Aldiss’s description is so specific and limiting that I can think of hardly a single novel it applies to, other than Kraken and Triffids. So here is a list that is, on the whole, closer to my definition than to Aldiss’s: 10 great books where the world as we know it comes to grief.
I read this when it first appeared in paperback (Picador, with a totally misleading Rousseauesque cover image). The novel has haunted me ever since. The catastrophe is unspecific – Lessing refers simply to “It”; its effects are a rapid polarisation of the population into “Talkers”, who have jobs and money, and everyone else, who must forage for fuel, food and water, as supply chains break down and all transport grinds to a halt. Youths form roaming gangs who pass through neighbourhoods looting and burning, and the next generation – abandoned four-to-10-year-olds – have reverted to pure savagery and cannibalism. By the end, venturing outside is an invitation to murder, and the very air has become unbreathable.
The narrator, a middle-aged woman, lives in a cosy ground-floor flat. She is asked to take responsibility for an unknown and traumatised teenager, Emily. At the same time, the narrator discovers that a solid wall in her flat is permeable, and that at certain times she can walk through it into a range of other rooms and lives. Many are connected to Emily: on the other side of the wall, Emily is a little child in a well-to-do Victorian family, with casually cruel parents. Her appalling mother is reminiscent of Martha Quest’s. The breakdown of society in the “real” world is reflected by a series of vivid tableaux in the world on the other side of the wall: when the real Emily tries to take on responsibility for the welfare of a group of wild and vicious children, Emily-though-the-wall battles to sweep up an unceasing flood of dead leaves. The narrator herself sweeps, tidies and paints disordered rooms, through the wall, only to find them reduced again to chaos in her absence. Minutely observed social realism rubs shoulders with a strand of poetic, image-driven fantasy reminiscent of The Yellow Wallpaper.
For me, one of the strongest elements of the novel is the steely recognition of the way one generation supplants the next: “You can hand over your life now, you don’t need it any longer, we will live it for you, please go.” My other favourites in this list, The Chrysalids and Childhood’s End, also feature a new generation who eclipse or annihilate the old.
Here, the catastrophe has almost certainly been nuclear war, several decades earlier. The tale is narrated by a young boy, David, living in a primitive farming community in Labrador. Fundamentalist religion has taken hold, and a terror of the mutations caused by radiation has led to a general belief that it is necessary to destroy any plant, animal or human who is not in “the True Image”. But David can share thought-shapes: he is one of a group of youngsters in the new generation who have telepathic powers. Once their “difference” is discovered, they have to flee for their lives, into the Fringes where mutation is rife and sterilised humans whose shapes do not fit the ideal of the norm get by as they can with scant resources.
Wyndham explores discrimination, the threats posed by religious fundamentalism and the desire for racial purity. A woman from distant Sealand, who engineers the escape of the Chrysalids, explicitly describes the type of people who caused the apocalypse: “They were shut off by different languages and different beliefs … They aspired greedily … They created vast problems then buried their heads in the sands of idle faith.” The children of the future are able to “think-together” and so can rise above the selfish violence and conflicting religions of the past. A cosy ending, perhaps, but at the expense of writing off the previous generation (us) as “an inferior variant”. One of this novel’s aspects I love is that the young narrator is innocent and open to experience, not muffled up in the slightly stuffy knowingness of Wyndham’s other male narrators. I’ve recently been working on a new adaptation of The Chrysalids for radio (Classic Serial on Radio 4, 29 July and 5 August).
Ballard’s novel, like The Chrysalids, features our current world as a distant memory. Most of the earth is deep underwater. London lies below a vast lagoon, with only the tops of tall buildings protruding above the surface, providing homes for giant iguanas and monstrous insects. Temperatures have risen, to as high as 180 degrees at the equator. The novel slides towards Aldiss’s definition: our hero, Kerans, is staying in the penthouse suite at the Ritz, and he does get the girl (the beautiful and useless Beatrice) – at least, in so far as anyone does.
The drowned world is described with such scientific precision and clarity that it becomes vividly real to the reader. Kerans finds himself becoming obsessed by the pounding, burning sun. It, and the primeval swamp around him, awaken prehistoric trace memories, layers and levels in his subconscious that draw him towards the heat, draw him south rather than north, where those still capable of rational thought are headed. This is a new Triassic age and the mind of man reverts to its deeply primitive state. Kerans desires, passively, to make himself one with this world. But in the interests of giving the novel some plot and action, Ballard pits his hero against the evil Strangman, white-suited looter of artworks, who arrives above London accompanied by a gang of miscreants and a herd (shoal?) of alligators, and drains the lagoon in order to search London’s damp and silted-up ruins. Having escaped death at Strangman’s hands, Kerans heads off on his own to certain death in the boiling tropical swamps. The plot is silly, but the images and the incredible sense of the power of the subconscious mind make this novel compelling.
This novel also features rising sea levels, but they rise upon an initially cosy world. The trouble starts with fireballs raining into the sea, ships mysteriously sinking and sea tanks emerging from the depths to grab people. The Bathies are here to destroy humanity. Mike and Phyllis, our happily wed protagonists, are two jolly good eggs who battle through, trying to do the decent thing. In the end about one-fifth of humanity survives and begins to sort out the mess. It’s a well-constructed tale, but the limitations of the characters prevent it from being much more than that. Cosiness lies in the voice, and I concede that Aldiss’s criticisms have a ring of truth here.
Gee’s world is recognisably ours, though set in the near future. Temperatures have plummeted, rather than risen: a new ice age is on the way, and the only salvation lies in journeying to Africa. Fertility levels have dropped and the sexes have polarised. People find their sexual satisfaction in feathered robots called Doves, rather than in other humans. The narrator, an old man sitting in a crowd of wild cannibal children, retells the story of his life, and of the hatred that has grown between women and men, in return for a few more hours of time.
Gee uses her catastrophe to explore the age-old topic of the war between the sexes, to turn first/third-world ideas on their heads, to satirise contemporary politics, and to look in a clear-sighted way at relations between parents and children.
An ecological catastrophe: grass dies. All the grasses – not just fields and lawns, but rice, wheat, barley and so on. The novel opens with this problem safely remote, in the far east, causing starvation among the Chinese. But soon enough the virus spreads to Britain, and society starts cracking up. John Custance and his family and friends – a cosily middle-class group – receive inside information and decide to head for Cumbria, where his brother has a farm in a defensible valley and they can grow potatoes. The brother is the one who understands man’s responsibility for the disaster: “For years now, we’ve treated the land as through it were a piggy bank, to be raided, and the land, after all, is life itself.”
The veneer of civilisation falls away very fast. Custance starts by murdering a soldier at a roadblock, and kills numerous others en route, including an innocent farmer’s wife, shot at point blank range, and his own brother, who has offered him shelter. In their rapid descent into murderousness, Christopher’s characters are a lot less cosy than Wyndham’s. This novel feels very rooted in war, demonstrating with chilling forthrightness that decency and moral scruples are swiftly dispensed with in a struggle for survival. If someone stands in your way, kill him. Our hero does survive, with his wife and daughter, and at the end they are about to try to start living in the old, decent way again. But Christopher has painted a bleak enough picture of their fall from grace to suggest that no happy ending is likely.
The world here is similar to the one we know, except that giant spaceships of aliens known as Overlords are hovering above Earth and obliging humanity to behave well. Wars and discrimination have ended; all political problems are solved, so crime ceases; since no one is in need, no one steals or misbehaves. Work is mechanised, and all that’s left for humanity is a ceaseless round of pleasure, travel and further education. The kindly Overlords refuse to show themselves for the first 50 years of their reign. When they emerge, they look like devils, complete with horns and tails, but their behaviour seems utterly benign. At a terribly cosy party where the rather two-dimensional characters mingle and drink, one group holds a seance, with two results. First, one man is able to discover the identity of the Overlords’ home planet, and so can stow away on a ship and visit it; second, the Overlord who is present detects the power of telepathy in one woman. She and her children are singled out for special attention. The Overlords, it transpires, are in the service of a much greater Power, with which they are tasked with bringing humanity into union.
The role of the Overlords, as midwives to the destruction/transformation of entire races, is simultaneously ingenious and moving; this is a novel of ideas rather than characters, but the ideas are so impressive and sweeping that it is impossible not to be carried along. A generation of children are born who develop astonishing psychic powers: they can communicate, eat, drink, sleep and shift objects around, all without moving a muscle, by the power of their minds. They stand like rocks on the beach, unblinking, their clothing worn to rags, silently communing, until “Breakthrough” is achieved and they ascend in a trail of fire into the skies, to join the greater Power. Behind them, the Earth that has nourished them becomes transparent and dissolves. An Overlord explains that homo sapiens is over. “All the hopes and dreams of your race have ended now. You have given birth to your successors, and it is your tragedy that you will never understand them – will never even be able to communicate with their minds. Indeed, they will not posses minds as you know them. They will be a single entity.”
It may seem crazy to call this book cosy, but human life and society – where it appears – is comfortable, petty and foolishly self-important, which makes the metamorphosis of its children all the more shocking, extraordinary and moving. Clarke moves us up to a different scale.
I defy anyone not to be gripped from the start by Wyndham’s first great SF success. Bill Masen wakes up after an eye operation to find that virtually the entire population has been blinded by flashing meteors: he unpeels his bandages to discover a world full of stumbling, desperate, drunken or suicidal sightless people. Civilisation has collapsed overnight. Add in plants that have been genetically engineered to produce highly profitable oil, but have additional characteristics of being mobile, carnivorous and in possession of a deadly sting, and you have a bestseller.
It’s cosy in two ways: the world and values we see destroyed are depicted with considerable sentimentality; and the narrator-hero has numerous little pangs about doing the decent thing, like helping other people. But he learns very quickly to look after number one. He also does get the girl, and lives with her for a while in a luxuriously decadent flat. But the resourcefulness and courage he displays in adapting to their new life are very engaging, and Wyndham’s meticulous attention to the practical details of survival, of daily life, and indeed to the botanical development and behaviour of the Triffids, enable the reader to suspend disbelief in this wonderfully fantastic tale.
Here, for once, the catastrophe is narrowly averted. All the women in the village of Midwich are impregnated in a single night by aliens. Nine months later, the women give birth to a race of children with golden eyes – strangely precocious children who are emotionally blank, band together against the villagers, and are soon perceived to possess formidable and horribly threatening powers. The narrator is a Wyndham type – male, happily married, middle class, concerned and observant and thoroughly decent. In other words, cosy. But that doesn’t prevent the story from being suspenseful and blackly humorous, and again there is that compelling mixture of terribly ordinary everyday life, with a quite fantastical big event.
Granddaddy of them all. The catastrophe here is in the future, bookended by the cosiness of the present, which (the present being the late 19th century) is all drinks by the fire and helpful butlers. But the terrible future visited by the Time Traveller is sharp enough: humanity has polarised into evil, underground-dwelling Morlocks – descendants of the working classes, now evolved into vicious, pallid, carnivorous apes – and ethereal, intellectual Eloi, who float about on the surface, leading lives of vapid idleness in beautiful surroundings, and are helpless to protect themselves from attacks by the cannibalistic Morlocks.
Wells’s catastrophe is, like many of the others in this list, man-made – but not by man abusing his environment. It is created simply by the evolution of the inequalities Wells observed in the society in which he lived, inequalities that, had he lived to 146, he could of course have continued to observe. His novel contains what I believe are the three essential ingredients of the genre: a brave and curious protagonist, a big-idea catastrophe, and meticulously convincing rendering of the practical details of everyday life.
• Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb is reissued by Canongate on 5 July
Source: The Guardian