Cozy Catastrophe Review: After London; or, Wild England

After-London-or-Wild-England

The Victorians were a materialistic lot. I should say the middle and upper classes were. The mass of laborers, those in service, and common tradesmen didn’t have much, if anything, and certainly didn’t have much to look forward to. Appalling working conditions were the lot of factory workers and miners. Those in service worked long hours for very little pay. The common tradesmen had the poor for his customers and while he might have been somewhat better off than those he served, it was only somewhat.

So when we speak of the Victorians, we do need to keep in mind we are primarily speaking of the upper end of society. The ones with money. Perhaps not rich, but they did have money and the annual holiday at Brighton.

Richard Jefferies, born in 1848 and died from tuberculosis in 1887, was a writer and a naturalist. He was opposed to the big city and rampant industrialization, both of which he felt destroyed nature and humanity’s relationship with it. One can see this view rather dramatically portrayed in his somewhat mystical autobiography The Story Of My Heart.

In 1885, Cassell and Co, Ltd published After London; or, Wild England. It is and early example of the ecological disaster that destroys civilization as we know it story. The book is also perhaps the first cozy catastrophe.

The novel is divided into two parts. A nameless future historian tells us, in the first part, a great disaster befell England and by implication the world. But in true cozy fashion, the disaster is not dwelt upon nor even described. Humanity was simply gone and nature was now free to move on unfettered and unaltered. No more the plow. No more the woodlands felled for houses, factories, and farms. Nature was once again unhindered, as it was before human beings existed.

Much like the TV series Life After People, the unnamed narrator tells us of the changes that took place “after London ended”. How the remnants of humanity relapsed into a state of barbarism, how the great city of London collapsed in ruins, and how a great lake arose in the center of England.

The narrator tells us “at the eastern extremity the Lake narrows and finally is lost in the vast marshes which cover the site of the ancient London.” The narrator goes on to describe nature’s destruction of the city and how there is nothing left of it. Nothing that is except for the noxious pollution and a vapor so fatal “no animal can endure”. The water over the site is black and is covered by “a greenish-brown floating scum, which for ever bubbles up from the putrid mud of the bottom.” The poisonous vapors form a “miasma” and “it becomes visible as low cloud which hangs over the place.”

We don’t know what killed off the people, but Jefferies paints a clear picture that humanity messed up nature and what people built, though gone, still pollutes the land.

For the Victorians, London was the center of the world. Jefferies was telling his contemporaries their greatest accomplishment was in fact nothing more then a noxious and toxic cesspool. And by extension, he tells us the same message. A simple life in harmony with nature is humanity’s proper home. Not some stinking city, belching forth pollution and reducing humans to a state less than human.

In the second part of the book, the narrator tells us the story of Sir Felix Aquila, the eldest son of a baron who is not especially wealthy.

English society has returned to feudalism. Brawn is favored over brains. And the new focal point is not London, but the vast lake that now exists in the center of England.

Sir Felix is a bookish man in a society that does not value books. He is excellent with the longbow when it is prowess with the sword that gains respect. Sir Felix does not fit in. A theme that is common with the cozy catastrophe. The hero is nothing spectacular, an ordinary joe, and is very often a social outcast.

However, after the catastrophe, the hero suddenly blossoms and becomes the savior, as it were. In Sir Felix’s case, the catastrophe happened long ago and so his blossoming occurs after a trip of exploration on the lake.

After London has all the elements of the cozy catastrophe. In particular, it’s message: we, our materialism, our disregard for nature, brought about the catastrophe. Yet it is the very destruction of our world that provides the hope we can do it right the second time around.

I didn’t find After London a particularly enjoyable read. The omniscient narrator seemed to suck the life out of the story. I found the book rather boring. Nevertheless, we find in After London the progenitor of a science fiction sub-genre that came into its own some sixty-five years later.

And for me what is most important about After London is that it’s not about some white middle-class Englishmen sitting around having tea and crumpets celebrating the demise of the working class. Which is what the detractors of the cozy seem to think is the point of the sub-genre. The book is an exploration of our abuse of nature and what might happen if that abuse ended. The book is a celebration of brains over brawn. A celebration of the social outcast, the wallflower, who, when the time is right, shows the world he or she can indeed dance the tango. The book celebrates the little guy and gal and tells us that salvation does not reside in some monolithic governmental authority, but in ordinary people.

Most of all, After London is a novel of hope, as are almost all cozy catastrophes. The world is not a dark and miserable dystopia. The catastrophe unleashes human potential, makes possible our dream of a better world. Richard Jefferies made that message key in After London — and it still defines the cozy catastrophe some 130 years later.

We will continue our examination of the literature next week. Until then, happy reading!

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The Cozy Catastrophe – Additional Thoughts

Town-Centre

Above, Pripyat two decades after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Last week we looked at those elements which were essential to the cozy catastrophe. This week we’re taking a further look at the subgenre to dispel a couple misguided thoughts.

Formula Fiction

Ever since Brian Aldiss coined the term cozy catastrophe, the subgenre has gotten a bad rap by many both in and without the science fiction community. One of the charges against it is that it is formula fiction.

Jo Walton, on the TOR website, disparagingly wrote, “You could quite easily write a program for generating one.”

In response, I’d argue all fiction is essentially formulaic. Because stories fall into familiar patterns. Ronald B Tobias, in his book Twenty Master Plots, has not only broken down all story lines into twenty basic patterns, he goes further and enumerates the eight lowest common plot denominators. These are the eight things all stories must have to be a story. Now doesn’t that sound like putting together a formula?

Stories follow patterns. Doesn’t matter if they are mainstream, literary, experimental, or genre fiction. The pattern of boy meets girl has been told at least a million different ways. But the pattern — the formula — is the same: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl, and, depending on whether the story has a happy or sad ending, boy keeps girl or boy loses girl. Isn’t that a formula?

Ms Walton rather snobbishly condemns the cozy catastrophe of being formulaic and exempts other subgenres of science fiction. But if we look at space opera we find very definite formulas and tropes there as well. The classic good versus evil storyline. The underdog become hero. Spaceships that magically have gravity in a way that is scientifically impossible. All planets with life have an earth-like environment. What Ms Walton forgets is that we gladly suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy the story.

Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, pulp fiction, which was all genre oriented and very formulaic, was exceedingly popular and similarly dismissed as inferior because it wasn’t literary. Yet the best writers and stories of the pulp era are still read today, while many literary writers have been forgotten and their works molder away in the catacombs of some library or have ended up as landfill.

The cozy catastrophe in the hands of a good writer is no more formulaic than any other story. Over the next few weeks we’ll look at some examples of novels categorized as cozies and hopefully I’ll demonstrate that cozies aren’t as formulaic as some may think.

pripyat.jpg.638x0_q80_crop-smart

Another view of Pripyat

Not a Survivalist Story

We enjoy survival stories. People versus nature. The good surviving the machinations of the bad. We cheer when they survive and weep when they do not.

Movies such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Road are survival tales, even though The Road is also post-apocalyptic. So are “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphin, Robinson Crusoe, and Lord of the Flies. Even movies such as Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction have elements of the survival tale, which may account for their popularity.

In the cozy catastrophe, while survival is important, it is not the paramount concern. That the group will survive is essentially a given. At what stage of civilization the group will survive isn’t. That is where the conflict comes in.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic tale of survival. The question we keep asking ourselves is will the man and his son survive the wasteland the earth has become. At the end, we are left with some hope the boy will survive.

In Earth Abides and The Day of the Triffids, it is assumed the main characters will survive. The question is how and in what condition. This switch in focus is due to the cozy catastrophe being a story of hope, a story of our attempt to create utopia.

The cozy, while having elements of the survival tale, isn’t essentially a tale about survival.

A schoolroom in Pripyat

Not Dystopian

In our post-modern world, we have gone down two roads: one is a fantasy world where good battles evil and wins, thus giving us a measure of hope in a world where we don’t feel any hope; the other, is that of a dystopian nightmare where even if good (and good may not even be that good) wins and the impact is at best minimal. We are essentially doomed and the doom has only been forestalled.

I believe we have a love affair with dystopia because we have little hope. We no longer trust government, science, or religion to solve the crucial problems facing us. We no longer believe civilization is getting better with each passing generation. Things just seem to be getting worse and there is no stopping the free fall. We are reveling in our own demise.

We see this in movies, TV shows, and books such as The Iron Heel, Max Headroom, the Mad Max series, The Handmaid’s Tale, Soylent Green, Never Let Me Go, and The Hunger Games. It’s difficult not to think we’re screwed and we did it to ourselves.

In the cozy catastrophe, the tunnel may be very dark but there is a light at the end of it.

Hope

The cozy catastrophe is not dystopian, not primarily a tale of survival, nor is it formulaic tripe. It is, however, a tale of hope. The cozy is primarily utopian in nature. Brought to his and her lowest, people band together to survive and thrive. To rebuild the world and make it a better place than before.

That theme is stated over and over again in The Day of the Triffids, the classic work for which Aldiss coined the term.

And maybe that explains why contemporary writers, at least some of them, have such a difficult time with the subgenre. Things may have been bad before the great demise, but they weren’t all bad. The disaster, while horrible, gives us a chance to start over and get it right. We are Lif and Lifthrasir after Ragnarok making a new beginning. Goodness, hope, kindness, and justice will prevail.

Next week we’ll begin looking at some examples of the cozy catastrophe. We’ll examine the themes and storylines and see if we don’t find some truly wonderful tales — in spite of what the naysayers would have us believe.

Until then good reading! Comments are always welcome!

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What is a Cozy Catastrophe?

In the book Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss coined the term cozy catastrophe. He used the term to describe a particular type of post-apocalyptic writing as famously seen in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. This form of the post-apocalyptic tale was particularly popular in the UK in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Aldiss’s use of the term was at base pejorative. Coming from what seems to have been a politically radical leftist position, Aldiss dismissed the sub-subgenre as being some manner of wish fulfillment: the return of the Empire, praise of nature and the simple life, or a criticism of science and industrialization.

Time, however, marches on and even if we give Aldiss his due for the fiction published prior to 1973, the cozy catastrophe itself has changed and Aldiss’s observations are no longer accurate for today – if they were even accurate in his own day, which they may not have been.

Blogger russell1200 on his blog reflexiones finales posted a short but important article about the cozy on July 14, 2011. My thoughts have been influenced by his article.

If Aldiss’s description of the cozy catastrophe is no longer relevant, than what are the characteristics that make a cozy a cozy?

Why the term “cozy”?

Let’s begin with the term cozy itself. Why a cozy catastrophe? What on earth can be cozy about a world wide catastrophe? The general consensus is that the term was borrowed from the cozy mystery subgenre.

So what is a cozy mystery? It is a mystery solved by an amateur sleuth. Think here of Miss Marple, Father Brown, Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, or Sidney Chambers in Grantchester. An ordinary person solves the murder when the professionals cannot. Likewise with the cozy catastrophe, a group of amateur survivalists survive, when others cannot.

The Catastrophe

A group of ordinary people have survived a catastrophe. What kind of catastrophe? In the cozy, the catastrophe, the apocalyptic event must be worldwide and pretty much wipes out most of the human race. Animals and plant life may also be affected, but the emphasis here is on the destruction of people. The rest of the world remains basically intact.

Recognizable Setting

The setting needs to be recognizable and the story plausible as a real world event. Something that could happen right now, today, to us.

This is very much like the cozy mystery. The amateur sleuth comes across a murder in his or her everyday world and for one reason or another must solve it when the police can’t or won’t.

One thing to keep in mind here is that distant future stories must somehow be coherently and realistically connected to our present day world. If not, they fail the real world test. The Time Machine and After London pass this test. The Planet of the Apes, a nifty story in and of itself, unfortunately, does not.

The Small Group

The story generally focuses on the survival of a small group of people or perhaps several small groups. The group comes together, or sometimes is already together at the start of the story, and then sets about trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Conflict can come from both outside sources, other groups perhaps or wild animals, and internal dissension.

A Survivable World

Is the world survivable if the group makes the effort to survive? This goes back to the nature of the catastrophe. The worldwide disaster needs to primarily affect people, leaving much of the pre-catastrophe infrastructure intact, which allows the group a base upon which to rebuild society. Whether or not they succeed is the telling of their story.

In my mind, this is a key feature of the cozy catastrophe. The survivors are not mere survivalists. They are the recreators of civilization. Or they at least make a valiant attempt to recreate the world they lost.

A New World

Society, civilization, at some point is rebuilt. Generally speaking. An exception is On the Beach by Nevil Shute. The new society is hopefully better than the old, but in fact may not be. But the human race does not die off, it survives and a new world is born. Much like at Ragnarok, where the old world of the gods is destroyed and out of the destruction Lif and Lifthrasir survive and begin a new world.

The Message of the Cozy Catastrophe

Frequently the cozy catastrophe is a vehicle for anti-establishment rhetoric. The “evils” of the status quo, the establishment, brought about the catastrophe. Whether those evils be nuclear weapons or biological experimentation, or GMOs not turning out as intended — it is our own messing around with nature or our inability to live in peace with each other that very often causes the demise of our world.

In that sense, the subgenre can be made use of by radical liberals and libertarians alike to promote their agenda. There is often a philosophical underpinning to the cozy. Issues of morality and how we should be as people are very real parts of the story.

 

Next week, we’ll take a look at what the cozy catastrophe isn’t. Until then, good reading. Comments are always welcome!

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The Apocalypse and After

September 2000, Muslyumovo, 40 km from the Mayak nuclear complex, Ural mountains, Russia: Former main street in Muslyumovo, near the Techa River, which has been severely contaminated with radioactive waste. © 2000 - Greenpeace/Robert Knoth GREENPEACE HANDOUT-NO RESALE-NO ARCHIVE
September 2000, Muslyumovo, 40 km from the Mayak nuclear complex, Ural mountains, Russia: Former main street in Muslyumovo, near the Techa River, which has been severely contaminated with radioactive waste.
© 2000 – Greenpeace/Robert Knoth
This was one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, occuring in 1957, and the region around the Mayak plant is still the most polluted on the planet today.

The Apocalypse and After

The Conspiracy Game (Justinia Wright, PI #4) is available on a pre-publication sale this week only for 99¢. That makes for 7 Justinia Wright mysteries I’ve published. Three novels, a collection of 3 novellas, and 3 short stories. I love Tina and Harry and find their stories the easiest to write. However if all I wrote were mysteries, I think I’d become bored with writing. As the old adage goes: variety is the spice of life.

And so now I switch gears and turn my attention to one of my other loves: the post-apocalyptic tale. The Rocheport Saga currently has 5 volumes in the series and I’m working on number 6. It is the story of one man’s attempt to create paradise out of the disaster that has almost totally wiped out the human race.

The original manuscript for The Rocheport Saga is a monster over 2200 pages long. Normally I do not rewrite. I follow the practice of writers such as Lester Dent, Isaac Asimov, Robert E Howard, Robert Heinlein, and Dean Wesley Smith — get the story written and move on to the next one. Unfortunately with The Rocheport Saga my technical knowledge of surviving such a holocaust and what is possible has increased a hundred fold since I first wrote the manuscript. Therefore, rewrite I must.

The Rocheport Saga is a cozy catastrophe and I’ve written previously on the cozy catastrophe. You can find those posts here, here, and here. Over the next few weeks I’m going to present more detailed thoughts on and examples of this sub-subgenre of speculative fiction.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories are very popular and their popularity shows no sign of abating. The current spate of zombie apocalypse tales is proof this subgenre isn’t going away anytime soon. We are fascinated by what it takes to survive. Will we survive?

I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the threat of nuclear war was very, very real. I still have those old civil defense pamphlets they handed out in grade school. To this day, I can’t figure out what hiding under a desk will do. But, hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. Right? For me the possible end of the world as I knew it was something I lived with every day. Sure it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. After all I was a kid. But it was there, subtly, in front of me everyday implied in the newspaper, on TV, in books, and in those civil defense drills. One day, most of us might be wiped off the face of the earth.

The apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic tale is nostalgia for me, at least in part. Probably why I’m not keen on the flood of zombie apocalypse stories hitting the market. That stuff is pure fantasy. If it is fantasy I want, then I prefer the original zombie of Haitian folklore: an undead being created by the evil magic of a bokor. A supernatural being. The mindless slave of the evil wizard or witch. Robert E Howard was a master of this kind of zombie tale. “Black Canaan” being a classic zombie horror story. In fact, I class the zombie apocalypse as a horror tale and not a true apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic story. And, for me, I find the modern zombie story a laughable joke compared to the likes of “Black Canaan”.

The apocalyptic tale and the post-apocalyptic tale are different things, even though they are usually lumped together. The apocalyptic story deals mostly with the cataclysm and the events leading up to it. A classic example is the novel When Worlds Collide and the movie 2012. The emphasis there is on preparation to survive what is coming. The story can be plot or character-driven.

The post-apocalyptic story takes place after the cataclysm. Often the disaster comes upon us suddenly and we have no time to prepare for it. As in the BBC TV series Survivors and the classic sci-fi novel Earth Abides. The focus is not on the disaster, but on the survivors of the disaster. How they cope and what they do to survive in a sometimes radically altered world, such as we find in the Mad Max series, The Road, I Am Legend, and The Book of Eli. In other post-apocalyptic settings the world the survivors face is not radically different. We see this in Earth Abides, Survivors, and After Worlds Collide (where the survivors are on a very earth-like planet). Here, the story is usually character-driven and perhaps that is why I prefer it over the apocalyptic tale.

There are many apocalyptic scenarios, each one affecting the possible direction humanity and civilization might take. My favorite is the cozy catastrophe because the catastrophe is often environmental or the result of scientific interference with nature. The term was coined by Brian Aldiss to pejoratively describe a style of post-apocalyptic literature popular in post-World War Two Britain, made famous by John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. On the American side of the pond, the most famous example is probably Earth Abides by George R Stewart.

In the cozy catastrophe, the disaster is not dwelt on. It happens rather rapidly and wipes out most of the human race; leaving the world essentially as is, minus the human population. The focus is not on survival so much as it is on re-building civilization and doing a better job of it this time around.

Of course what I just wrote is a broad overview and exceptions abound. But in general, I find the cozy catastrophe on the whole positive — emphasizing the hope we hold on to that we can make the world a better place in which to live.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I’ll delve into more detail as to what is and what isn’t a cozy catastrophe.

As always, your comments are welcome!

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