Triffids, Daleks and the Fragility of Civilisation

Fort Apache is set in the aftermath of the US Civil War. The American west should be at peace, but it is treacherously unstable because the Indian nations are restless. John Ford’s 1948 film follows the friction between two men against this background. There is the skilled and well-liked Indian fighter, Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), who has been passed over for command. His rival, Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), is a prickly West Point poodle assigned an outpost he considers uncouth and beneath him. The film culminates in Fonda ignoring Wayne’s expert counsel and leading a large cavalry unit into what will be a massacre by the Indians—afterwards, the same bloody victors will merge with Crazy Horse’s force and storm into battle at Little Bighorn.

The premise of Fort Apache seems pregnant with significance, because there are such intriguing parallels between Ford’s film and political tensions of its day. War is over, but peace is tenuous; the fort is isolated in an alien landscape, and surrounded by a hostile force; the enemy is foreign, with a different language, culture and religious outlook; a different war for survival is imminent.

The story may be set in 1876, but European audiences were sitting up and paying attention when the film was distributed there in early 1949, ten months into the Berlin airlift. Some viewers felt the characteristics underpinning the story too evident for coincidence. Was the fictional fort, boxed in by hostile forces, a metaphor for Berlin currently sitting behind the Iron Curtain? Was the Indian menace intended to symbolise a Soviet threat? Might there be a double meaning to that term, “the West”? The German cultural historian Andreas Huyssen makes a fascinating point in suggesting European audiences were attuned to perceive themes within popular culture missed by Americans themselves.[1] How significant is it that Fort Apache concludes with a defeat? John Wayne’s character may survive safely at the fort, but this popular film’s ending is hardly a stereotypical triumph. The cavalry is annihilated. Seen in this perspective, the film seems to express a fear that civilisation is facing a crisis.

The creative imagination is slippery. It behaves in odd ways. This is especially so with strong artists; because they will employ metaphor and subtle association. Much as a film like Fort Apache obliquely refracts pressing issues from current affairs, so too can certain novels be anchored in their political moment. Some motifs will be reapplied with the times. H.G. Wells crafted a disturbing fictional story, The War of the Worlds, in 1896 and 1897 in response to fears of Prussian invasion. Decades later Orson Welles recycled the tale as a radio drama, tapping public anxieties over Nazi Germany. The War of the Worlds was updated as a Hollywood movie in 1952, this time encapsulating Cold War paranoia; and there was a feature film directed by Steven Spielberg in 2005 when the United States was in the grip of its “war on terror” (one scene evokes the 9/11 attack by having a jet airliner crash into the home where characters are sheltering). Symbolism is not far away.

This compulsion to respond to political tensions is particularly evident in a surge in catastrophe fiction over the 1950s. The setting in these British and American stories is not the historic Wild West. It is an aspect of the everyday world, usually in the near future. And civilisation is poised to fall.

Exuding a charming folksiness, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) is a meandering saga of interplanetary settlement. The novel, which begins in the year 1999, is customarily seen as connecting aspirations for space travel with pioneering myths of the Old West. Put against the author’s contemporaneous fiction, however, the book seems more a lament on the waning of small-town America with post-war progress; and, if the political questions that troubled Bradbury are brought in, his novel appears emphatically of its moment.

The Martian Chronicles was shaped as tempers flared across Western Europe. A receptive public was growing for noisy critics of the Marshall Plan and economic relations with the United States. European communities were alarmed by the spread of American mass culture, the French media having coined the pejorative term “coca-colonisation” to describe how American business seemingly imposed US values upon other nations.

These tensions weave through Bradbury’s Martian stories. Far from struggling with physical danger, the difficulties faced by his colonists are psychological. They are unable to rise above ingrained patterns of thought and behaviour: Mars is reshaped to resemble a nostalgic ideal. Shingled ranches are built on alien plains. Redwood, aspen and maple are planted along canals. A simulated Mid-West town, replete with honky-tonk saloons, is erected as planetary capital. Whether they are farming people, engineers or technologists, the colonists toil to implant a Norman Rockwell-like rusticity upon this alien world.

Bradbury’s settlers repeat the worst aspects of that post-war collision of expansionist America with foreign societies (the indigenous inhabitants are closer to urbane Viennese than to native Americans). Martian civilisation, so ancient and rich, is smothered as the new arrivals impose their own culture. “Anything that’s strange is no good to the average American,” an anthropologist cries when astronauts litter and vandalise.[2] Nothing native is studied, preserved or adapted. The alien is extinguished and swept away—an attitude conveyed in “the silver locusts”, a native phrase for the Earth spaceships which despoil their planet.

The few Martians who do survive mirror flawed human desires.[3] On the third expedition from Earth, for example, the astronaut lands his rocket in a Martian townscape that fulfils deep cravings. There are tidy red brick homes, leafy apple trees, a neat church with pointy steeple, geraniums in flower, even a brass band playing music. The townspeople are all from the astronaut’s childhood, including youthful versions of his “Mom” and “Dad”. Only after a turkey dinner at the family table, when the astronaut lies upstairs beside his slumbering kid brother in their old brass bed, does his mind challenge these experiences: “Suppose those two people in the next room, asleep, are not my mother and father at all,” he thinks, “but two Martians, incredibly brilliant, with the ability to keep me under this dreaming hypnosis all the time.”[4] Next morning the band leads a funeral service for the deceased Earth crew.

Bradbury’s interplanetary settlers cannot adapt, a point intensified as the threat of global war looms on Earth. Most colonists flee to their home planet. When Earth is annihilated in a nuclear cataclysm, the exiles left on Mars symbolically burn tokens of Earth culture—share certificates, government paperwork—recognising they must adopt a different, more appropriate life.[5] To survive in an alien place, the Americans need to change.


These subtleties seem a world away from Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters, a runaway commercial success which set the template for American catastrophe fiction. It speeds along like an action comic without pictures. Set in 2007, several years after an atomic war, the gung-ho story portrays an Earth invaded by slug-like aliens which attach themselves to human hosts: the population of the United States is being turned into slaves by a hidden enemy. A greater contrast with the homely moralising prose of The Martian Chronicles is hard to envisage than this first-person narrative of a beefy government agent fighting ghastly invaders: “Puppet masters—the free men are coming to kill you!” the final bellicose sentences run, “Death and Destruction!”

Heinlein’s tale of aliens going undetected among everyday Americans purposely tapped the paranoia of the moment.[6] The nation was reeling from spying allegations against the State Department official Alger Hiss, a media furore over the Hollywood Ten, and the sensational trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg over stolen secrets. The author recast Cold War patriotism as science fiction: “I wondered why the titans had not attacked Russia first,” the hero reflects. “On second thought, I wondered if they had. On third thought, I wondered what difference it would make.”[7] Tellingly, the enslaved humans experience an artificial feeling of bliss when their willpower is removed by the communist-like parasites.

The author was soon defensive about his novel’s value. “It has a tired plot and was hastily written,” he admitted at the University of Chicago in 1957. “Its literary merit is negligible … If it has any permanent merit it must lie in its theme, which is a thinly-disguised allegory, a diatribe against totalitarianism.”[8] Heinlein felt so strongly about communist expansion that he later sponsored paid advertisements in science fiction magazines supporting US action in South-East Asia.[9] This outlook seems consistent with Heinlein’s subsequent production of military-style space adventures where wholesome young astronaut-soldiers defend human freedom.


John Wyndham wrote with a distinctly English voice. It is recognisable in his diction, his choice of phrasing, as well as the moral outlook his narrators verbalise, their sense of what constitutes decency. But the novelist’s Englishness is also implicit in his menacing imagery, the way he takes a romantic convention and endows it with a sinister edge. Nature does not reassure. It becomes progressively alarming, monstrous, predatory. This is most pronounced in The Day of the Triffids, where England’s green and pleasant landscape conceals a malign threat.

Wyndham’s 1951 story of a modern cataclysm swivels on the consequences of three accidents involving advanced technology. New satellite weapons orbiting the earth have exploded, blinding the world’s population with their spectacular atomic flashes. Then, within a fortnight, a virulent plague developed for biological warfare gets loose and spreads through Britain. The third element is the protein-rich triffids, walking plants genetically engineered by Russian scientists, and which are widely farmed as a major crop. Following the other catastrophes, the carnivorous triffids break free from their enclosures and prey upon the diminishing human population.

The Day of the Triffids was the first in a quartet of novels Wyndham wrote in quick succession. With The Kraken Wakes (1953) he has the earth’s oceans invaded by aquatic aliens who adapt the planet to their environmental needs, raising sea levels and dropping the planetary temperature as they harvest humans like cattle. The Chrysalids (1955) is set in a Canadian farming community after an atomic war. The settlers there, who live in palpable fear of mutations in their crops, livestock and, especially, children, are unaware that youngsters among them have telepathic abilities. And The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) takes place in an English village where, due to alien intervention, all women of child-bearing age have been implanted with modified embryos. Once the clone-like changelings are born and begin to mature it emerges that, besides being physically superior to normal infants, they share advanced intelligence, a collective consciousness, and an ability to control people mentally. (The Midwich Cuckoos was later filmed as Village of the Damned.)

These books tap a fear of unseen danger, much like Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which probably echoes Britain’s recent history of spy scandals. Even before Fleet Street erupted with news of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess fleeing to Moscow, the scientists Klaus Fuchs and Allan Nunn May had separately been caught passing vital atomic secrets to the Soviets. The invisible danger was a public fear. Hence humans are blind in Wyndham’s first story; aliens are out of sight on the ocean’s bottom in the second; people have unseen telepathic powers in the third and the fourth. The Cold War overtones are heightened in The Kraken Wakes with its suggestion of unseen armies preparing beyond the Iron Curtain, and in The Chrysalids where a conformist community is ruled by a repressive autocrat.

All four Wyndham books are now categorised as science fiction, but this was not the case when The Day of the Triffids appeared in 1951, the genre then being identified with space adventures and high-tech futuristic fantasies. Instead the novel’s roots in the surrealist and neo-romantic imagery of the war years was apparent. Shaping visual metaphors to articulate a wartime anxiety, certain English artists had portrayed wooded countryside as wildly animated: dark trees rose up, leafy shrubs writhed, boughs sprouted thick thorns, creepers grasped at solitary figures. Pastoral innocence was suspended. Affinities between predatory triffids stalking across the land and the uneasy neo-romantic vision of John Minton, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, Michael Ayrton and John Craxton were impossible to miss. Besides, this quartet of Wyndham novels likewise uses landscape to suggest a world out of kilter: gone were those past conventions, the comforting countryside of Tory England.

The Midwich Cuckoos starts by evoking a picture-postcard village, replete with a Domesday Book mention, the stabling one night of Cromwell’s horse, and a visit from Wordsworth to view the ruined abbey: “Midwich has lived and drowsed upon its good soil in Arcadian undistinction for a thousand years,” the book explains. The rustic overtones are put to best effect when Wyndham describes the village rendered unconscious by alien intruders. Having dubbed it a day when “no birds sang” (a phrase redolent of Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”), the author eases into prose laden with pastoral associations:

While the rest of the world began to fill the day with clamour, Midwich slept on. Its men and women, its horses, cows and sheep; its pigs, its poultry, its larks, moles and mice all lay still. There was a pocket of silence in Midwich, broken only by the frouing of the leaves, the chiming of the church clock, and the gurgle of the Opple as it slid over the weir beside the mill …[10]

An unseen force interrupts nature. The author even has the children who will menace this traditional “Winshire” village—and threaten the pattern of agrarian life—born at the harvest.

The Chrysalids similarly begins with allusions to a Golden Age, that mythical time when all was harmonious as man lived in accord with nature. However, the reader quickly learns of recurring mutations caused by insidious radioactive fallout; which the farmers interpret as heavenly retribution for human sin. Still, none of Wyndham’s apocalyptic stories disturbs as much as his tale of killer plants beleaguering idyllic England.

Much is due to a use of tangible detail.[11] The narrator Bill Masen’s walk through paralysed London starts at a version of the Chelsea Royal Hospital, takes him to Hyde Park Corner, then along Piccadilly and around into Regent Street, briefly wending into Soho, then back to Regent Street where he gets a car and drives along Portland Place to Regent’s Park, heading for St John’s Wood. For those familiar with the West End it is easy to visualise the mess described.

Likewise with the survivors’ exodus through Sussex, Wiltshire and Dorset: fixing the counties already sets readers’ imaginations supplying the contours for typical villages. The first impression is of a rural idyll, as in Wyndham’s description of one hamlet:

we had a view of the whole of Steeple Honey as we descended the hill. It clustered at the further end of a stone bridge which arched across a small, sparkling river. It was a quiet little place centred round a sleepy-looking church, and stippled off at its edges with white-washed cottages. It did not look as if anything had occurred in a century or more to disturb the quiet life under its thatched roofs. But like other villages it was now without stir or smoke. And then, when we were half-way down the hill, a movement caught my eye.[12]

The place is infested with triffids ready to ambush the unwary. Another striking passage occurs when, several years after relocating to a Sussex farm, Bill and Josella Masen visit a derelict seaside town:

Viewed impressionistically from a distance the little town was still the same jumble of small red-roofed houses and bungalows populated mostly by a comfortably retired middle class—but it was an impression that could not last more than a few minutes. Though the tiles still showed, the walls were barely visible. The tidy gardens had vanished under an unchecked growth of green, patched in colour here and there by the descendants of carefully-cultivated flowers. Even the roads looked like strips of green carpet from this distance. When we reached them we should find that the effect of soft verdure was illusory; they would be matted with coarse, tough weeds.[13]

That image of weeds taking over is packed with meaning. And there seems a symbolism to the creeping behaviour of plants. In the middle parts of the novel, the triffids consistently lurk in English gardens, those man-made efforts to fashion a natural paradise. The first victim succumbs to a triffid within a shrubbery, which then invades a home through French windows opening on the lush garden. Later, the stress shifts to the Georgic. When the triffids swarm around the few ongoing farms, it emerges they are attracted by the robust sounds of agricultural labour.

They may not be as overtly political as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Eric Ambler’s Judgment on Deltchev (1952), yet the catastrophe novels of John Wyndham are sounding boxes for Cold War unease.[14] If the horrors threatening civilisation appear far-fetched, themes recur that are symptomatic of the mental climate: a concealed menace, foreign invasion, scientific impotence, the atomic peril, mutant life forms, social breakdown, human extinction, and flight through a landscape rendered hazardous. Humanity does survive—Wyndham ends with a positive note—but there is an appalling cost.


Sober discussion of post-war catastrophe fiction has been impeded by the neon aura of popular culture. If the better imaginary novels are savoured by a broad public, talk revels in a shallow mix of prattle, fawning and incessant trivia. No popular work has suffered more from this idolisation than Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), probably the best Cold War invasion allegory to come from the United States in mid-decade.

It is 1976, the American bicentenary, and the nation is not celebrating. Catastrophe has occurred. There was a war a few years earlier, Matheson slowly reveals, although the reader is not told who the enemy was, nor how the globe has been affected geopolitically. All one learns is there was fighting in Central America, and the arid zone from Mexico up through Arizona and Nevada is now unsafe. The grit carried by severe dust storms blowing from those deserts (in reality, the site for nuclear tests) is especially hazardous.

Robert Neville lives alone in an average home in a deserted Los Angeles. Materially he has everything he needs. He has filled a spare room with crates of tinned and processed foods. As well, he has installed a generator and has well-stocked freezers. There are supplies aplenty. Neville has books to read, a record collection he enjoys, a new car. He has sufficient fuel and batteries to keep going for years, and anything he lacks is acquired on foraging expeditions to shopping malls or Santa Monica’s commercial precinct. But Neville, who has converted his suburban home into a bunker-cum-fort, lives under siege after sundown. America has been ravaged by a post-war pandemic which killed nearly everyone, and left the survivors—apart from Neville—repulsively changed.

Seven years earlier Albert Camus had used a virulent epidemic to symbolise the German Occupation with his distinguished novel The Plague (1947). But I Am Legend is a very different type of book, intended for a popular readership: disease is a metaphor for invasion. Matheson signifies people embracing a corrosive political idea by having the fictional infection transform its victims. They become malevolent. So those who do not succumb to the bacillus are murdered by those who do; because the infected take on vampire attributes.

I Am Legend is not a gothic novel. There are no satanic monsters, no occult thrills, no dark uncanny forces. The author avoids the formulas of the horror genre. His vampire survivors do not frighten. They are sickly, anaemic, pathetic, at moments ludicrous, and they behave towards Robert more like ranting demons that taunt and tempt a lonely St Jerome.

While Matheson refrains from horror, he does blend motifs rich with significance. The character Robert Neville calls to mind a 1950s wave of domestic survivalists then preparing for war, men who expected to emerge from home shelters and resettle the land after an atomic war. And Matheson’s pen sporadically alludes to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, having the protagonist muse on his plight in a manner recalling the castaway. This is echoed in the author’s engaging descriptive prose, with his clean journalist-like sentences drawing the reader along at steady pace. Behind these emphases is an American folk archetype: the resourceful self-reliant frontiersman, a variant of historical figures (such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett) central to popular myths of how the heroic “American spirit” was forged. And Neville is playing this role by midway through the novel, struggling to clear the land of diseased vermin.

This heroic persona comes unravelled in the final section, which is set two years later. Following the emergence of a new viral strain, the infected humans have changed. They are re-establishing civic order. They have a city council with elected officials, and they have set up assorted basic services and restored a legal system. After years of anarchy the mutated humans are rebuilding the American nation. And Neville’s violent conduct undermines law and order. So a party is sent to arrest him. Later, in prison, Neville looks through his cell window at the diseased crowd waiting outside the city court:

Then someone saw him. For a moment there was an increased babbling of voices, a few startled cries. Then sudden silence, as though a heavy blanket had fallen over their heads. They all stood looking up at him with their white faces. He started back. And suddenly he thought, I’m the abnormal one now … Abruptly that realisation joined with what he saw on their many faces—awe, fear, shrinking horror—and he knew that they were afraid of him.[15]

Reasoning that humanity has moved on, leaving him the sole survivor of a warring past, Neville takes his own life.


By mid-decade a pattern was evident in British and American catastrophe fiction. English writers followed the lead of John Wyndham in stressing a world physically transformed.[16] This was not surprising given their experience of saturation bombing during the German Blitz, followed by the random terror of V-2 flying bombs. War ruins were a feature of British cities, and English writers knew the immediate human toll of war. No wonder there was a stress in English fiction on changes to the land, rendering it dangerous, as well as the effects on traumatised survivors.

The American imagination had no domestic precedent for disaster. Notwithstanding the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, no city, no town, no street in the continental United States had been bombed to smithereens. So the visceral reality of attack was unknown. This is surely mirrored in the casualness of Robert Heinlein’s narrator, who mentions America has a couple of radioactive craters where entire cities once had been. Bombing is an abstraction. Likewise Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles has the nuclear apocalypse happen off-world; and I Am Legend handles war in a vague manner, with only hints being made about lingering dangers in the Nevada desert. Atomic attack is not an issue in American catastrophe fiction.[17]

However, the prospect of invasion plainly is the urgent fear.[18] Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters is a template for this outlook, indeed his storyline was reworked in assorted novels, and B-grade films like Invaders from Mars, where aliens conquer small-town America by absorbing its citizens one-by-one.[19] The allusions to popular conceptions of communism are direct. Converted earthlings are regimented, have no emotions, and lack personal identities: “No more love, no more beauty, no more pain,” an altered human boasts in the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.[20] This is more than the alarm call against intellectual repression of Fahrenheit 451 (1951), Ray Bradbury’s earnest response to the plight of East Europeans under the new Soviet Cominform (hence the Germanic name of his book’s protagonist, “Montag”). Aliens symbolise a communist menace invading by stealth.[21]

I Am Legend marks a shift in position. Richard Matheson was writing in those uncertain months after Stalin’s death when liberal-minded Americans hoped the Soviet leadership was about to relax. They had reason to dream. Winston Churchill, who was once again Britain’s Prime Minister, urged the US President Dwight Eisenhower to negotiate a diplomatic compromise. This mood is mirrored in the ending of I Am Legend, where the new viral strain alters the vampiric humans and leads them to restore civilised values.

Russia did not change. Having come down hard on the East German uprising, repression continued across the Soviet Union; hence the renewed paranoia in Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955). This capable suspense thriller merged the alien and plant metaphors for communist infiltration by having a Californian town invaded by creatures that have sprouted from extraterrestrial spores. Miles Bennell, the local GP, and his girlfriend Becky helplessly watch members of their community converted into aliens, the pair lingering until they find themselves trapped, afraid and hunted in their home town.

What most frightens Bennell about the changed humans is their inability to write, indeed books and literature gently add to the building tension. The only other townspeople who doggedly resist the extraterrestrials are, significantly, a novelist and his wife. Hunting for a reference in old volumes, this couple initially find the inanimate body of an alien concealed in a closet at their home. It is lying on cardboard boxes of books. Later, when Miles and Becky use the public library, it is not only empty of users, but they realise the librarian (a converted alien) is censoring materials by cutting out passages with a razor. And, in a crucial scene, Miles notices that creative ambition and endeavour are beyond the aliens, with both an academic and a professional giving up personal writing projects after being converted.[22] They are incapable of pursuing their former intellectual passions.

The aliens will be defeated by American resourcefulness in the last chapter: the positive resolution was mandatory. However, English writers were sceptical about America. This was a low-key trend across British popular fiction. In Ian Fleming’s spy novels, for example, James Bond deals with threats in the Bahamas and the Caribbean—that is, America’s doorstep—which Washington has neither noticed nor is capable of handling. In British catastrophe fiction the Americans are unable to save themselves after global cataclysm, let alone anyone else.[23] Shocked survivors in The Day of the Triffids keep predicting that “the Americans” will arrive and fix the mess. They never do. The Americans are powerless to assist the world in The Death of Grass, closing their borders and themselves struggling to survive. A US Naval fleet is effortlessly wiped out by alien invaders in The Kraken Wakes. And The Chrysalids is set in a Canada ravaged by radioactive fallout following a nuclear war that obliterated the United States. No abiding faith is placed in Uncle Sam.


Britain is in crisis again in John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), the most plausible of post-war catastrophe fictions. A virus fatal to grasses and cereal crops has broken out in China. Despite quarantine measures and scientific efforts to control it, the plant disease has mutated and is spreading across the globe. Rice and wheat crops are blighted. Pastures have died, leaving livestock with nowhere to graze. Europe faces the prospect of being unable either to produce or import meat, grain, poultry and dairy products. Worldwide famine appears likely. Already 200 million people have succumbed in the Far East.

The novel swivels on John Custance, a structural engineer, and Roger Buckley, a high-placed civil servant, both contented family men living in middle-class London. With a story carried by dialogue, the deteriorating situation is explained in two early conversations they have over meals: a hearty lunch at the Custances’ Highgate home, and, a year later, an unappetising dinner at a St James club. The confidential whispers Buckley hears in Whitehall are grim. When national food reserves run low, and the army is about to lock down Britain’s cities, the pair take their families on a hazardous journey to a relative’s farm in the Lake District.

English life, so civil and secure, has come to an abrupt end, leaving these level-headed professionals reduced to refugees fleeing through a ravaged landscape. It looks like another of those catastrophe adventures à la Wyndham is in the offing; where, as the British writer Brian Aldiss justifiably moaned, “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”.[24] But John Christopher has little time for such daydreams. Brutal reality confronts his characters midway through their first day on the road, when the group halts at a deserted house:

It was easy enough to see, as [Custance] looked in, where the noise had come from. A woman lay in the middle of the floor. Her clothes were torn and there was blood on her face; one leg was doubled underneath her. About her, the room was in confusion—drawers pulled out, a wall clock splintered. It was the first time he had seen it in England, but in Italy, during the war, he had observed not dissimilar scenes. The trail of the looter; but here, in rural England.[25]

Christopher’s characters are conscious of their ethical choices as they watch familiar constraints cast aside: “Before all this is over,” Ann Custance asks early on, “are we going to hate ourselves? Or are we just going to get used to things, so that we don’t realise what we’re turning into?”[26] Not wanting to be responsible for cold decisions, Roger gives up leadership to John; although both repeatedly defer to the unnerving Pirrie, a ruthless operator they have met in a gun shop. As the journey lengthens, and more people join their party, the moral standards the travellers wrestle with intensify. The author has little faith in the innate goodness of the English, that jolly decency Wyndham’s characters exuded in a crisis.

Catastrophe leads people into barbarism—this theme had loudly reverberated through literature since French Existentialism provoked speculation on links between warfare, social breakdown and moral behaviour. The Day of the Triffids touched on it (“In an environment reverting to savagery,” Bill Masen muses, “it seemed that one must be prepared to behave more or less as a savage”) although it was William Golding who famously probed “savage” and “civil” behaviour through his novels Lord of the Flies, using modern children, then The Inheritors, using Neanderthals. Sure enough, when published, The Death of Grass was perceived by some as assembled from the materials of such books: Lord of the Flies for a doomed circle of mismatched people, The Day of the Triffids for a hostile disintegrating landscape, Camus’s The Plague for disease as an invasion and alienation metaphor. But the author employed more traditional means to portray moral decay.

Overarching John Christopher’s novel is the tale of Cain and Abel. An alert reader may wonder early whether the engineer protagonist will resort to fratricide. Sure enough, finding a barricade closing off the family farm, Custance sneaks through at night and shoots his brother: the Abel figure is murdered by a modern Cain. In this moral schema there are latent touches of a biblical quest for a promised land as the group treks across a world made strange, stopping periodically to deal with dangers. However, Christopher’s narrative takes the path of those bleak modern quest novels, Mark Twain’s disturbing Huckleberry Finn and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by having the travellers watch civilisation unravel and humanity sink into brutality.

The countryside itself has changed as the group nears its goal, exposing the depravity that has been unleashed:

The moors had been more or less deserted, but when they descended to cross the lower land north of Kendal, they witnessed the signs, by now familiar, of the predatory animal that man had become: houses burning, an occasional cry in the distance that might be either distress or savage exultance, the sights and sounds of murder. And another of their senses were touched—here and there their nostrils were pricked by the sour-sweet smell of flesh in corruption.[27]

Instead of things improving when the destination is achieved, Custance looks into the heart of darkness of Western man, wondering if it has any redeeming qualities: “he felt a great weariness of spirit, as though out of the past his old self, his civilised self, challenged him to an accounting”.[28]

The Death of Grass marks the start of a shift in British catastrophe fiction. In this novel the contagion that imperils a green, pleasant land is an evident symbol for colonial decline. Having broken out in the Far East, much of undeveloped Asia rapidly succumbs to the virus, followed progressively in that region by the countries of the newly formed British Commonwealth. The rest of the world follows. Hope is placed in ongoing support from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which have resisted the disease and continue to stock British warehouses with agricultural produce. But eventually their freight ships halt. On his second night of travelling north, Custance muses on the fall of empire:

There will be legends, he thought, of broad avenues celestially lit, of the hurrying millions who lived together without plotting each other’s deaths, of railway trains and aeroplanes and motor-cars, of food in all its diversity. Most of all, perhaps, of policemen—custodians, without anger or malice, of a law that stretched to the ends of the earth.[29]

John Christopher’s view of government is blunt: pessimism. Whitehall is incapable of managing the impending crisis. It takes for granted that the virus will be speedily cured by local “boffins”. Their efforts fail. So then it expects the USA to solve the problem as well as sending endless food. Meanwhile the cabinet bickers and there is an opportunistic struggle for the prime ministership. With saving the nation the last thing on politicians’ minds, the army is mobilised to seal off cities and larger towns, although this triggers civil disorder. Leading the revolt is Leeds. H-bombs are used against the rebel city.

The literary historian Roger Luckhurst connects this distrust of power to the Suez Crisis, which was played out in its entirety as the author wrote his manuscript.[30] The silhouette of Anthony Eden is apparent in a scheming mediocre prime minister; and the lacklustre performance of the Anglo-French powers directly spills into a crucial paragraph where the craven British and French cabinets together flee to America. Power is abused, people are expendable, authority disintegrates.

Britain’s surprise invasion of Egypt late in 1955, which angered the nation, also impacted on the book’s depiction of the military. Having served in the war, Custance and Buckley implicitly trust the army. British servicemen encountered are likeable, although the travellers do think them naive in obeying questionable orders. Then the RAF obliterates Leeds. Soldiers are now transformed into a threat. They raid villages and prey upon refugees: the resting travellers are attacked at night by a well-armed squad roaming Westmorland.

English writers were electrified when The Death of Grass appeared. “With Christopher,” Brian Aldiss recalls, “catastrophe lost its cosiness and took on an edge of terror.”[31] Christopher’s creative accomplishment was highlighted when John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos hit bookshops twelve months later. Wyndham’s schema was too familiar: small town is invaded; friendly authorities are outclassed; emotionless aliens blend in, are identical, have a group mind, and control villagers mentally. The former leader of English catastrophe fiction had adopted an American-style Cold War format.


Children’s television in Britain changed on December 21, 1963. That evening the first instalment was broadcast of a seven-episode adventure in Doctor Who, a new weekly BBC children’s drama: and the story employed many motifs already identified. Using a vehicle that enables them to journey across time and space, the lead characters land on an alien planet that seems dead. The soil is infertile, ashy and has been baked by immense heat. Trees and shrubs are grey and crumble to dust when touched. The sky is clear, lacks moisture, and the planetary atmosphere is contaminated with toxic radioactivity. The travellers reason the planet been rendered sterile by appalling weapons.

Then the group discovers a gleaming futuristic city. Within it dwell the race of Daleks, creatures responsible for the war that has killed their planet. These malign aliens, utterly convinced of their own biological and intellectual superiority, have attempted to annihilate all other sentient life. However, the resulting high level of planetary radioactivity has caused them to mutate physically so that they must live inside armoured machines. Alarmed by the arrival of the travellers, the Daleks plan another radioactive device to render the surface eternally uninhabitable.

The BBC’s inaugural Dalek story was a Cold War cautionary tale for children. Penned shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the world stood at the brink of nuclear conflict, the program used aspects of existing catastrophe fiction to illustrate the peril of “Mutually Assured Destruction”. The confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States had galvanised British public opinion, and the television show’s ambitious young producer, Verity Lambert, tapped community feelings on what was a pressing moral issue.

Terry Nation, the scriptwriter, used his childhood memories of the Second World War as he plotted his storyline, giving the aliens many qualities of totalitarian societies.[32] The creatures are militaristic, technocratic, hostile by disposition, and, convinced they are the supreme species, are relentlessly driven to destroy all others. They are also physically indistinguishable, lack individual identities, and each alien is armed with a lethal weapon it uses without compunction. These extraterrestrials lack love, empathy and positive human emotions: at one point a Dalek tells the travellers that pity is a sentiment its race does not possess.

Recalling Hitler’s speeches heard over radio broadcasts, Nation decided the aliens should have harsh metallic sounding voices. He also insisted that, at moments, they would call in excited unison, “Destroy!” or “Exterminate!”, much like Nazi or Soviet zealots chanting slogans at party rallies. Finally, the writer gave the ruthless creatures an Eastern European-sounding name, “Dalek”.

Due to an overwhelming positive response from audiences, the BBC commissioned Terry Nation to write another Dalek story for Doctor Who’s second season. In this repeat he employed further features of Cold War catastrophe fiction, moving the story’s focus now to domestic invasion by a frightening enemy. Nation had the travellers go into a future where the militaristic Daleks have conquered Earth. London is in ruins, traumatised Britons are enslaved, and the Daleks rule by using a uniformed force of unfeeling “Robomen”. These are captured members of a resistance movement who have been brainwashed—the Daleks employ mind-control to turn rebellious individuals into an army of compliant soldiers. Most humans are corralled into labour camps, with the Daleks summarily killing those too weak or ill to work.

Even as British television embraced catastrophe fiction, popularising the Cold War form across the broadest of audiences, a sea change was under way. In recent years novelists including Brian Aldiss, Kingsley Amis, J.G. Ballard and the American Robert Bloch had voiced mounting annoyance with the literary situation.[33] Besides disputing the consignment of much speculative writing to the “science fiction” label (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was classified as SF), they loathed the formulaic, escapist conservatism of that genre. Especially targeted were the mainstream novels of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and others, which—having thinkers and scientists serve military interests—depicted civilisation’s future as a benign, implicitly American space empire.[34] And certain writers would not stomach that.


J.G. Ballard’s speculative oeuvre commenced with three novels. The Drowned World (1962) takes place in a European metropolis half-submerged under a tropical lagoon; The Burning World (1964) begins and ends in a modern city laid waste by encroaching desert; The Crystal World (1966) focuses on a mining settlement in equatorial jungle which is metamorphosing into iridescent crystals. These catastrophe fictions are not at all, as is now customarily claimed, warnings-cum-predictions of climate change.[35] Ballard’s stated intentions were fixed on what happens to mankind psychologically—to how we think, our process of cognition—when our cultural environment, the lived-in-world of civil society, is taken away.[36]

It is seventy years into the future in The Drowned World, and Europe has been abandoned.[37] Puzzling rises in solar activity have rendered much of the overheated planet unfavourable to mammals. With the oceans rising, the diminishing population of the northern hemisphere has relocated decades ago to Greenland and Siberia. Human extinction is a possibility.

Robert Kerans is on a technical team visiting an unidentified city to conduct a periodic survey. Much of the metropolis has vanished. Residential and industrial suburbs are lost under murky tides of silt, while insects, reptiles and amphibians thrive in the profuse jungle that has taken hold around decaying buildings in the business districts. Sail-back lizards bask in the sun atop mouldering concrete towers, mosquitoes the size of dragonflies flit through the shade of giant ferns, crocodiles swim along deep channels that once were bustling streets. Catastrophe is not imminent: it happened two generations ago. This is a world without flags. Powerful nations are barely a memory.

Kerans ponders whether to return to Greenland or stay in the jungle as the survey nears completion. He stalls a decision by delay, then sabotage. This is needless, because, watching those around him—they regress into tribal violence and ritual—he comes to see a futility in human actions. Kerans himself is listless. He is not melancholy or depressed: instead his problem is existential, for Kerans suffers ennui, as if life has worn out. He also feels his mental architecture shifting, as if he is on “a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance”.[38] Kerans takes a boat and heads south through sun-hammered swamps. As weeks pass he seemingly reverts to a pre-hominid way of construing the jungle.[39] The tale ends with Kerans choosing to embrace, not defy, oncoming annihilation.

There is an absorbing complexity to Kerans. Ballard crafted him using aspects of Albert Camus’s fiction, the controversial psychiatric theories of R.D. Laing, as well as Ballard’s own experiences in Japanese internment during the war years (later depicted in his roman à clef Empire of the Sun).[40] His internment especially affected his outlook, giving insights into how modern people respond to the removal of a supportive environment, of what the human creature is capable of; and it left him with an awareness of the fragility of society, how easily civilisation might fall. This was the viewpoint underpinning The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World. Here was a vision of imagined catastrophe, English critics agreed, that disturbingly symbolised the industrial and imperial decline of the West.[41]


Dr Christopher Heathcote wrote on Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle in the June issue.


[1] Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1986, ch.6.

[2] Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (1950), Granada, London, 1977, p.85.

[3] see Brian Aldiss, with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree, rev. ed., Gollanz, London, 1986, p.248.

[4] Bradbury, Martian Chronicles, op. cit., pp.64-5.

[5] M.Bould et al., The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, Routledge, London, 2009, pp.458-9.

[6] Roger Luckhurst, Science Fiction, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2003, pp.100.

[7] For links made by Heinlein between aliens and Soviets, see Robert Heinlein, The Puppet Masters (1951), Baen Publishing, New York, 2003, ch.26.

[8] quoted in introduction, Heinlein, Puppet Masters, op. cit., pp.3-4.

[9] Patrick Parrinder, Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching, New Accents, Methuen, 1980, p.72.

[10] John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), Penguin Books, London, 2008, pp.24-5.

[11] David Seed, Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011, pp.32-3.

[12] John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (1951), Penguin Books, London, 1984, p.185.

[13] Wyndham, Day of the Triffids, op. cit., pp.241-2.

[14] Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., pp.130-1.

[15] Richard Matheson, I am Legend (1954), Orb Books, New York, 1995, p.169.

[16] Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., pp.130-1.

[17] Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., pp.130-1.

[18] Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., pp.130-1.

[19] Seed, Very Short Introduction, op. cit., pp.34-8.

[20] Quoted in Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965), in Against Interpretation (1966), Penguin Books, London, 2009, p.221. This memorable line in the movie’s script does not occur in Jack Finney’s novel.

[21] Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., pp.130-1.

[22] Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers (1955), Gollancz, London, 2010, pp.189-90.

[23] Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., p.131.

[24] Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree, op. cit., p.294.

[25] John Christopher, The Death of Grass (1956), Penguin Books, London, 2009, pp.80-1.

[26] Christopher, Death of Grass, op. cit., p.54.

[27] Christopher, Death of Grass, op. cit., p.173.

[28] Christopher, Death of Grass, op. cit., p.105.

[29] Christopher, Death of Grass, op. cit., pp.96-7; see also Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., p.131.

[30] Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., p.131.

[31] Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree, op. cit., p.255.

[32] David Whitaker, Doctor Who and the Daleks (1964), BBC books, London, 2011, pp.163-4.

[33] Parrinder, Criticism and Teaching, op. cit., p.71; see also Robert Bloch, “Imagination and modern social criticism,” in Basil Davenport ed., The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (1959), Advent Press, Chicago, 1969; & Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell, Gollancz, London, 1961.

[34] Parrinder, Criticism and Teaching, op. cit., p.41; Bloch, “Imagination and modern social criticism,” loc. cit.

[35] Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., p.149.

[36] Interview in 2006, Ballard, Drowned World, loc. cit.; also Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., p.149.

[37] Some commentators claim The Drowned World is set in 2145, but no year is given in the book. The only information given is that solar activity increased “sixty or seventy” years ago (Ballard, Drowned World, op. cit., p.21). Likewise, if it is commonly assumed the city is London, it is nowhere identified in the book.

[38] Ballard, Drowned World, op. cit., p.14.

[39] “I felt very strongly at the time,” Ballard later explained of writing his book, “all of us carry, coded into our nervous systems, these archaic memories of the world that our ancestors grew up in… The way that climactic change, of a dramatic kind, whether flooding or the creation of a desert, tapped long-buried memories of our earlier ancestry and perhaps a very different kind of psychology.” Interview in 2006, see J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962), Fourth Estate, London, 2008, appendix 4.

[40] Interview in 2006, Ballard, Drowned World, loc. cit.; also Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., p.149.

[41] Parrinder, Criticism and Teaching, op. cit., p.30; Luckhurst, Science Fiction, op. cit., pp.148-9.

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