The First Modern Post-Apocalypse Novel: After London

Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885)

bankofenglandruinsGothic and Romantic writers — like Cousin de Grainville, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, and most significantly, Mary Shelley — wrote the first important End of the World fiction early in the 19th century. But as Romanticism waned, the nascent genre languished for half a century, until it came roaring back with a new wave of future fiction that occurred during the last few decades of the century. Alongside various utopias (Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887), dystopias (Caesar’s Column), and future war stories (Battle of Dorking), post-apocalyptic fiction became popular among writers in Britain, France, and America. The familiar genre images of the primitive society, the wasted city, the ruined Statue of Liberty, the cataclysmic new ice age, and the barren, Dying Earth, was all there in the best-selling, futuristic fiction at the end of the 19th century. The genre has been popular ever since.

The first post-apocalyptic novel of this new wave of future fiction was Richard Jefferies’ 1885 After London. As we all know, End of the World fiction is most often about the end of the world as we know it and its aftermath — not about the utter extinction of humans or the complete destruction of life on earth. Earlier Romantic writers were an exception; they really did deal with the utter end of the world. But After London is about the survivors and the transformed world they’ve inherited.

The book is divided into two main parts: a plotless description of the re-wilding of England, followed by a coming-of-age adventure of a dissatisfied youth who sets out to explore the larger world. Jefferies was a nature writer and it shows, particularly in the first section, “The Relapse into Barbarism:”

It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.

The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown, but which neither had nor would receive any further care. Such arable fields as had not been sown, but where the last stubble had been ploughed up, were overrun with couch-grass, and where the short stubble had not been ploughed, the weeds hid it. So that there was no place which was not more or less green; the footpaths were the greenest of all, for such is the nature of grass where it has once been trodden on, and by-and-by, as the summer came on, the former roads were thinly covered with the grass that had spread out from the margin.

afterlondoncoverThis goes on for the first five chapters as Jefferies describes the regrown forests, feral animals, and primitive, fragmented human societies that occupy the world. What happened? Jefferies doesn’t really say. “It may be that even when they were proceeding,” the anonymous narrator writes, “the causes of the change were not understood.” There were geological upheavals and failed crops, which may have been caused by “the passage of an enormous dark body through space.” It possibly jostled the earth, altering “magnetic currents, which, in an imperceptible manner, influence the minds of men.” The end result was that civilizations around the world failed, and much of Britain, including London, now lies beneath a giant lake. Human society lives in nomadic or feudal units.

The first part of the book is plotless. The second part, “Wild England,” has a minimal one, but it’s a plot that is still familiar today: a dissatisfied youth, curious about the knowledge of the lost civilization, questions the primitive conventions of his post-apocalyptic society and sets out on a journey seeking truth and his place in the world. Ever since Jefferies, the post-apocalyptic bildungsroman has been a staple of the genre. (Especially in the 1950’s – check out John Wyndham, Leigh Brackett, Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke, many others.) The protagonist, Felix Aquila, is the dissatisfied eldest son of a minor baron who’s let his fortune and social influence wane. Felix has two virtues: he thinks outside the narrow box of his society, and he’s a killer shot with his bow. He’s also arrogant, aloof, and socially awkward. He illegally collects old artifacts, keeping his finds hidden from the prince. He has a love interest, Aurora, the daughter of a nearby baron. She loves him back but her father thinks she can do better. Feeling rejected, Felix builds himself a canoe and sets out for a better life across the great lake. After a series of mild adventures, takes up residence some shepherd tribes who are awed by Felix’s technological knowledge and skill with the bow. The book ends very abruptly as Felix sets out to find Aurora and bring her back to his new home.

After London is a very ambiguous book. There is a tension at the heart of it that is never resolved. Jefferies writes fondly of the rural country, inspired by his childhood experiences in the English countryside. And yet for the most part the people who live there are narrow and superstitious, unquestioning members of a dysfunctional society. The city isn’t much better: in one of the most vivid scenes of the book, Felix explores the toxic swamp that London has now become, a scar on the landscape still hasn’t healed generations after the catastrophe. The civilization before the fall was a mess; so is civilization afterward. The exception may be the pastoral shepherd tribes that Felix takes up with. They are stricken with hero-worship when they discover Felix’s superior knowledge. Here Felix may have a chance to build a better society from uncorrupted materials. But he picks up and leaves, and the book ends before we know whether he comes back.

Unlike later novels in the genre, the tension between city and rural life is not focused on technology. For example, industrialization isn’t explicitly blamed for London’s corruption. Technology, as a means to abuse nature, didn’t cause society’s downfall. Technology rather is a matter of intelligence versus stupidity: Felix, implausibly, gains some traction in his world by going around and pointing out obvious ideas that the closed-minded people in this society never thought of. It’s a very naive take on technological progress; for the last 100,000 years, humans have always pushed the bleeding edge of technology. The Felixes of the world always have fierce competitors.

As a novel, After London is rather mediocre. What gives this book staying power is the fact that it inspired better books by later authors, and that it is the first to set out the post-apocalyptic coming-of-age formula that still defines much of the genre more than a century later.

Read more entries in my post-apocalyptic science fiction series, and my other science fiction reviews.

Image credits: Ruins of the Bank of England from “Architectural Ruins: A Vision” by Joseph Michael Gandy (1798); cover of original 1885 edition of After London via Project Gutenberg.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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