Thursday, June 18, 2015
After London; Or, Wild England by Richard Jefferies
Everything old is new again
Richard Jefferies’s 1885 book, After London, is often described as a post-apocalyptic novel, but readers who approach this work with expectations of visionary science fiction are likely to be disappointed. The story is told by a third person narrator who exists presumably centuries in the future. At some point an ecological change took place, possibly the result of a traveling celestial body that approached too close to the Earth and thus affected the tides. England’s ports silted up, accompanied by a deviation in sea level. Though not a deadly catastrophe, this affected industry and trade, and therefore the British economy, so most of Britain’s inhabitants just packed up and moved away, leaving a small part of the population behind to carry on civilization. The land is still lush and green, but apparently agriculture isn’t enough to maintain a healthy society. Such is the woefully unimpressive and unrealistic apocalypse that opens the story.
Over several generations following this mass exodus, the abandoned land eventually begins to look a lot like England during medieval times. Victorian Brits need have no fear that their social hierarchy has been disrupted by the “end of the world.” The descendants of nobles are still nobles, the only people who can still read and write. The descendants of England’s indigent population, on the other hand, have devolved into Bushmen, who live in the forest and prey on travelers foolish enough to venture into their woods. Jefferies introduces us to Felix Aquila, the son of a Baron, who is destined to inherit his father’s title. Though of noble lineage, Felix’s family has fallen on hard times and suffers the condescension and derision of wealthier nobles. Despite his aristocratic pedigree, Felix chafes under the strictures of feudalism, and longs to set out on his own and determine his own course of life. He builds a dugout canoe and plans a solo voyage into the unknown, in hopes of finding adventure and fortune. So despite its post-apocalyptic premise, After London is essentially just another medieval coming-of-age story, like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel, though not nearly as good as either.
If you want to tell a story about life in a medieval society, why not just set your story in the Middle Ages? The whole futuristic angle is unnecessary. About 80% of the way through the book, there are two chapters that deal with some original, post-apocalyptic matters, but by that point I was bored beyond caring. The book proceeds at a painfully plodding pace. Jefferies was primarily known for his nature writing, and he spends an inordinate amount of time describing every creek and sylvan path. When Felix goes to see his girlfriend, for example, there’s two chapters devoted solely to his walk in the woods to get there. Though skilled at descriptive writing, Jefferies has no conception of how to create plot momentum or suspense. As Felix wanders aimlessly, the story feels random and unstructured. Felix is too whiny and sullen to be a satisfying hero, so every time Jefferies rains good fortune upon him the reader feels he’s undeserving. This culminates in a ridiculously optimistic ending that defies belief.
I enjoy reading early science fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I don’t expect such literature to compare with the fantastic visions of later authors. In fact, I enjoy that older books are grounded in the fundamentals of traditional storytelling. After London, however, is just too traditional, too familiar, and too dull. What little new ground it breaks is not worth the reader’s time and effort.
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