I've been trying to thin out my bookcases, which are getting into double rows. Since SWEENEY'S ISLAND was so disappointing, I decided to begin the two other John Christopher disaster novels that had been sitting around, vowing to ditch them if the first chapter didn't really grab me. Instead, I ended up skimming both of them. Really skimming. So these are not real reviews, as I didn't really read either book. But as feminism and feminist readings seem to be the topic du jour, I decided to write a bit on them.

These are both boring, poorly written books. If you want an _enjoyable_ British catastrophe novel in which manly men are congratulated by the author for making hard choices at other people's expense, while women mostly cower in the corners in horrified realization that without civilization, they are utterly helpless in a way that men are not, read John Wyndham's DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. And know that my characterization of it is slightly unfair. Because compared to John Christopher, Wyndham's moral dilemmas and portrayal of women are sensitive, nuanced, and progressive.

You recall that in Christopher's SWEENEY'S ISLAND, sophisticates are stranded on an island. A strong man with a gun takes over and makes them into a fascist society. Two "native" servants are bullied, beaten, and enslaved, then drop out of the story with no explanation. The bad woman who likes sex attaches herself to the strong man. The good women who want babies, along with the good but weak men, are utterly helpless and would have been killed if not for the return of outside authority. But before that happens, the rest of them revert to savage murderous cannibalistic pagan orgies.

In THE LONG WINTER (1962), an unconvincingly explained Ice Age suddenly descends. Civilization collapses. Everyone becomes savages. English people move to Africa, where they meet many Negresses and mammies. (His words not mine.) Bad women who like sex acquire "coal-black boyfriends" in sugar daddy relationships. Forget the racism and sexism. The craft of novel-writing is what really takes a beating here. The book is virtually unreadable.

In NO BLADE OF GRASS (1956), a disease kills all the grass and grain, first in Asia and then in the rest of world, including, most importantly, England. Civilization collapses. Everyone becomes savages. A strong man with a gun falls in with a group of good English people. He leads them in murdering random civilians to get their guns, so they can murder more random civilians, I mean, protect their own children.

In a particularly repulsive scene, they break into a farm house, murder a mother and father, and then give the teenage daughter to the strong man as a sex slave. She cozies up to him, because he is strong and she is female and helpless. This bit is presented as a moral dilemma involving the hard choices men must make in savage times, but it's justified in terms that would do George Bush proud:

"(Olivia) said gently, 'We aren't bad people. We're just trying to save ourselves and our children, and so the men kill now, if they have to. There will be others coming who will be worse-- who will kill just for the sake of killing, and torture too, perhaps.'"

You should be grateful that our torture chambers aren't as bad as Saddam's torture chambers.

"'She's got enough sense to know a woman's helpless on her own now.'

"'Funny creatures, women,' Roger said. 'Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they do the sensible thing without hesitation. The hundredth time they do the other without hesitation.'"

(Because though the narrative shows that men are also helpless without guns, women are incapable of obtaining or firing one. Or something. Incidentally, they're discussing whether or not the teenage sex slave to her parents' murderers would be dumb enough to try to kill him while he sleeps.)

The conclusion, while disposing of the strong man in a noble death, affirms the overall message that in tough times men have to make tough decisions, which often involve rape and murder.

It seems that the appeal of some disaster novels (like, if I recall correctly, Niven and Pournelle's LUCIFER'S HAMMER, which (also IIRC) involved rampaging black cannibals) is to reassure men that if only those nasty confining laws were to be suspended, women would instantly be shown up for the helpless sexual possessions that they are, non-white people would be shown up as the rampaging savages that they are, and white men would not only be given permission to rape and murder, but would be patted on the back for being tough-minded and realistic and making hard choices wisely.

Which goes to show the value of the feminist reading of a text. If you assume (see the comments in Melymbrosia's discussion of the manga MARS) that only feminist theorists notice or draw consclusions from how the gender and race of characters corresponds with their attributes, then these novels are just boring, worthless junk. While if you do notice such things, you will conclude that the world is going to hell in a handbasket just like Christopher predicted... I mean, you will gain some insight into a certain mindset currently being perpetuated at the highest levels of US government.

Which is good to have. All the same, my bookcases are now three books lighter.
I've been trying to thin out my bookcases, which are getting into double rows. Since SWEENEY'S ISLAND was so disappointing, I decided to begin the two other John Christopher disaster novels that had been sitting around, vowing to ditch them if the first chapter didn't really grab me. Instead, I ended up skimming both of them. Really skimming. So these are not real reviews, as I didn't really read either book. But as feminism and feminist readings seem to be the topic du jour, I decided to write a bit on them.

These are both boring, poorly written books. If you want an _enjoyable_ British catastrophe novel in which manly men are congratulated by the author for making hard choices at other people's expense, while women mostly cower in the corners in horrified realization that without civilization, they are utterly helpless in a way that men are not, read John Wyndham's DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. And know that my characterization of it is slightly unfair. Because compared to John Christopher, Wyndham's moral dilemmas and portrayal of women are sensitive, nuanced, and progressive.

You recall that in Christopher's SWEENEY'S ISLAND, sophisticates are stranded on an island. A strong man with a gun takes over and makes them into a fascist society. Two native servants are bullied, beaten, and enslaved, then drop out of the story with no explanation. The bad woman who likes sex attaches herself to the strong man. The good women who want babies, along with the good but weak men, are utterly helpless and would have been killed if not for the return of outside authority. But before that happens, the rest of them revert to savage murderous cannibalistic pagan orgies.

In THE LONG WINTER (1962), an unconvincingly explained Ice Age suddenly descends. Civilization collapses. Everyone becomes savages. English people move to Africa, where they meet many Negresses and mammies. Bad women who like sex acquire "coal-black boyfriends" in sugar daddy relationships. Forget the racism and sexism. The craft of novel-writing is what really takes a beating here. The book is virtually unreadable.

In NO BLADE OF GRASS (1956), a disease kills all the grass and grain, first in Asia and then in the rest of world, including, most importantly, England. Civilization collapses. Everyone becomes savages. A strong man with a gun falls in with a group of good English people. He leads them in murdering random civilians to get their guns, so they can murder more random civilians, I mean, protect their own children.

In a particularly repulsive scene, they break into a farm house, murder a mother and father, and then give the teenage daughter to the strong man as a sex slave. She cozies up to him, because he is strong and she is female and helpless. This bit is presented as a moral dilemma involving the hard choices men must make in savage times, but it's justified in terms that would do George Bush proud:

"(Olivia) said gently, 'We aren't bad people. We're just trying to save ourselves and our children, and so the men kill now, if they have to. There will be others coming who will be worse-- who will kill just for the sake of killing, and torture too, perhaps.'"

You should be grateful that our torture chambers aren't as bad as Saddam's torture chambers.

"'She's got enough sense to know a woman's helpless on her own now.'

"'Funny creatures, women,' Roger said. 'Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they do the sensible thing without hesitation. The hundredth time they do the other without hesitation.'"

(Because though the narrative shows that men are also helpless without guns, women are incapable of obtaining or firing one. Or something. Incidentally, they're discussing whether or not the teenage sex slave to her parents' murderers would be dumb enough to try to kill him while he sleeps.)

The conclusion, while disposing of the strong man in a noble death, affirms the overall message that in tough times men have to make tough decisions, which often involve rape and murder.

It seems that the appeal of some disaster novels (like, if I recall correctly, Niven and Pournelle's LUCIFER'S HAMMER, which (also IIRC) involved rampaging black cannibals) is to reassure men that if only those nasty confining laws were to be suspended, women would instantly be shown up for the helpless sexual possessions that they are, non-white people would be shown up as the rampaging savages that they are, and white men would not only be given permission to rape and murder, but would be patted on the back for being tough-minded and realistic and making hard choices wisely.

Which goes to show the value of the feminist reading of a text. If you assume (see the comments in Melymbrosia's discussion of the manga MARS) that only feminist theorists notice or draw consclusions from how the gender and race of characters corresponds with their attributes, then these novels are just boring, worthless junk. While if you do notice such things, you will conclude that the world is going to hell in a handbasket just like Christopher predicted... I mean, you will gain some insight into a certain mindset currently being perpetuated at the highest levels of US government.

Which is good to have. All the same, my bookcases are now three books lighter.
I had originally planned to write about these novels in the same entry merely because I read them in quick succession, and also because they're both utterly obscure novels by writers who are better-known for other books, so most likely no one but me has read them. But as I began to write, I realized that they do have some interesting parallels and anti-parallels.

John Christopher is best known for the TRIPODS trilogy, an effectively terse YA series in which three-legged aliens have taken over the world and mind-controlled most of the inhabitants, and only a handful of guerillas (including our boy protagonist) can fight back. I liked those as a kid, but was frustrated by the lack of female characters who did anything but look pretty.

(In a lapse from his generally thoughtful portrayal of the aliens, he has them take strong boys as slaves and beautiful girls as museum exhibits. Why would giant green tentacled three-legged aliens think _any_ kind of girl is pretty, let alone have the same standards of human beauty that humans do?)

His other post-disaster YA trilogy, THE SWORD OF THE SPIRITS, is memorably grim, and also has no women who do anything but look pretty.

SWEENEY'S ISLAND could also be considered a post-disaster novel, but it's really in the "people stranded on an island" genre. There are two ways that story goes: either it's JONATHAN CRUSOE and they build things, or it's LORD OF THE FLIES and they kill things. If the latter, they generally begin by setting up a fascistic social order headed by a strong man who crushes intelligent but physically weak members of the society, and end by worshipping some creepy god they make up right before launching into a sexualized, ritualistic, cannibalistic killing orgy. I'm not sure why making up a god is so commonly seen as the last step before people make a complete reversion to savagery, but so it goes.

SWEENEY'S ISLAND is a pretty standard example of the "kill things" genre, livened up with some sf elements (mutant animals on the island). The women are a selection of embarrassing stereotypes: one good but weak woman who needs a male protector, one woman who almost becomes evil because she so desperately wants a baby and her caddish husband won't let her fulfill her natural instincts, one evil woman who enjoys sex and immediately attaches herself to the strong man. (Before the obligatory cannibalistic ritualistic killing orgy.) Ick.

The key difference the outcomes of these books is why the authors wanted to write an island book in the first place. Either they want to write about exploration and survival, in which case they pick an isolated area as a kind of sandbox for their heroes to play around in; or else they want to prove that the rule of law is all that keeps us from savagery, and so they pick a place where there is no law.

THE PEOPLE OF THE AX, by Jay Williams, is also about people struggling to survive in a harsh world, and cooperation vs. might makes right. But this one is good.

Jay Williams is best known for the charming Danny Dunn books, and the even more charming fantasy THE HERO FROM OTHERWHERE, which really ought to be reprinted.

I think THE PEOPLE OF THE AX was published as adult sf, but it reads YA-ish to me. Arne (a boy) and Frey (a girl) are tribal teenagers who have just been initiated as Human Beings, in a ceremony where they gain a limited power of empathy. Because of this, their people may count coup on other tribes and squabble within their own, but they don't kill each other. But another race of people, the crom, may be killed at will, for they have no empathy and thus, to Arne's people, no souls.

But when Arne discovers a crom with an iron club-- a weapon no crom should have the knowledge to make-- he and Frey are sent on a quest to find out what happened. And then a lot of cool, cleverly thought-out, and surprising stuff happens. This is quite a good book, and one which is actually thought-provoking rather than merely preachy. But good luck finding a copy-- I've only ever seen one.
I had originally planned to write about these novels in the same entry merely because I read them in quick succession, and also because they're both utterly obscure novels by writers who are better-known for other books, so most likely no one but me has read them. But as I began to write, I realized that they do have some interesting parallels and anti-parallels.

John Christopher is best known for the TRIPODS trilogy, an effectively terse YA series in which three-legged aliens have taken over the world and mind-controlled most of the inhabitants, and only a handful of guerillas (including our boy protagonist) can fight back. I liked those as a kid, but was frustrated by the lack of female characters who did anything but look pretty.

(In a lapse from his generally thoughtful portrayal of the aliens, he has them take strong boys as slaves and beautiful girls as museum exhibits. Why would giant green tentacled three-legged aliens think _any_ kind of girl is pretty, let alone have the same standards of human beauty that humans do?)

His other post-disaster YA trilogy, THE SWORD OF THE SPIRITS, is memorably grim, and also has no women who do anything but look pretty.

SWEENEY'S ISLAND could also be considered a post-disaster novel, but it's really in the "people stranded on an island" genre. There are two ways that story goes: either it's JONATHAN CRUSOE and they build things, or it's LORD OF THE FLIES and they kill things. If the latter, they generally begin by setting up a fascistic social order headed by a strong man who crushes intelligent but physically weak members of the society, and end by worshipping some creepy pagan god they make up right before launching into a sexualized, ritualistic, cannibalistic killing orgy. I'm not sure why making up a god is so commonly seen as the last step before people make a complete reversion to savagery, but so it goes.

SWEENEY'S ISLAND is a pretty standard example of the "kill things" genre, livened up with some sf elements (mutant animals on the island). The women are a selection of embarrassing stereotypes: one good but weak woman who needs a male protector, one woman who almost becomes evil because she so desperately wants a baby and her caddish husband won't let her fulfill her natural instincts, one evil woman who enjoys sex and immediately attaches herself to the strong man. (Before the obligatory cannibalistic ritualistic killing orgy.) Ick.

The key difference the outcomes of these books is why the authors wanted to write an island book in the first place. Either they want to write about exploration and survival, in which case they pick an isolated area as a kind of sandbox for their heroes to play around in; or else they want to prove that the rule of law is all that keeps us from savagery, and so they pick a place where there is no law.

THE PEOPLE OF THE AX, by Jay Williams, is also about people struggling to survive in a harsh world, and cooperation vs. might makes right. But this one is good.

Jay Williams is best known for the charming Danny Dunn books, and the even more charming fantasy THE HERO FROM OTHERWHERE, which really ought to be reprinted.

I think THE PEOPLE OF THE AX was published as adult sf, but it reads YA-ish to me. Arne (a boy) and Frey (a girl) are tribal teenagers who have just been initiated as Human Beings, in a ceremony where they gain a limited power of empathy. Because of this, their people may count coup on other tribes and squabble within their own, but they don't kill each other. But another race of people, the crom, may be killed at will, for they have no empathy and thus, to Arne's people, no souls.

But when Arne discovers a crom with an iron club-- a weapon no crom should have the knowledge to make-- he and Frey are sent on a quest to find out what happened. And then a lot of cool, cleverly thought-out, and surprising stuff happens. This is quite a good book, and one which is actually thought-provoking rather than merely preachy. But good luck finding a copy-- I've only ever seen one.
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