Sunday, 29 August 2010

Review: Survivors

If anyone were to ask me what was one of my favourite subgenres in science fiction, I'd have to say that it was the "quiet catastrophe". It's an end of the world story of the sort mastered by such British writers as John Wyndham, John Christopher, or the writing team of Kit Pedlar and Gerry Davis that changes one little thing in our world, something that is hardly noticed at first, but which leads to global disaster. Kill off all the grass in the world and it soon changes from brown lawns to universal famine. Create a bacteria that eats plastic and before you know it a few saggy plastic soda bottles lead to the destruction of London. We live in a complex and fragile world, these stories remind us, and our comfortable existence is threatened by the most unlikely of sources that can change our lives forever–if not end them entirely.

In Terry Nation's Survivors (1976), the small change is the removal of people from the world by a deadly virus. Abby Grant, the wife of a successful City banker, enjoys a well-off upper middle class life in the country. Her only concern at the moment is an outbreak of flu that is disrupting the natural order of things and keeps her eleven-year old son Peter at his boarding school, where the authorities are trying to prevent the boys from falling ill. At first, the problems are annoying; phone services disrupted, her housekeeper having to go off to tend to her sister, her husband hours late coming home because the train schedules are all fouled up.

Then the power goes out and Abby catches the flu so badly that she's in a near coma for days. When her fever breaks, she finds her husband lying dead in the living room and the village deserted except for corpses. In less than two weeks, humanity has been almost destroyed. Only about 10,000 people are left in Britain–not nearly enough to keep the complicated mechanisms of civilisation going.

Based on the first episodes of Nation's 1975-1978 BBC science fiction series, Survivors is more than a novelisation; it's an outline of how Nation wanted the series to progress before he left off writing it out of creative differences with the BBC. In both series and novel, Abby Grant meets would-be Communist dictator Arthur Wormsley, from whom she runs like the clappers, and teams up with Jenny, a secretary from London, and engineer Greg Preston, and tramp Tom Price. Abby and her band take over a farm and try to build some sort of normal life with what's left of the old world while Abby keeps up hope of one day finding her son alive.

It's at this point that the novel veers away from the series. On television, Abby's community goes through all manner of adventures and setbacks (not to mention character changes as actors leave the series), but for all the hardships it's acknowledged that there are attractions to their enforced bucolic existence. By the third season, they eventually reestablish trade, railways, telephones, and some sort of government, and by the last episode get part of the national electricity grid going. In the novel it's clear that Nation planned for a much bleaker future for Abby and her band. Far from making a go of the farm, the survivors toil from one shortage to the next; never able to get ahead and always a hostage to the seasons. By the time they do start to get on their feet, dictator-in-training Wormsley's brigands arrive on the first leg of their campaign to raid and subjugate the whole of Britain. With nothing left to lose, the survivors gather their few belongings and make for the coast and a better life on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Not surprisingly, it does not end well.

Confining himself to the span of one novel, Nation is able to tell a more coherent story than the television version and he is able to pursue his darker version, but its very darkness makes it less believable. The entire plot is utterly devoid of humour; even the black variety. The old world and all its goods decay with a speed that one can scarcely credit. Instead of acting like survivors of a plague that left them heirs to the products of an entire civilisation that, with care, could last them generations, they are more like refugees from an all-destroying army. There isn't even any lamentation for what has been lost. No one bemoans the lack of cinemas or easy travel. It's one prolonged march through a wasteland that Poe would have appreciated.

All this could be forgiven if Nation had made more of an effort of his plots and characters. There's little or no dramatic reason for the deprivations they suffer and we aren't made to care much about them. Some characters are drawn so sparingly it's hard to even recall who they're supposed to be. It soon becomes a story about survival for the sake of surviving punctuated by an end that is perfunctory and unsatisfying.

The recent 2008 remake of the series claimed to be based on this novel rather than the original series. Perhaps, but that's hard to believe. If the novel soon strays from the series, then the remake treats the novel as a bran tub for a few scenes and lines of dialogue before discarding everything except the title and a few character names.

In summary, a book not as good as the series, but much better than its successor.


  1. Never heard of it, but anything written by the creator of the Daleks gets a day in court for me.
    Do you think Stephen King ripped this off for The Stand?

  2. According to King, he ripped off The Earth Abides.