Friday, 17 April 2009

21. John Christopher - 'The New Wine' (1954)

"There will be no wives for you in the world of 2129."

(Edmund Crispin, ed., Best SF: Science Fiction Stories, Faber, 1955)

This story is the last of a week's offerings drawn from my parents' bookcase; written by John Christopher, aka. Samuel Youd, this was selected as his work sounds interesting - disaster fiction, dystopias, ruined earths. He is perhaps most known for his Tripods trilogy, which was dramatised for television by the BBC in 1984-5. It was from a battered old Faber edition of Science Fiction stories that caught my eye on the bookcase - includes others like Wyndham and Bradbury, both of whom I will get around to eventually in this survey.

One is presented with a portentous scenario, which develops along a fairly predictable course - in line with the sort of themes Christopher is reputed to use on his Wikipedia page. In itself, this is not a terrible story, but its disaster is handled with a much more melodramatic flourish than you would find in the work of that measured, intoxicating surrealist JG Ballard. It is more along the lines of Wells, but given a fairly generic treatment. Things start out as recognisably bland, with a couple about to part; a male and a female scientist musing over their respective inventions; Harl with his tube which entails time travel and Ellen with her telepathic concerns - "Your own Project X?" (p.169). The setting is perhaps apposite in its cardboard, standard nature: 'They were walking up through the trees towards a misty sunset' and the parting is handled with a predictably clipped sentimentality. (p.168)

Admittedly, Christopher goes onto convey a fairly intriguing mysterious scenario of a deserted future earth. The equation is squared, as the vanquishing of humanity has been caused by the meddling of Drewitt and Ellen with the very form of humanity "What we are going to do is to change the human race in one sweep." (p.170) This is a standard genre science-fiction trope of scientific boundaries being pushed too far too quickly, and leading to disaster. There is a nice bit of melodrama in how JC resolves the scenario, but it hardly compels like the best classic theatrical melodrama or cinematic horror.

I am making this sound rather threadbare, but there is some low-key purchase to be found in descriptions of a ravaged, deserted Detroit: 'As they went into the city, there were fewer trees, and grass grew only in patches. For quite large stretches the works of man still held an almost undisputed sway. But the houses were shuttered and empty. They advanced to the city centre, and then turned and back-tracked towards the ship.' (p.177)

The whole is competent, efficient, but not particularly inspiring or challenging; I suppose the comparisons with the force of Priest, Poe or Lovecraft's or the inimitable Ballard are bound to count against this modest, if not wholly unengaging effort.


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