British Library, p/b £8.99 (UK) 330 pages

ISBN: 978-0-7123-5273-4

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

In a world where a pandemic is shaping everyday lives, perhaps the SF/Fantasy community is best placed to cope with both the new strictures on our lives and the incompetence of those supposedly controlling it. Disasters on a global scale have long been staple fodder for writers. Stephen King’s The Stand and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend take the idea of a pandemic wiping out most of humanity. In other books, such as Jim Crace’s Pesthouse, disease as the cause of the disaster is only implied. Disease though only is not the only catastrophe that authors have explored. Trevor Hoyle’s The Last Gasp has a scientifically reasonable scenario for oxygen depletion heralding the end of humanity. These are all novels but many short stories speculate on the issue.

In this volume, Mike Ashley has gathered thirteen stories initially published between 1889 and 1956 where events have the potential to destroy life globally. He begins the volume with an excellent summary of the disaster story. The book is worth it for this alone.

The first story, ‘The End Of The World’ by Helen Sutherland (1930) is told as a prophetic dream. A global pandemic kills thousands but predominately men. Thus women get the chance to run everything as males become a rare commodity. The dreamer recognises that the human race will be doomed once the last man dies. The disease was probably man-made but the story is also a warning – to men not to go to war and to women to appreciate that men can be useful.

Many of the authors in this volume are British and London comes in for a lot of attention. In ‘London’s Danger’ by C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne (1896) the city suffers extremes of weather before being razed by fire, while Herbert C. Ridout in ‘The Freezing Of London’ (1909), has an inventor eradicate the population with a  freezing fog. The City doesn’t fare much better in Bowen Oliver’s ‘Days Of Darkness’ (1927) when the whole world descends into darkness. In this case the story concentrates on how the characters cope with the situation rather than the wider effects of the calamity.

The times of the maverick scientist developing a deadly weapon in his attic are (hopefully) long past but it was a prevalent fear in early stories. In Warwick Deeping’s ‘The Madness Of Professor Pye’ (1934) the eccentric misanthrope develops a device capable of killing instantly at a distance. While he intends to wipe out most of humanity, the potential disaster in Robert Barr’s ‘Within An Ace Of The End Of The World’ (1900) is a side effect of a new process for food production that uses atmospheric nitrogen to manufacture it. While the science behind the story is essentially unsound it does consider two issues – the need to feed an increasing population and the need to consider all consequences of a scientific development.

Some catastrophes are extra-terrestrial in origin. In ‘The Great Crellin Comet’ by George Griffith (1897) it is comet is the harbinger of doom while in ‘The End Of The World’ by Simon Newcomb (1903), the cause is a dark body crashing into the sun resulting in a nova. Contrary to current belief, Frank Lillie Pollock postulates a massive star at the centre of the universe and in ‘Finis’ (1906), the light from it finally arrives at Earth with destructive results. John Brunner’s ‘Two By Two’ (1956) it is our sun that explodes.

These stories deal with the catastrophe itself, others look at the aftermath. ‘The Last American’ by John Ames Mitchell (1889) is set more eight centuries in the future after climate change has wiped out American civilisation. The continent, here, is being explored by a group of Persian archaeologists. The story should be read as a satire though it has prophetic elements. In ‘Created He Them’ by Alice Eleanor Jones (1955), a nuclear holocaust has rendered children a rarity and the childless are willing to pay in food for the opportunity just to touch one. There are not even people left in ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ by Ray Bradbury (1950), just the automatic house that continues to go through its routines long after the holocaust.

While these stories cover only a fraction of the literature produced in the last hundred and fifty years, they do reflect the concerns at the times they were written. Our understanding of science has advanced since the publication of some of them but it doesn’t invalidate the concerns of writers or readers, some of which are still very relevant. There is the possibility that humanity will be wiped out, either by a natural or a man-made disaster but in many of the stories there is hope. The result here is a fascinating collection.