by Frances Oliver
Two dystopias written a century and a half apart are set in an inundated England, where nature has produced a great rising of waters. The contrast is fascinating; in one case, the danger is the sea outside, in the other, a giant inland lake in which the great cities of England have been drowned.
Lake-filled England is the dystopia of Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) who wrote essays, autobiography, and fiction. He grew up on a small Wiltshire farm; that background and a great love for nature were seminal to his writing, as was his experience of poverty and ongoing illness. He was tubercular for most of his years. After London or Wild England, his one work of science fiction, was published in 1885, not long before his death.
The first part of Jefferies’ book is devoted to a kind of pocket-encyclopedia delineation of the much diminished country. This pedagogical treatise sits a bit awkwardly with the adventure tale that follows. Yet there is something touching and very plausible in the narrator’s attempt at a natural science account of a world in which scientific knowledge has disappeared.
Jefferies describes the flora and fauna of this new England, the fauna mostly wild descendants of the old; domestic cattle gone wild, cats become bigger and feral, many humans gone wild as well, the ‘bushmen’ or ‘hunter-gatherers’ and bandits, the expanded, now warlike, tribes of Roma. Farmers and small towns are subject to their predations. Settled society, such as it is, exists on the great lake’s periphery, much as it did along rivers in medieval times. It is in fact a medieval scene, rather like in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, but we find no monasteries as keepers of civilization. There are little kingdoms with castles, vying for power and frequently at war. Except for merchants, whose literacy is needed for trade, literacy is confined to the elite. Most of the population live in a state of servitude, always working off debt (the nobles see to this) and servitude seems to be the common penalty for crime. The one religious person in the book is hero Felix’s beloved, Aurora, who clings to some replica of Christian faith.
The rest of Jefferies’ novel is devoted to the story of Felix, the lonely and unappreciated younger son of a local great house. He is scholarly and reflective, neither liking nor excelling in the macho virtues that mark his older brother and are admired by the populace. He loves Aurora, daughter of a rival castle, but how can he win her with no triumph to show and an impoverished noble family behind him?
After much gloomy introspection, Felix makes a brave and eccentric decision. He will build a canoe and explore unknown distances of the great inland lake.
Felix’s journey is described with a map-like precision, so this imagined crater lake becomes very real to the reader following Felix on his quest. And indeed from here the story becomes the classic quest of fairy tales. Felix is captured in a foreign kingdom and made to serve an evil ruler, but soon escapes. Again in his canoe, he is swept over the dreadful poisonous waters that cover London, and nearly dies. He is rescued by a group of sheep herders, good simple people who welcome him. His prowess with the longbow, scorned in his own country, enables the herders to win a battle against the invading Roma, and the herders make him their king. He sails back home in anticipation of bringing back Aurora as his queen and building a new kingdom he will rule with benevolence. So this Victorian dystopia does end on a note of hope.
In John Lanchester’s The Wall, published in 2019, the risen waters are those of the sea, and a high wall protects England from the surrounding ocean and the desperate outsiders seeking entry. These outsiders are ‘the Others’ who live on the water or in now unknown deprived, shrunken lands where what reigns is anarchy, hunger, misery, death.
Inside the Wall this England seems very like the England of today (or should I say the England of 2019 – pre-Covid, pre-cost-of-living crisis, pre-Ukraine?). There appears to be adequate food and a stable and fairly quiet population. People go on picnics, eat in restaurants, play sports etc. as they do now. It is the Wall that keeps them secure and at peace – the Wall and a post climate-change political system that is simple, efficient and brutal.
The Wall is patrolled by teams of conscripts. All fit adults, male or female – no gender distinctions here – must serve two years as Defenders on the Wall. They must push back or kill any Others who make it to the top. For every Other who does get over, a member of the team that failed to stop her or him will be lowered down the wall in a boat, with a few supplies, to survive as long as possible on the sea. The Others who do make it are allowed to stay – but as part of the lowest class, who must work as ‘servants’ to the legitimate residents. Some few especially skilled or enterprising do eventually gain regular citizenship. One such is the captain of Kavanagh, the narrator’s, team.
It is a tribute to Lancaster’s own skill that he dwells on the discomfort, anxiety, cold and sheer boredom of the long shifts on the Wall, transmitting all the sensation – but not the boredom – to the reader. One way to avoid service on the Wall is to become a Breeder. Kavanagh and the girl he meets on the Wall decide to apply. Being a Breeder “is a pretty sweet deal. If you can get used to the thought of bringing another person into the broken world”.
But before Kavanagh and his girl Hilfa can leave the Wall there is another attack by the Others. The Defenders on their section of the Wall are betrayed by the last person anyone imagined could be a traitor. A few Others do get over and although Kavanagh overpowers and downs the traitor he and Hilfa, with two others, are lowered into a boat on the sea. With them also is the Captain, the traitor who has survived Kavanagh’s wounding, and a ‘Politician’ whose empty words they have heard before. With unexpected luck and the Captain’s navigation, they find a group of people who have learned to live off their part of the sea and form a community together. But this little enclave is soon overwhelmed by ruthless pirates; all are killed or enslaved except Kavanagh and Hilfa who manage to escape and are adrift once more. They come close to an abandoned-looking oil derrick whose sole occupant, lonely and liking the amicable look of this young couple, lowers his ladder. He invites them, after their precarious climb, to share his accommodation and still large supply of food tins. Not a happy end, but at least a happy respite, and perhaps the most that anyone off the Wall can hope for.
The parallels with present-day refugees and policies such as the Government’s Rwanda scheme are obvious. When the myriad hordes of climate refugees appear, as they soon must, will patrol boats and sentries with big guns, rather than life-saving equipment, be the next step?