The World in Winter by John Christopher (1962) 224 p.

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John Christopher, as always, is great for an engaging sci-fi potboiler you burn through in a couple of days. This one’s an apocalyptic story about a calamitous weather event causing a new ice age which renders the northern latitudes inhospitable, similar to the film The Day After Tomorrow, and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s also Christopher’s most nakedly political book, but discussing that will involve spoiling the entire plot, so duck out now if you want to read it.

Scene: London in the early 1960s. Men are men and women are women, and the first act of The World in Winter, while briefly mentioning the news stories about the sun’s radiation dipping, is mostly about the emotionally cold protagonist Andrew, his new friend David, and the love quadrangle that emerges between themselves and their trophy wives Carol and Madeleine: scotch and soda, sitting rooms, suspenders, it’s all very quaint in a Mad Men sort of way, with an emotionally stiff British slant. As the scale of the crisis becomes clear and the British government introduces rationing, David (a senior civil servant) urges the others to emigrate to tropical climes, where he will eventually follow. When the situation worsens, with a military cordon around a snowbound central London and the temperatures steadily dropping, they follow this advice, and the second act follows Andrew, Carol and Madeleine as refugees in Nigeria – the British pound worthless, European migrants lucky if they can get basic labouring jobs, Andrew and Madeleine reduced to living in a slum. The third act follows Andrew after the new normal has set in and he joins a Nigerian hovercraft expedition which is probing back into England for a possible re-colonisation effort, attempting to beat the other African states in a sort of Scramble for Europe. (Yes, hovercrafts. Britain thought they were going to be the Next Big Thing in the 1960s; my only memory of old-school Doctor Who is Tom Baker engaging in a risible hovercraft chase.)

Now, there are plenty of people who consider this a racist book and I can understand why. But I think it’s important to separate product-of-its-time racism (i.e. words like Negress) from a fundamentally racist worldview or assertion. This is, after all, speculative fiction. So what is Christopher speculating, beyond the catastrophic events of a new ice age? It’s obviously a thought experiment in turning the tables, in asking a white reader how they would feel if they were a penniless refugee in a country that resents their presence (even more topical, these days) but also in ultimately asking how a weak and impoverished Britain would feel if the shoe were on the other foot and it was Nigeria colonising London under the guise of aid and charity.

The answer to both of those, of course, is obvious. But it’s the stuff between the cracks that makes it more interesting, and while reading this in the 21st century you’re constantly waiting for the shoe to drop – for Christopher to say something terribly racist or portray Nigerians as hopeless buffoons. He does brush up against this at times, though nothing depicted as negative (Nigeria having a bribery-riddled culture, an undisciplined civil service or a society rife with tribal affiliations) is presented as something inherent to the race. There was something I couldn’t really put my finger on, though. I did think for a moment near the end of the book that he’d finally showed his hand:

Abonitu turned to look at him. “A black man. Some years ago, in your Parliament, one of your leaders said that all Africans are liars.” But for Epimenedes’ paradox, I would say that also. Abonitu, an African, says that all Africans are liars. There is no paradox, really, of course. To be a liar is not to lie with every word one speaks. And we are murderers, too, and cheats and tyrants. Some of the time.”

On the face of it this seems outright racist, and no less so for Christopher putting the words into the mouth of a well-educated Nigerian character. But this segment comes directly after the expedition has just escaped frozen Guernsey, which has been turned into a petty little kingdom ruled over by a violent, ruthless white man. Neither Christopher the author nor Abonitu the character believes that white men are not also capable of being liars, murderers, cheats and tyrants. This may be a sci-fi potboiler but you still need to read between the lines.

It was during those last few chapters, after the encounter on Guernsey when Abonitu takes control of the shambolic expeditionary force, that it clicked for me. I looked back at a book in which the brutish lout who now rules Guernsey turns out to have been the groundskeeper, tormenting his former employer and governor, a decent chap who’s known simply as ‘the Colonel;’ in which a Nigerian princess is extremely kind and helpful to Andrew and Madeleine, while a lowly bank clerk savours their misfortune; in which the two white British members of the hovercraft expedition are portrayed as rough drunkards with working class accents (“hope you can flogging well swim, china”); in which a British Army captain with only a “slight” Yorkshire accent does his unpleasant but professional duty in tear-gassing the East End oiks who attempt to mob his patrol while he protects those lucky souls behind the barrier in central London; in which Andrew fits quite comfortably into Nigerian society after he luckily secures a well-paid job and gets a penthouse with paid staff.

So, like most Englishmen of his generation, Christopher’s chief subconscious prejudice isn’t race: it’s class. Even at the end of the book, when Andrew ultimately chooses to stay in London and help ward off African colonisation attempts – after he has clubbed Abonitu on the back of the head and taken him prisoner – he and Abonitu still speak to each other cordially and cheerfully as though they’re on the playing fields of Eton in the months before World War I. It’s all very fundamentally 20th century British in a Wyndhamesque sort of way.

And like the works of John Wyndham, The World in Winter both an interesting book and a very entertaining one; dated but still immensely readable. I think I polished this book off in two sittings. I really need to track down the rest of his back catalogue.

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