Cozy Catastrophes, Or Stay Calm and Carry On, Apocalyptic Science Fiction in Post-War Britain



Science fiction author and historian Brian Aldiss coined the phrase “cozy catastrophe” in his 1973 history of science fiction, Billion Years Spree. Aldiss was specifically dismissing the work of fellow British science fiction writer John Wyndham, particularly his classic, The Day of the Triffids. According to Aldiss, “The essence of cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.” By extension Aldiss is tossing the barb of criticism at all similar novels. Later, John Clute used the term in his The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and explained it with the analogy of the cozy mystery, where people are murdered, but everyone still has tea and a good meal with civilized conversation.

However, most commentaries on cozy catastrophes skip the second part of Aldiss’s observations regarding the sub-genre. He goes on to posit that the books are, in fact “anxiety fantasies,” and their popularity comes from “something to do with the fall of the British Empire…” This leaves a classic cozy catastrophe as a unique work of art of a certain time, place and authorship, specifically middle-class British writers in the post–World War Two era. A true cozy catastrophe typically has the present civilization come to a non-violent end with nearly everyone except the characters dying or being displaced in some way. The protagonist generally survives relatively safe and sound, and while they are freed from the constraints of civilization, the heroes by and large try and rebuild a better society.


John Wyndham and Day of the Triffids

The writer who can rightly claim to have invented the cozy catastrophe sub-genre is John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, who wrote most famously under the pen name John Wyndham. He also wrote using the names John Beynon and John B. Harris. Wyndham was solidly middle class, with his father a lawyer (barrister), and he attended good boarding schools and served as a NCO in the Royal Corps of Signals during World War Two.

Wyndham was a professional writer between the World Wars, but had failed to sell a novel before the Second World War. So after the war he consciously altered his writing to a more popular and accessible prose style and produced his first published novel, The Day of the Triffids, also known as Revolt of the Triffids, in 1951.

The book’s hero is a plant biologist named Bill Masen, who works with triffids, large, venomous and carnivorous plants that can both move and communicate with each other. The triffids also produce a kind of oil that is superior to other plant and fish oils. At the start of the action in the novel, Masen is in the hospital, his eyes bandaged because they were sprayed with triffid venom. While he is recovering, an unusual green meteor shower appears. Anyone who watched the shower, which is nearly everyone, is rendered blind. Masen uncovers his eyes and wanders through a London in chaos, full of the newly blind, with very few sighted people remaining. Masen suffers a number of trials in the story, including being enslaved to help the newly blind. Finally, Masen and his love interest, Josella, and some others both sighted and blinded escape London and establish a colony in rural Sussex. Masen’s group is relatively safe in this new settlement, although they are still menaced by the triffids. Finally, threatened by a despotic new government, Masen and his group are forced to join another larger colony on the Isle of Wight.


The Kraken Wakes

In 1953, Wyndham produced another cozy catastrophe novel, The Kraken Wakes, published in the US as Out of the Deep. In the novel, the protagonist, Mike Watson, and his wife, Phyllis, work as reporters for the English Broadcasting Company (EBC), the book’s stand-in for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Over the course of several years Mike and Phyllis observe and report on several unusual events which are actually the result of an alien invasion of the earth. After sinking numerous ships and using “sea tanks” to attack islands, the aliens melt the icecaps, causing the sea level to rise, flooding low-lying parts of the planet’s surface, including London.

The Watsons cover all this in news reports, until the EBC stops operating and civilization breaks down. Then they flee their cottage on a Cornwall hilltop, which is now an island. Finally, the Japanese develop an ultrasonic weapon which destroys the aliens. At the end,civilization is in ruins, 80% of the human population is dead and the climate is permanently altered. Throughout the novel the Watsons, while at the center of most of the action, are merely observers and recorders, never active participants in the events.


John Christopher and The Death of Grass

John Christopher entered the cozy catastrophe realm in 1956 with The Death of Grass, which was published as No Blade of Grass in the US. Christopher was born Sam Youd near Liverpool. Youd went to a solidly middle-class grammar school, known for sending its graduates on to Oxford or Cambridge. Youd served in the Royal Corps of Signals during World War Two (just like John Wyndham). After the war Youd won a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship, giving some financial independence and the wherewithal to write full time. After publishing some science fiction short stories in the US, Youd adopted his pseudonym “John Christopher” and started writing science fiction novels, later shifting to young adult science fiction.

In The Death of Grass, a new virus attacks and destroys all cereal, or grass crops, giving us the title of the book. This blight threatens worldwide famine. Engineer John Custance is warned by his friend, government worker Roger Buckley, that to reduce the population, the government is planning to use nuclear bombs on major cities. This warning prompts Custance and Buckley to flee London with their families to an isolated and easily defended potato farm owned by Custance’s brother, David. Tubers, such as potatoes, are immune from the grass-killing disease. As Britain descends rapidly into chaos, Custance and his group soon give up on the rules of civilization. While on the road, they kill a family just to steal their food, with Custance justifying the murders with: “It was them or us.” When they arrive at the farm, David resists letting the now large group in, and violence ensues, with David and some members of Custance and Buckley’s group killed as they take over the farm by force.


Nevil Shute and On the Beach

In 1957, readers were given another novel in the sub-genre, On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Nevil Shute Norway attended Oxford and received a degree in engineering. He attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, but fought in World War One as a private soldier. During World War Two he worked on weapons development and as a military correspondent. In the interwar years, Shute worked as an aeronautical engineer and wrote novels under his pen name of Nevil Shute. In 1950 Shute emigrated from Britain to Australia.

In the novel, a nuclear war has wiped out most life in the northern hemisphere. Life in the Southern Hemisphere is slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning. The main action in the book revolves around the American submarine USS Scorpion, placed at the disposal of the Australian government after losing contact with US military authorities. Scorpion travels north, explores the West Coast of the US and determines that eventually the radiation will kill everyone. In Australia, society does not collapse, but the government issues suicide drugs to the population for when they start to suffer from radiation sickness. Meanwhile, people make efforts to go on with their lives. They plant gardens, fish and have dinner parties like usual.


The Midwich Cuckoos

In 1957, John Wyndham published The Midwich Cuckoos, a cozy catastrophe in which the disaster is averted. One day in the British village of Midwich a strange silver object appears and for 2 miles around the object, every living being is rendered unconscious. Twenty-four hours later both the effect and the object disappear. Sometime later, every fertile woman within the affected area finds out they are pregnant, even the virgins.

Nine months later, 31 boys and 30 girls are born on the same day. The children appear perfectly normal except they have golden eyes and pale, nearly silvery skin. The Children—in the book they are always described with the capital “C”—grow and develop at double the normal rate. They have psychic abilities and are two hive minds, one for the boys and one for the girls. They use their mental abilities to protect themselves. In one case a Child is struck by a car and the Children make the driver crash into a wall. When the villagers attack the Children, they make the villagers turn on each other.

Gordon Zellaby, an older “father” to one of the Children, takes on the job of educating and mentoring them all. When it becomes clear that the Children are alien-human hybrids and will eventually replace humanity, Zellaby takes it on himself to destroy them all before they get too strong. While showing a film, Zellaby detonates a bomb he had hidden in the projector, killing himself and all the Children.


The World in Winter

The last of the classic cozy catastrophes is The World in Winter by John Christopher, titled The Long Winter in the US. In the book, published in 1962, a rapidly advancing new ice age hits Europe. Andrew Leedon, a television producer in London, meets with David Cartwell, a government employee, to see if he can discover more about the long winter. The two become close friends.

Winter continues and things grow worse. Those able to afford it flee to the south, with Nigeria being a popular destination for the British. Leedon stays in London to try and cover the news. Soon food is running out and martial law is imposed. Finally, inner London is cordoned off from the rest of the country into an area called the London Pale, letting the rest of the country slip into starvation and chaos. This is the last straw for Leedon, who along with Cartwell and their wives, Carol and Madeleine, flee to Lagos, Nigeria.

In Lagos, the colonial tables have turned on the European refugees, as the British pound and other Northern Hemisphere currencies are now worthless. The refugees live in slums and scramble for menial jobs. The women turn to prostitution. Finally, Abonitu, a Nigerian Leedon treated well while in London, takes Leedon and Madeleine out of the slums. Abonitu is planning a reconnaissance back to England and wants Leedon along as a guide. The Nigerian expedition goes to Britain in advanced hovercrafts and finds the island completely desolate.


Middle-Class Angst

Aldiss’s criticism of Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, calling it a cozy catastrophe, misses the mark about that particular book. Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes fits the category much better. Still, Aldiss, by coining the phrase, created an easy “shorthand” term to discuss and evaluate the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic British science fiction of the post-War period.

But by no means was Aldiss the last person to critique the sub-genre; as recently as 2009 the Welsh-Canadian science fiction writer Jo Walton applied a social class driven analysis to the whole sub-genre. Walton states “… the cosy catastrophe was overwhelmingly written by middle-class British people who had lived through the upheavals and new settlement during and after World War II, and who found the radical idea that the working classes were people hard to deal with, and wished they would all just go away (emphasis in the original).” Later in the essay Walton says, “The survivors wander around an empty city, usually London, regretting the lost world of restaurants and symphony orchestras. There’s an elegiac tone, so much which was so good has passed away.” And “then they begin to rebuild civilization along better, more scientific lines.” Walton goes on to complain “… the original huge popularity was because there were a lot of intelligent middle-class people in Britain, the kind of people who bought books, who had seen a decline in their standard of living as a result of the new settlement.” Lastly Walton rather nastily makes a sweeping statement: “They (the middle and upper class) had never given the working classes the respect due to human beings, and now they had to, and it really was hard for them. You can’t really blame them for wishing all those inconvenient people would…all be swallowed up by a volcano, or stung to death by triffids.”

In the essay Walton uses the term “the new settlement,” meaning the growing welfare state. Many middle- and upper-class people in Britain no doubt did resent the new nanny state. Nevil Shute moved to Australia to escape the socialist policies and politics of life in Britain at that time. But Shute, in most of his works, explores the themes of the dignity of work, regardless of class of the character, and expressly the bridging of social barriers such as class.

No one should be surprised that the heroes and heroines in these books are middle-class people with technical or professional jobs, since after all, the authors were also middle class and had technical or professional education or training. Shute was an educated aeronautical engineer. Both Wyndham and Christopher served in the Royal Signals Corps, a technical branch of the British Army. So all the writers felt safe in dealing with technical issues and had a middle-class attitude. Also, to be blunt, it was the educated middle class in Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world that bought such books. The authors wrote for their perceived natural audiences.

Further, while it seems clear that the cozy catastrophes are indeed “anxiety fantasies,” as Aldiss suggested, and perhaps particularly “anxiety fantasies” for the British middle class, as Walton says, it would seem that the rise of the working class and the growing welfare state would be fairly low on the list of things for a middle-class Briton to be anxious about in the 1950s. After all, the local union members were highly unlikely to attack the neighborhood golf course, or try and burn down the boarding school. Most likely the rising working class wanted to join those establishments, not destroy them; to become middle class themselves.

So what was high on the list of worries for the British middle class, besides the usual uncertainties of life, such as jobs, family and good schools for the children? I would suggest, based on the subtext of the cozy catastrophes, that it was the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear war, the loss of empire and the decline of Britain from superpower to second-tier status.

The Cold War and Nuclear War

Cold War paranoia and fear of a nuclear holocaust go hand in hand and run through most of the cozy catastrophes. In Day of the Triffids, Masen thinks that the deadly plants were bio-engineered in the Soviet Union and accidentally released, or escaped, into nature to spread around the world. Later in the book, after discovering most of the world’s population is now blind, Masen speculates that the “green meteor shower” might have been satellite weapons, somehow accidentally triggered. The spreading threat of the triffids is clearly a stand-in for the threat of spreading communism and the mass blinding a stand-in for a nuclear war, with destruction raining from the sky.


In The Kraken Wakes, the Cold War subtext is somewhat less blatant than in Triffids. After an American attack on the mysterious sea aliens ends disastrously, the Americans start to blame the Soviet Union for the unexplained assaults. Even once it becomes clear the extraterrestrials are to blame, the West and the Soviet bloc refuse to cooperate in face of the growing danger to all of humanity.

In The Death of Grass, the danger is not so much the communists, although the grass-killing virus does start in China, but rather a more generalized threat of a nuclear war. After all, it is the warning that the UK government is about to bomb their own population centers which finally prompts Custance and Buckley to flee to the countryside with their families. Also, the grass-killing virus, while naturally occurring in the book, could be a stand-in for bacteriological or chemical warfare.

On the Beach is a straight up anti–nuclear war story. In the book the war begins with a nuclear attack by Albania on Italy, which then escalates into a NATO versus Soviet Union all-out nuclear exchange. Then the Soviets and the Chinese have a nuclear exchange as well. Further, most of the bombs used have cobalt casing in the warheads to boost their radioactivity. All of this terrible destruction takes place “off stage” from the main narrative. The characters in the novel are left to deal with the aftermath of the war, without taking part in the actual fighting.

Out of the books under discussion, The Midwich Cuckoos is the best example of a Cold War parable about communist infiltration into the West. The fictional village of Midwich is perfectly normal and prosaic, even dull, until the “Dayout.” After it becomes clear who and what the Children are, the struggle begins. As one of the Children puts it, “This is not a civilized matter… it is a primitive matter. If we exist, we shall dominate you — that is clear and inevitable. Will you agree to be superseded, and start on the way to extinction without a struggle?” This quote is a near repeat of the theme of Khrushchev’s “We will bury you” speech at the United Nations. So, Wyndham is giving an allegory of the communist threat to the West; a small, perfectly normal looking group of people with a secret agenda, the Children. Also, the Children are a collective mind without individuality, much like how the West saw the communists as lacking personal uniqueness and acting with a single will. Further, the small number of Children could and did control large numbers of regular people, again much like how the West saw the small Communist Party of the Soviet Union controlling the vast population of the East.


The Decline of Britain and the Loss of the British Empire

The decline of Britain as a world power and the loss of the British Empire are displayed in The Kraken Wakes. After the British bathysphere deployed to investigate the deeps is destroyed, the British government detonates a nuclear bomb in retaliation, thus igniting a war with the sea-living aliens. But after that action the British are pushed aside as the Americans take the lead in the war. The aliens sink a massive number of ships, which nearly destroys world trade, and Britain, a trading nation dependent on shipping for its food and other vital materials, barely survives and certainly loses much of its power. Just like the protagonists, the UK is reduced to an observer role in the crisis.

Without a doubt the most blatant “anxiety fantasy” on our list regarding the fall of the British Empire and decline of Britain as a world power is The World in Winter. In the book, Britain is almost entirely de-populated because of the everlasting cold weather. Meanwhile in the former colonies, typified by Lagos in Nigeria, the former colonizers, the white Europeans, become the second-class citizens and are forced into menial jobs, or worse, just to survive. At the last, it is the technologically advanced Nigerians who return to the desolated Britain in their advanced ships to explore, just as the Europeans did during the Age of Exploration.


Not So Cozy

Aldiss was no doubt having a bit of critical fun at calling Wyndham’s various works “cozy catastrophes,” since ultimately none of the catastrophes are very cozy. For example, Masen is forced into slavery and is chained to a group of blind people during part of The Day of the Triffids. The main characters in The Death of Grass kill an innocent family to take their bread, and at the end, they fight and kill to occupy the farmstead. In The World in Winter the British immigrants to Nigeria lead very hardscrabble lives in a slum.

Although parts of The Kraken Wakes, On the Beach and The Midwich Cuckoos do fit the description, the rest of the books do not. There is nothing “cozy” about seeing your country submerged by melting ice caps and having to flee to a remote island just to survive; nor is it cozy having your mind controlled by vindictive alien children, or having to blow up yourself with dynamite to literally save your species; nor having to give a fatal dose to your baby daughter, wife and yourself.

Instead what we should see as the main themes of these novels is the very British “stiff upper lip” in the face of disasters and, excluding On the Beach, something ultimately hopeful. In all of them, the characters are aiming for survival and then rebuilding, or failing that, facing the future with dignity. At the end of The Day of the Triffids, Masen and his group dream of retaking Britain and then the whole world back from the plants. In The Kraken Wakes, the Japanese develop a war-winning weapon and the Watsons are asked to join the “Council for Reconstruction.” In The Death of Grass, after all the terrible violence, Custance has a vision of civilization rebuilt. Zellaby literally saves the human race when he kills the Children and himself in the last scene of The Midwich Cuckoos. Even The World in Winter is hopeful for at least the continuation of human civilization, if not the continuation of Britain or Europe.

Finally these apocalyptic novels should be viewed as stoic tales; all could very easily start with the quote from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: “The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”


Sources

Aldiss, Brian W. Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction. (New York: Doubleday, 1973)


Baker, Brian. Science Fiction: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism (London: Palgrave 2014)


Christopher, John. The Death of Grass. (London: The Syle Press 1956/2016)


Christopher, John. The World in Winter. (London: Penguin 1962/2016)


The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Edited by John Clute, David Langford and Peter Nicholls (London: Gollancz 2011)


Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.


Shute, Nevil. On the Beach. (New York; Random House 1957/2010)


Walton, Jo. “Who reads cosy catastrophes?” Tor.com (October 14, 2009) https://www.tor.com/2009/10/14/who-read-cosy-catastrophes/


Wyndham, John. The Day of the Triffids. (New York: Doubleday 1951/2003)


Wyndham, John. The Kraken Wakes. (New York: Doubleday 1953/2008)


Wyndham, John. The Midwich Cuckoos (London: Doubleday 1957/2008)



NewMyths.Com is one of only a few online magazines that continues to pay writers, poets and artists for their contributions.
If you have enjoyed this resource and would like to support
NewMyths.Com, please consider donating a little something.

---   ---
Published By NewMyths.Com - A quarterly ezine by a community of writers, poets and artist. © all rights reserved.
NewMyths.Com is owned and operated by New Myths Publishing and founder, publisher, writer, Scott T. Barnes