After London by Richard Jefferies – Classics of Science Fiction


After London by Richard Jefferies – Classics of Science Fiction

There are certain science fictional concepts that are worth a lifetime of contemplation. The apocalypse is one of the oldest. It often involves humanity facing a population collapse, usually along with the fall of civilization, and on rare occasions it explores the idea of the extinction of homo sapiens. Thinking about apocalypses is older than history, with God or gods usually being the cause, but since the Enlightenment we’ve speculated more often about nature destroying us and our societies, and in recent times, we’ve imagined self-destruction on a global level.

I’ve been wondering when the idea of humanity dying off and life marching on without us was first imagined. Humans have always been rather egocentric and assumed we were the crown of creation, and the center of the universe. But 20th century science fiction has sometimes pictured Earth without people. Maybe we’re replaced by mutants, post-humans, robots, intelligent animals, or even imagining life on Earth without sentience.

After London by Richard Jefferies was first published in 1885 that comes near to imagining life on Earth without us in its first five chapters. You can read After London online, download an ebook edition, or listen to an audiobook edition. After London is one of the earliest examples of a post-apocalyptic novel. Set in England hundreds of years after the collapse of civilization, it imagines nature and human society transformed.

Over the past few months, I’ve been reading books about the history of reading. I’m currently listening to Pamela by Samuel Richardson which was first published in 1740. It’s considered by some to be the first English novel. It was the first novel published in America, by Ben Franklin no less, in 1745. This study makes me want to study the earliest examples of science fiction and its major concepts.

The novel has evolved over the centuries, but also, what readers want from novels has evolved too. Before fiction was popular, reading religious texts was popular. Then came what might be called speculative moralizing, which blended storytelling with moral instruction. Eventually, writers and readers dropped most of the sermonizing, and went to straight storytelling.

However, there were writers who liked to speculate about society and the future, which often included philosophy and morality. Utopian novels became a vogue, especially in the 19th century. Some of these novels we’d call science fiction today, but that term didn’t exist when they were written. My theory is science fiction evolved out of certain kinds of fictional speculation in the 19th century.

Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) was a nature writer and novelist, who liked to focus on rural life, and had a bit of a mystic streak. He was also fascinated by catastrophes, which inspired After London. And I assume he read Charles Darwin. Jefferies didn’t like what industrialization was doing to nature so it might be obvious that he fantasized about a world without it. Jefferies could have read The Last Man (1826) by Mary Shelley or read earlier poetry on the subject, especially Le Dernier Homme by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville, or “Darkness” by Lord Byron.

I’d love to see a history of the idea of the last man on Earth. Even more, I’d love to see a history of speculation about life on Earth after humans are gone. If you know of any, leave a comment below.

Part I (chapters 1-5) of After London is called “The Relapse into Barbarism,” and is the most profound part of the novel. In this section Jefferies imagines what will happen to plant and animal life after the collapse of civilization. He comes close to describing a world without people, but ultimately brings in humanity so he can tell a traditional story. Part 1 is quite detailed about how nature will react when people leave.

By the thirtieth year there was not one single open place, the hills only excepted, where a man could walk, unless he followed the tracks of wild creatures or cut himself a path. The ditches, of course, had long since become full of leaves and dead branches, so that the water which should have run off down them stagnated, and presently spread out into the hollow places and by the corner of what had once been fields, forming marshes where the horsetails, flags, and sedges hid the water.

You can listen to more of this elegant description with the audiobook reading on YouTube:

The first part of After London reminded me of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a 2007 nonfiction work that imagined what life on Earth would be like if suddenly all humans disappeared. The book inspired three television series: Life After People, Aftermath: Population Zero, and The Future is Wild. All are available to watch on YouTube. Or read more from the book online.

“Part II: Wild England” is twenty-eight chapters that tell a story set in this future world. It’s about a young man named Sir Felix who goes on an adventure, allowing Jefferies to describe an aristocratic feudal society in a post-apocalyptic England. It’s a fun story, but not philosophically great. Felix is a nerdy guy in a macho society. However, chapters 22-24 have Felix exploring the remains of a decayed city from our civilization. Again, this has become a standard feature in modern post-apocalyptic science fiction. I assume this was inspired by 19th century explorations of ancient Egypt.

Descriptions of dead human or alien civilizations are among my favorite themes in science fiction. There’s something about walking through ancient dead cities that creates a profound sense of wonder in me. I believe that’s why “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) by Stephen Vincent Benet was so evocative and why “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury is so beautiful. Of course, Bradbury was inspired by Sara Teasdale’s 1918 poem “There Will Come Soft Rain.” It was composed at the end of WWI and the beginning of the Spanish Flu.

“There Will Come Soft Rains”

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

I find it utterly serene to meditate on images of Earth without us, which is why I liked the beginning of After London so much, and why I love the book The World Without Us and all the documentaries made from it. If we self-destruct it will be our own fault, and I think we are in the process of doing away with ourselves. I doubt we will go extinct anytime soon, but I do think science fiction should imagine what we might become more realistically. We need more post-apocalyptic novels that moralize, philosophize, and instruct rather than use after-the-collapse settings for adventure stories.

When I was younger, I pictured humans spreading out across the galaxy. I realize that’s as naive as imagining we’ll all go to heaven or flying reindeer. We might get as far as Mars, but I doubt we’ll ever go further. I can imagine us creating a new sentient species of intelligent machines that will explore space. Machines are perfect for space, we’re not.

Richard Jefferies just couldn’t imagine Earth without people. He pictures us regressing to a feudal society. We can read After London and use Sir Felix as a stand in for modern man, or even the average science fiction fan trying to live in that new world. Poul Anderson often wrote about how he believes humanity couldn’t handle complex societies, and that feudal societies were about as complex as we could manage. We’re certainly heading there. It’s a shame we couldn’t build a sustainable global humanistic society.

Richard Jefferies pictures us falling back toward medieval England. If you look around the world right now, just examine what’s happening to the poor in failed states. That’s our future. It’s rather scary. You’d think we’d try to do more to avoid such a fate.

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, contemplating apocalypses is a worthwhile pursuit for a whole lifetime. It’s a shame we’ve turned contemplating the apocalypse into silly escapisms, such as imagining civilization being brought down by zombies, vampires, and sightless aliens. Sure, such stories are fun, but we’re all sitting in deck chairs on the Titanic, shouldn’t authors write stories about how to avoid icebergs? We don’t need to think about zombies getting us, but to live with extreme heat, killer storms, and economic collapses. (Just imagine the United States without home insurance.)

Before people started reading fiction, they read religious speculation that advocated moral living. The earliest forms of fiction included lessons in how to live properly. We might need to go back to that. In the early days of novels, some people wanted to ban frivolous storytelling for the same reason people wanted to keep kids from playing on smartphones. But having fun won out, and fiction jettisoned the instructive element. When I was young, I used to think it absurd that fiction could be considered bad for people. But getting old living in a self-destructive society, I’m changing my mind.

If you know of any science fiction stories that imagine life on Earth without humans leave a comment. Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men imagined several post human species. Many science fiction writers have imagined robots replacing us. Clifford Simak’s City uses conversations between intelligent dogs and robots to introduce stories about our species who is no longer on Earth.

Also, if you know of any histories of speculation about the end of the world or human extinction, let me know in the comments too.

James Wallace Harris, 6/22/24

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