Old Non-Bestseller Review: The Empty World, by D. E. Stevenson
by Rich Horton
I rarely review the same author twice in a row, but after I published my review of D. E. Stevenson's Rochester's Wife, David Pringle told me that she had written an SF novel. This is The Empty World, published in the UK in 1936. (The US edition from 1939 was retitled A World in Spell.) I went looking for a copy, and learned quickly that it's not easy to find and quite expensive. There were a couple of reprints, large size paperback, in 2001 and 2009, but they can't have had large print runs (perhaps they were even POD) and they run between $30 and $100. The American edition can be had for $120 and up, and true UK first editions start at about $200. All too rich for me! But there is a Kindle edition for a very reasonable price, and I figured I'd read that instead.
I noted in my review of Rochester's Wife that while it was not a wholly successful book it was still an engaging read -- and I noted also that Stevenson's fans were unanimous in suggesting that she wrote many other better books. The Empty World was not mentioned, and I suspect it's been less widely read, and that it really was never reprinted until the editions I mentioned from this century, so it was probably hard to find. I imagine it may not have been a success on first appearance, and perhaps Stevenson herself was not satisfied with it. And, indeed, it too is not really a particularly good book -- yet it is also an engaging read. Stevenson simply had that storyteller's touch.
The story opens with Jane Forrest, a successful writer of historical novels, about 30 years old, boarding an aeroplane to return to London after a lecture tour of the US. The year is 1973. The plane carries 13 (!) passengers, with 9 crewmembers. Jane is accompanied by her assistant Maisie. Other passengers include Sir Richard Barton, the actress Iris Bright and her assistant Alice, Iris's manager Mr. Haviland, a couple of elderly sisters, and a few more; and the key crew members are the pilots David Fenemore and Thomas Day. There's probably not much point speculating on the economics of that sort of air travel; or on the (skimpy) details of the future of 1973. (By coincidence, 1973 was the year D. E. Stevenson would die.)
As the plane is over the Atlantic, there is a terrific storm, and Fenemore manages to bring the plane to a great altitude to evade it. Sir Richard has made friends with Jane, and he tells her of the predictions of the crackpot scientist Dr. Boddington that a comet was passing by the Earth and its electrical interaction with the atmosphere would result in the death of all animal life. While he's sure Boddington's predictions are crazy, the reader is not surprised when the crew reports that they can get no response from calls for help on the radio, and the reader is also not surprised when they land near Glasgow and find everything eerily empty -- no people, no birds, no animals, not even any insects. Fortunately tinned food has survived! At first the plan is to stick together, but it's soon clear that a good portion of the survivors are terrible people -- all these folks are men, and they soon reveal that they have plans for the few young women among the survivors (Jane, Maise, Iris, and Alice.)
Sir Richard proposes to take a few people to his estate to establish some minimal society, but the thuggish elements resist that, wanting their "fair share" of the women. David Fenemore, his copilot, and Alice take an aeroplane and head for the continent to look for survivors. But Jane is kidnapped while the others escape to Sir Richard's place. Jane bravely manages to play the kidnappers against each other -- and when David Fenemore returns and it's clear the bad guys will kill him, Jane pretends to play along to give David a chance to escape. Then she bravely manages her own escape ...
This sets up the first conflict -- both the broad one, of Sir Richard managing to establish his tiny society while resisting the violence of the thuggish element; and the narrow one, of Jane and David overcoming David's disgust at his feeling that Jane had been dishonorable in arranging for him to get away while she was in the hands of the bad guys. But that is (mostly) resolved fairly quickly (and conveniently, at times) and soon the people at Sir Richard's estate are growing crops (without insects etc? Don't ask such unfair questions!) and beginning to pair off. Still, less than a dozen people are hardly enough to restore human civilization (especially after the tinned food runs out!) So there is a final episode -- a realization that in fact one other group survived, under the direction of Dr. Boddington. Alas, when they discover the Boddington enclave, they learn quickly that he is setting up a rather horrific technocratic/eugenic society ...
I've been a bit dismissive of the silliness of the science in this story -- and seriously, it's dreadful. The effect of the comet on the Earth is ridiculous. It's slightly reminiscent of W. E. B. DuBois' "The Comet", which is an outstanding short story that uses fairly silly science involving a comet encounter to establish an emptied out city with just two survivors. Likewise Stevenson uses silly silence involving a comet encounter to establish an empty world with just a hundred or so survivors. I'd say it's easier to get away with this at 5000 words than 60,000 or so -- still, let's allow Stevenson that one device. A further issue is the follow on effects of the death of all animal life from insects on up -- this would be far more devastating than Stevenson allows. Likewise Stevenson's paper thin extrapolation of the nature of life in 1973 is annoying. In then end, though -- these issues distract any SF reader, but aren't necessarily fatal to the actual story Stevenson is telling.
Here she fares somewhat better. Part of it is her storytelling facility, that I've mentioned before. She does make the reader want to keep reading. And there are some exciting episodes -- Jane's escape is quite well done, for instance. The introduction of Dr. Boddington's creepy attempt at a scientific utopia is pretty interesting. For all that, the novel still doesn't really work. The various romances are thin; and even the primary one, Jane's with David Fenemore, complicated by David's anger at her and by Jane's interest in the older Sir Richard, doesn't really strike home well enough. But more than that the issue is the villains. I'm coming to the conclusion that perhaps Stevenson just doesn't do villains well. The group of thuggish bad guys in the initial airplane are quite crudely depicted, and there is an overlay of classist prejudice to all that. Dr. Boddington, also, is a caricature mad scientist. Set against that, she does a fairly good job describing the society Boddington attempts to establish; and its faults. (Though there is just a hint that maybe she thinks eugenics "done right" could work, though there's an implied acknowledgement that it won't ever be done right.)
So -- two D. E. Stevenson novels, and two flops! What to do? Don't worry -- I'm reasonably convinced that I just picked the wrong two to read first. Rochester's Wife is a misstep -- every prolific writer has some of those, and I think in The Empty World she was trying something different, something not in her wheelhouse. And even in these books, I can see that she truly can tell a story, and though I didn't think either one quite worked, I enjoyed reading them. I have a couple more Stevenson novels on hand, including the highly praised Miss Buncle's Book, and I'll get to them sometime!