Since nostalgia and the end of the world are currently two of the hottest trends, this weekend I have delved into the archives to bring you a forgotten classic of the post-apocalyptic genre: The Hopkins Manuscript. It was first published in 1939 – a year which we now look back on with a painful sense of foreboding. Those poor bastards, we think, they had no idea what was coming.
Not to be too dramatic, but it seems like a great book to re-read in 2018.
The book opens with one of those forewords where the writer explains that he himself merely found the manuscript sealed into a bottle upon Brighton beach, or jammed behind a kitchen cupboard, painted under the Sistine Chapel fresco, etc. This is not a gimmick I usually like, but RC Sherriff gets some points for originality here, since he writes to us from an alternative 21st century where Ethiopia has become the leader of the free world. Archaeologists, struggling to recover scraps of information from the hollowed-out remains of northern Europe, come across the diary of one Edgar Hopkins.
What follows is a mixture of science fiction, political analysis, and vicious social criticism of England before the Second World War. Hopkins isn’t so much as an unreliable narrator as an unlikeable one: small-minded, obtuse, desperate for attention, and obsessed with breeding prize chickens. Somehow he is also one of the last survivors of the destruction of his green and pleasant land.
By chance, Hopkins is one of the first people to find out that the Moon has left its orbit and started hurtling towards the Earth. The beginning of the book chronicles the public reaction, the government’s attempts to make preparations without inducing panic, and the newspapers’ flat-footed attempts to alternately reassure and terrify people. Sherriff goes into reasonably convincing detail about the calculations involved, the design of impact shelters, and so on. (I can’t remember who it was, but a critic once suggested that sci-fi books and films should be allowed just one major scientific silliness each; I think this book manages it. Apart from the moon mysteriously falling out of orbit, everything else is scrupulously worked out.)
But this is still not the real story. We read about the official action plan and rescue efforts, and end up thinking that good old England will probably muddle through. It does. Hopkins survives the big night. The Moon politely parks herself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
It is at this point that everything begins to go wrong. Sherriff, with Hopkins as his shrill and rather testy mouthpiece, slowly shows how society falls apart. People are selfish and hasty; they want to be sure that they have it better than anyone else. They do incomprehensible and greedy things, like burning Old Masters for heat when there is plenty of firewood available. But they can also be unexpectedly good – sometimes.
The Hopkins Manuscript is a good yarn, and very witty, especially if you have experience of the English temperament. But Sherriff is not prepared to sacrifice his message for the sake of a tidy dénouement. I really can’t say whether the book has a happy ending or not; but I do recommend that you read it, and decide for yourself.
You can buy it, reprinted in 2005 with some excellent critical analysis, here.