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Despite The Road recently claiming the crown, so-called ‘catastrophe fiction’ has had a particular appeal in Britain. Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids is a cast-iron classic with similar chills found in John Christopher’s Death Of Grass.
On film there is a direct lineage from Terry Nation’s original Survivors to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.
Fugue For A Darkening Island is one of Priest’s early novels. Published in 1972 and recently reissued with a number of revisions, it is a chilling look at a Britain gripped by civil war and, in my view, the equal of McCarthy’s more showy vision.
The novel’s power lies in plausibility, even after so many years. Priest’s catastrophe has no flesh-eating undead, or killer plants. In the near future, Africa has fallen – war and nuclear attacks leave untold numbers of refugees looking for a place in the world. Many arrive in the UK, leading to civil unrest, the election of a far-right government and, ultimately, civil war.
Priest’s writing is brave. Our protagonist, Alan Whitman, is not a sympathetic character – he’s mercurial and amoral, but we empathise with him nonetheless. Nor are there obvious heroes or villains. We learn, through a complex narrative structure, about Whitman’s life from childhood, and see that civil war doesn’t happen overnight, frighteningly it creeps up, a product of political posturing and unwise military interventions. The novel leaves the reader with little hope for the future.
Priest wrote Fugue in the time of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Today’s news is filled with hysterical scaremongering about immigrants ‘taking’ British jobs and homes. Against this context Fugue For a Darkening Island still serves as a warning and could easily have been written in 2011 rather than 39 years ago.