A virus emerges in Asia and, thanks to modern air travel, makes its way across the globe in a matter of weeks. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and governments struggle to react. Then people start dying, and those left unaffected or recovering begin dealing with the aftermath.
As I write this review in the third week of February 2022, such a reality is all easy to imagine, thanks to the still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Yet that description also matches something written more than forty years ago. Terry Nation, a writer for British television best remembered today for giving the Daleks to Doctor Who, brought such a vision to life to UK television viewers in the mid-1970s with his hit TV series Survivors, with its tale of a world ravaged by a plague that killed 95% of the population. Nation, who left the series after its first season due to disagreements with its producer, would then take his vision to the printed page with a novel of the same name, available too as an audiobook read by one of the series stars: Carolyn Seymour.
Like the TV series, Nation's novel starts in seemingly ordinary surroundings. We meet Abby Grant (who Seymour played on-screen and in Big Finish's audio dramas based on the series), who becomes the lead character as she learns of the effects of the disease first from her son Peter, off at boarding school, and then from her husband once he comes home from London at last. Readers are also introduced to Jenny Richards, living in London, whose flatmate comes down with the disease and, through a mutual acquaintance who is a doctor, gets the warning to get out of the city before the plague hits its worst. There are uncanny moments echoing the modern pandemic here, with characters comparing it to the flu and insisting that people don't die from it, giving these chapters an air all the more unnerving.
And, almost before characters or readers are even aware, Nation brings the world as we've known it to a sudden and ignoble end thanks to "the Death."
Abby, her husband dead, goes about setting off to find her son and a new community. She becomes far more successful at the latter than the former, with much of the opening third or so of the novel being the story of how she comes to meet Jenny and Greg Preston. Greg, a British engineer who arrives from Holland by helicopter and sees a chance to start over again, completes the trio of main characters. Together, Abby, Jenny, and Greg take readers through what follows, meeting up with other survivors, establishing a community to relearn the skills lost to the conveniences of modern society, and dealing with threats from nature and their fellow human beings. And, when a new clue occasionally arises, Abby continues to seek out her son.
Nation's novel, and the TV series that inspired its first half or so, follows in a rich vein of British fiction imagining the end of Britain as they knew it. It's far to say their echoes of both H.G. Wells and John Wyndham in the narrative, if with a 1970s spin on their ideas, writing as Nation was at a time of food shortages and energy crises. And Nation, as with those two giants of British SF, is interested perhaps more in what comes after an apocalypse than it how comes about, as the latter two-thirds of the novel will attest.
And what a Britain it turns out to be. Nation in places paints brief but vivid pictures of the horrors unfolding elsewhere, including a group wintering in London and people resorting to cannibalism. Yet, for the most part, however, readers rarely know more than the central trio learns in their encounters. There are different groups of survivors the trio encounter trying out their own systems of government, including one group led by a surviving union leader Abby meets early on that takes on a more substantial role in events than it had on-screen. How the Death changes relationships are explored, as well, in the latter chapters as characters settle down and Nation spins off the TV series narrative. In the end, the back-breaking labor of farming in a British climate eventually leads to the group making a far-reaching decision, one both would have been hard to portray on a 1970s BBC budget, and that ultimately builds up toward the novel's gut-punch of a finale. There are times when the narrative, especially in its time-jumps, becomes more telling than showing. Yet Nation spins a captivating tale, all the same, helped out by his ability to paint quick portraits of his characters in words that would rival the later writings of Russell T Davies.
The audiobook, available from Big Finish and read by Seymour, comes recommended as a way to take in the novel. Seymour superbly brings every character to life, showcasing a range of accents and emotions, from the earnestness of Abby to Greg's gruffness and the unearned brashness of Tom Price's Welsh tones. Her natural reading voice works well with the narrative, conveying both the moments of triumph and the moments of brutality that would be shocking in an ordinary world with the right tone. And her delivery of the ending captures perfectly how utterly and horrifyingly swift it comes. Or, to put it another way, everything you'd want from a good audiobook reader.
Whether you're familiar with Survivors or not, Nation's novel has plenty to offer. It's a compelling narrative, even after more than four decades, of the end of the world as we've known it and what comes after, told with characteristically British understatement and a strong cast of characters. You might think that two years into a real pandemic, this would be the last thing you'd want to give your time towards, perhaps? Nation's novel will, if nothing else, make you grateful that (as horrible as they've been) things haven't been worse.
Or, perhaps, have you wondering whether it'll be like this next time.