Writer Brian Aldiss once coined the term ‘cosy catastrophe’ to describe stories in which the natural order is disrupted and civilisation breaks down – The Stand, The Death of Grass, Lucifer’s Hammer spring to mind – but which focus on the survivors and end in hope.
His point was that centring the stories on those who make it through the apocalypse gives readers the comforting illusion that they will survive too. They won’t have to suffer the appalling, soul-crippling realisation that in all likelihood their lives are worth about as much as an insect’s under a boot and that a quick death would be the best they could hope for.
These two excellent novels (from 1958 and 1962 respectively) by Charles Eric Maine are about as far from cosy as you can get. In The Darkest of Nights, the world is devastated by a virus. The Tide Went Out sees nuclear tests open a rift in the Pacific seabed and drain away the world’s water. In both cases, chaos ensues. But the difference is – and after what I’ve written so far, this probably won’t come as a spoiler – Maine makes his protagonists people who don’t do well. The ones who get left behind.
Both books are highly readable, even if the prose is sometimes a little too functional and efficient. Both tend to rely on the gender stereotypes of the time, which can be annoying. But both of them offer an unflinching portrait of society’s collapse and force the reader to face awkward, very uncomfortable questions about what they would do to survive when every certainty they’ve ever lived by has been exploded.