The People of the Ruins: A simply marvelous dystopian novel

The People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks

The publisher known as HiLo Books had a wonderful thing going back in 2012 with its Radium Age Science Fiction Series, the mission of which was to bring back into print the neglected works from the period 1904 – 1933. This reader had previously enjoyed several of the titles in this series via volumes from other publishers – novels such as Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913) and H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook (1919) – had hugely enjoyed them all, and thought that it was high time for me to be diving into the half dozen or so Radium Age wonders that I had not as yet experienced. Choosing at random, I opted for the book in question, The People of the Ruins, by the English author Edward Shanks; a most excellent choice, as it turns out!

This particular novel, it seems, originally appeared as an 18-part serial in the British magazine Land & Water during the period 10/16/19 to 2/12/20. It was then released as a hardcover book in 1920, not appearing again until June ’47, when the entire novel was reprinted in the pages of the American pulp magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries (which, despite its name, mainly dealt with sci-fi and fantasy), graced with a cover illustration by the great Virgil Finlay. And after that, the book sank into neglect for a period of 65 years. But thanks to the fine folks at HiLo, readers of today will not have to search, uh, high and low for a reasonably priced copy of what has turned out to be a simply marvelous work. The People of the Ruins was Shanks’ only piece of science fiction. He was 27 at the time of its initial release, had already enjoyed a career as a magazine editor, and would later become a literary critic, journalist, essayist, novelist and, especially, poet. His decision to not try his hand at science fiction again was a loss to all fans of the genre, as he proves himself here to have a terrific imagination and a wonderfully readable and elegant prose style. His dystopian novel of the future is both poignant and haunting, and I despair of doing it justice here. Simply put, I just loved this book!

In it, the reader is introduced to a youngish physics lecturer named Jeremy Tuft. Like Shanks himself, Tuft had served with the British Army in France during WW1; unlike the author, he had then become a man of science, his greatest pride being his recent papers on “The Viscosity of Liquids.” When we first encounter Jeremy, it is in the futuristic year of, er, 1924, and our young bachelor wakes to find London strangely quiet. As it turns out, a general workers’ strike had just begun, and all the printers, the bus, truck and railway workers, the miners and other groups are demonstrating elsewhere and are busy shutting the city down. Undeterred, Jeremy decides to take the long walk to the East End, to keep his lunch date with Augustus Trehanoc, a fellow physicist who has just invented some kind of unusual contraption. Also at the luncheon in Trehanoc’s converted-warehouse abode is Maclan, a slight acquaintance of Jeremy’s, who ponders, vis-à-vis modern society, as the demonstrations and riots resound from outdoors: “…it’s been a good time, and we seemed to be getting freer and freer and richer and richer. But now we’ve got as far as we can and everything changes … Change here for the Dark Ages … In fact, if I may put it so, this is where we get out and walk…” And boy, do those words ever prove prophetic!

Rioters abruptly storm into Trehanoc’s house, shoot him and Maclan dead, and chuck a bomb down into the basement laboratory where Jeremy is cowering in fright. The bomb causes the entire ceiling to collapse, but not before Jeremy crawls under a laboratory table for protection … and inadvertently gets himself zapped by Trehanoc’s new device, the mysterious rays of which had earlier held a rat in frozen stasis for six weeks. When Jeremy awakes, he is stunned to discover than not only is he somehow still alive, but that all of London has changed around him. As it develops, he has awoken 150 years later, and this new London of 2174 is a pre-Industrial realm that has reverted after the so-called “Troubles” of the 20th century. It is a world in which England’s inhabitants have largely forgotten the methods of manufacturing, only barely keeping the trains going, and living without electricity and other scientific advancements. Jeremy befriends the first person he comes across, Roger Vaile, who works as a clerk in the Treasury building. And he later meets the head of London and of all southern England, the so-called Speaker, and falls in love with his beautiful daughter, Eva. The Speaker’s interest in Tuft is redoubled when he learns that the 20th century revenant once worked as an artilleryman during WW1. He puts Jeremy in charge of a group of elflike octogenarians who are trying to construct a cannon, and not a moment too soon, what with civil war about to erupt, and the semi-barbarous hordes from both Yorkshire and Wales about to attack the city…

Those readers who might be a bit worried about Shanks’ novel being a bit too polemical – as I myself admittedly was, going in – need not be concerned here. Unlike other dystopian novels, which often bombard the reader with philosophical, political and economic arguments, The People of the Ruins simply tells its story and lets us make up our own minds about things. Shanks seems to be implying that life in the early 20th century left much to be desired, but that life 150 years hence will hardly be a picnic either. As Tom Hodgkinson tells us, in his scholarly introduction to this HiLo edition, the novel is “…bleak and uninspiring, and its only conclusion as far as society goes appears to be: you can’t win!” But throughout the book, via Jeremy’s thoughts and statements, we are given clues as to the author’s attitudes. Thus, in one section, Tuft tells Roger:

…You are happier than we were … though you are poorer. Your air is clean, you have room, you live at peace, you have time to live. But we were forced to live in thick, smoky air; we fought and quarreled, and disputed. The more difficult our lives became, the less time we had for them. This age seems to me … like a man who has been walking at full speed on a long dusty road, only trying to see how many miles he can cover in a day. Suddenly he grows exhausted and stops. I have done it. I can remember how delicious it was to lie down in a field off the road, to let the business all go, not to care where one got to or when. It was this peacefulness we should have been aiming at all the time, only we never knew…

In another section, Jeremy thinks to himself:

…We wretched ants … piled up more stuff than we could use, and though the mad people of the Troubles wasted it, yet the ruins are enough for this race to live in for centuries. And aren’t they more sensible than we were? Why shouldn’t humanity retire from business on its savings? If only it had done it before it got that nervous breakdown from overwork…

But these early thoughts of Jeremy’s regarding the desirability of late 21st century life, and of the idyllic nature of the London society in which he finds himself, are of course amended when violent conflict sweeps his country again.

As to those conflicts, Shanks, during the course of his novel, treats the reader to two tremendous battle sequences, the first against the Yorkshiremen and the second against the Welsh. Jeremy and his crew of geriatrics, lugging about the two dubious cannons that they have constructed, play a large role in both battles, although far be it from me to ruin any prospective reader’s suspense quotient by revealing the outcomes of those titanic struggles. Shanks’ descriptions of both battles are easy to follow and quite lucid, although I did find that a good map of the Berkshire countryside was helpful in appreciating the movements in the fight against the Welsh. Likewise, a street map of London was also useful for this reader, although most people should do just fine without one. Besides those two tremendous sequences, Shanks gives us an absolutely haunting finale, in which Jeremy, Eva and the Speaker make a desperate flight by horseback to Portsmouth, in the hopes of escaping thence to France, being pursued by the Welsh the entire way. It is a dreamy, romantic, lyrical windup, and again, I shouldn’t reveal how things conclude here – whether happily or sadly – but will say that the book’s final two pages might very well leave you with a tear in your eye. If they don’t, well … you’re a tougher person than me.

And, oh … it seems that I have neglected to mention what a wonderful bit of world building Shanks has given us here. Thus, we learn a bit about life in the Treasury, where Jeremy is housed; about the history of the intervening 150 years; and about the unusual religious leanings of the Yorkshiremen. We are given a tour of London and the surrounding countryside, and get to see what has withstood the test of time and what has been destroyed. And heaven only knows what the king and queen of England in 1920, George V and Mary of Teck, would have thought had they learned that Shanks depicted their Windsor Castle as a pile of rubble, its remaining stones used as a quarry by the nearby dwellers! Despite Jeremy’s initial optimism after finding himself temporally displaced, it is a fairly grim environment, soon to be made even grimmer with the advent of those civil wars. Jeremy Tuft, I might add, ordinary everyman that he remains, is a wonderful guide for the reader, and he becomes both tougher and more sympathetic as the novel proceeds. “He felt himself a poor waif beaten down by circumstance, a child called on to carry an insupportable load. Only some kind of irrational obstinacy, a sort of momentum of the spirit, kept him upright,” we are told, and he surely does have the reader’s sympathy throughout.

On this HiLo edition’s back cover, author Brian Stableford has a blurb that tells us The People of the Ruins is “one of the most widely read scientific romances of the post-war years,” and that popularity is surely understandable. Fascinating, moving, and beautifully written, it truly is some kind of great work from Edward Shanks. Indeed, this reader was so impressed with Mr. Shanks’ prose here that he would be more than willing to check out the author’s other, nongenre novels, those being The Old Indispensables (1919), The Richest Man (1923) and Old King Cole (1936). Wish me luck as I endeavor to track them down. In the meantime, though, thanks to HiLo, we have The People of the Ruins, and it is a book that I really cannot recommend highly enough…

Published in 1920. Trapped in a London laboratory during a worker uprising in 1924, ex-artillery officer and physics instructor Jeremy Tuft awakens 150 years later — in a neo-medieval society whose inhabitants have forgotten how to build or operate machinery. Not only have his fellow Londoners forgotten most of what humankind used to know, before civilization collapsed, but they don’t particularly care to re-learn any of it. Though he is at first disconcerted by the failure of his own era’s smug doctrine of Progress, Tuft eventually decides that post-civilized life is simpler, more peaceful. That is, until northern English and Welsh tribes threaten London — at which point he sets about reinventing weapons of mass destruction. Shanks’s post-apocalyptic novel, a pessimistic satire on Wellsian techno-utopian novels, was first published in 1920.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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6 comments

  1. Interesting! It does seem like whatever age people were in, they were convinced the end of days was coming!

    And oh, those semi-barbarous hordes from Yorkshire and Wales. You have to watch them every minute, amirite?

    • Sandy Ferber /

      And let’s not even talk about those Scots!!! 😁

    • Paul Connelly /

      How on earth are they keeping those hordes at bay now? Maybe we could interest them in a (slightly used) border wall?

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Slightly used? It hasn’t even been built yet! 😂

    • Paul Connelly /

      Well, a conceptual wall…that’s even better. We can be very flexible with the price and the time to go-live…really, quite close to…whatever you want them to be! (Just ignore this fine print about “configuration fees”, “implementation consultants”, “maintenance costs”, etc.) Best of all, a conceptual wall has no flaws! Zero! In that sense, it’s very similar to a conceptual nuclear power plant, a conceptual space shuttle, a conceptual War-on-Drugs, or a conceptual secure software program.

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