Monday, February 11, 2008

5. Pendulum by John Christopher

Pendulum picture

I was about 3/4 of the way through another book that I lost while visiting Buzby for a weekend. He kindly lent me Pendulum by John Christopher (in a beautiful first edition hardback), who is warming up to be the author of the 1st quarter of '08 among our group of bloggers. I was trying to avoid reading the same genre, or author without a break in between, but I realize now I had no significant reason for doing so. I'm feeling pretty post-apocalytpic and feeling pretty John Christopher these days, so I may well start the White Mountain trilogy after this.

Pendulum is really a classic example of early 60s english apocalyptic anxiety. It has the great combo of the fear of social chaos and sexual violation. The apocalypse is gradual here, economic collapse combined with an overly powerful youth culture. As England falls apart, the youth grow stronger and stronger. It starts out with student protests, but accelerates as the "yobs", working class youth, turn to violence and robbery. In time, civil infrastructure collapses entirely and cities and towns are controlled locally by gangs on motorcycles and scooters.

The protagonists are a family living outside a university town. The book focuses particularly on the patriarch, a succesful developer and his sister-in-law, who is having an affair with a pretentious professor and supporter of the students. Christopher emphasizes her psychological development, particularly in regards to men. It's all done through the lens of the early 60s, and Britain and I can't tell if the portrayal is true. It is interesting and though she is annoyingly forgiving, the men around her are portrayed quite critically through her eyes.

It's too early for me to say if this is an obsession with Christopher, but one of the strong themes in Pendulum that also shows up in A Wrinkle in the Skin is rape and how women are subject to sexual violation once the protective structures of society are gone. This threat is always hovering around in Pendulum, subtle but very disturbing and it creates a lot of tension as things go bad. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, because you sense that Christopher may lack some distance himself from the issue. It seems to threaten him as a man, perhaps.

Another thing that I think is worth discussing in Post-Apocalyptic literature is how the time frame is handled. Does the book deal with the disaster and immediate aftermath or does it go for the longer view, like Earth Abides. At first, I thought Pendulum was going to be very immediate, but it actually leaps ahead several times. It made the novel deeper for me and it allowed Christopher to take the social degradation to a very interesting place. The youths and their wild behaviour is portrayed through the eyes of educated, upper-middle class males for the most part and thus gives the book a very conservative tone. But the way the story develops moves the book beyond just being a caution against youth left idle and too strong.

A really interesting book and an excellent addition to the stable.


Unknown said...

Holy wow. Excellent review that doesn't give any spoilers even.

I am sending you The Long Winter today because 1) I think you'd like it and 2) I think it would be interesting to read while the themes of Pendulum are fresh in your mind.

The issues of sexuality are very strange in his novels and like you say I can't quite tell if the strangeness come from him or the "lens" of the era.
I even wrote: "You can guess at the social and sexual upheaval that happens in their lives as London freezes."
Furthermore, you have to check out the astoundingly weird racial politics that he throws into the mix.
Look for it!

WeSailFurther said...

And I shall send you White Mountains, the first of the tripodology. I'm interested in this one, too. I'm going to get my taxes done next week and there is a cool old book shop next door, so I'll look for some JC while I'm there.