The Quiet Earth
Over the last few years Melbourne-based Text Publishing has done a good job of bringing back to mainstream attention some of the “lost marvels of our literature”, republishing books that count as “milestones in the Australian experience”. By “our literature” is meant, presumably, Australian literature. But a few of those milestones might seem to be markers more particularly of New Zealand experience – Katherine Mansfield, Ronald Hugh Morrieson and David Ballantyne have all been re-launched under the Text Classics umbrella. Perhaps, then, we are meant to appreciate that the boundaries of what counts as “our literature” can be thrown open, not to homogenise or conflate the cultural capital of two countries, but to claim for the individual works themselves a sense of belonging to canons of literary worth which are wider than those drawn along nationalistic lines.
While Mansfield and Morrieson would probably figure highly on any list of usual suspects expected to travel well into an Australian context, Text have done their homework too, scratching the surface a little deeper, republishing Ballantyne’s long-overlooked 1968 novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down in 2010, and this year Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth, originally published in 1981. The title of Harrison’s novel will probably ring a few bells among those who haven’t read it – in 1985, it was loosely adapted into a film of the same name, directed by Geoff Murphy and starring Bruno Lawrence. To claim the novel as a “lost marvel” might be stretching the term a bit – as if the film treatment wasn’t enough, the novel was also a finalist for New Zealand’s book of the year in 1982.
Still, its present republication makes for a welcome return; largely, the novel hasn’t dated too badly, though where it does show its age it provides some interesting avenues for discussion. Probably the most strikingly out-of-contemporary-kilter aspect is a disturbing essentialising of racial type. Harrison’s narrator, John Hobson, routinely refers to his offsider and fellow survivor turned adversary, Apirana “Api” Maketu, as “the Maori” in a move that will probably sit uncomfortably with many contemporary readers. Of course, that’s the narrator’s prejudice, and not one necessarily shared by Harrison the author. And yet it will rankle if the reader can’t be sure whether, on the one hand, Hobson’s recurrent nomenclature for Api feeds into the picture of Hobson as a twisted villain or, on the other, is a slip of Harrison’s own tongue, a giveaway of the political sensibilities of the time, and one of which Harrison might not have been particularly aware.
But regardless of where readers may decide – or feel compelled – to sit on that aspect of the narration, I would argue that reading The Quiet Earth with the currents of its own time provides a necessary context if the novel is to be elevated from a mere entertainment to the level whereby it can, in Bernard Beckett’s words, “be rightfully considered a classic”.
The Quiet Earth might be described as speculative fiction, and could further be filed under the sub-heading post-apocalyptic fiction. Though Beckett, in his introduction, reckons that “the most surprising thing, as you enter this novel, is the realisation that you haven’t read the story before”, it has a broadly familiar set-up. Essentially, this is of the last-man-on-earth variety, a type whose wide sweep includes Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Richard Matheson’s horror novel I Am Legend (1954). At a stretch, you might include John Mulgan’s Man Alone (1939) but a far closer local relation might be C K Stead’s Smith’s Dream (1971). Stead’s novel appeared 10 years before Harrison’s but offers, arguably, a similarly dystopian vision of the future not merely framed in the terms of speculative fiction but one tailored to mirror local political anxieties.
The book’s premise is simple enough: narrator and protagonist, geneticist John Hobson, wakes one morning in a hotel room in Thames to find that the whole town has been deserted. He notices further that all the clocks have stopped at precisely 12 minutes past six. From here on we, like Hobson, are compelled to find out what happened, why, and what – if anything – can be done about it.
If you care for mystery stories or thrillers, The Quiet Earth will probably keep you turning the pages, compelled to find out why the whole world has gone quiet but fearful of what might be found as well. The empty, abandoned earth feels like a menacing place when you’re there all alone. But there’s another very good reason to keep reading as well. Which Beckett puts his finger on in the introduction:
In narrative terms, Harrison’s opening gambit is like a crime writer opening with an exotic set of clues to a hideous case. It is a wager: stay with my story and I will bring this home. The reader, by picking up such a tale, enters into a contract – one that creates a special tension. We are at once fascinated and wary, hoping the author can pull it off.
And mostly Harrison does. The writing can at times feel perfunctory, proceeding apace in mostly staccato sentences:
The inside was like a furnace. I sat down on the edge of the pavement inside the shade. A peculiar apathy began to come over me. I felt very thirsty. I would have to break into a shop and get a drink.
The quick clip is probably calculated to meet the demands of the genre, with its emphasis on plot and narrative momentum, but with it comes a grating tendency towards the expository: Hobson’s every hunch is correct, every scrape navigated with the characteristic ease of one who is in command of the situation. It seems that either Hobson is too certain of himself in a profoundly uncertain world, or else the writing lacks the range required fully to plumb the philosophical depths which the situation has so ably established.
More rewarding writing, or reading, comes when Harrison allows his narrator to reflect on the strange empty world all around him. At times Hobson/Harrison verges on the reinvention of a familiar New Zealand landscape in passages which are disquieting: “I had once driven through enormities of emptiness towards the south-east coast of the North Island, to Cape Turnagain. All the way the loneliness had dilated and rebounded from the vacant hills … nothing human had ever happened there”. At other times, he is blackly humorous: “Turangi seemed less altered by depopulation than anywhere else I had seen.”
The narrative checks and balances are in place, and the conventions, when they appear, are deftly handled. The Gothic turn is played to good effect and the conflict between Hobson and Api convincingly ramped up. Below the surface of the narrative, Harrison considers too the nature of ontological anxiety, drawing parallels between diverse fields of enquiry and belief, from religion (and pseudo-religion) to science, and from psychology to science fiction itself. Also laudable is the unreliable narrator’s fall from implied hero to complicit villain, with intimations of moral fable: Hobson is a man condemned, it seems, to live alone in the very world in which he once pushed people away.
Because this is a novel where finding out what happens – and what happened – is the key driver, reviewing it without giving the game away is a tricky act to manage. Doubly so, with a novel worth reading, as this is. Hence, rather than describing what happens in The Quiet Earth and speculating on its meaning, it is better to ponder why reading the novel might still matter, 22 years later.
In my view, The Quiet Earth’s most enduring contribution is to the strain in New Zealand fiction which has dropped the obligation to represent the country in staunchly realist terms, finding that alternative New Zealands offer equally rich frameworks for social critique. Considered in the context of early 1980s New Zealand, The Quiet Earth, with its notions of paranoia, violence and moral reckoning staged within an eerily abandoned, post-disaster New Zealand, speaks to a country ill at ease with itself in political terms. Harrison’s New Zealand is not simply a New Zealand of arbitrary science fiction imaginings, but reflects the divided New Zealand of the 1981 Springbok Tour and the New Zealand whose nuclear-free status was beginning to burgeon. Read in this way, The Quiet Earth represents an original literary response to extra-literary conditions, and, if not an absolute masterpiece, it admirably reminds us what words like “classic” and “milestone” can be allowed to mean.
Hamish Clayton, whose novel Wulf won Best First Book at the New Zealand Post Awards in 2012, is currently writing a PhD about David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down.