The Day The Machines Stopped

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The Day the Machines Stopped by Christopher Anvil, issued in the prophetic days of 1964, is a disaster story dealing with the kind of popular themes we’ve seen since Richard Jeffries published After London, in 1885.

In the pre-industrial age, end of the world literature abounded — only it was religious apocalyptic.

Post industrialisation, end of the world literature has been scientific or political in nature — and although it’s sometimes aliens, generally it’s been science or nature or even politics that are going to bring an end to things — not the Hand of God.

This volume travels with an epic blurb:

The day the machines stopped began in an ordinary way. There was little warning of the impending disaster.

Suddenly, all electrical energy was destroyed on the earth. Planes, cars, rockets, machinery of all kinds became useless.

By week’s end, total chaos enveloped the world as the wheels of civilisation ground to a halt. Then ruthless leaders began to emerge, seeking a way to gain control of the almost helpless population.

Only a handful of scientists remained to fight the inexplicable phenomenon — until they were captured and forced to use their knowledge to help the ruthless power combine take the world back to the Dark Ages.

It’s telling then that the most sustained and energetic nuances in The Day the Machines Stopped are saved for what is the core story of the book — not the end of the world, but an office romance, which is nothing more than barely suppressed office lust.

The true story of The Day the Machines Stopped is that an office nice guy is harassed by an office bad ass who is better paid and higher up the chain, but who frustratingly is a nasty and unpleasant person. On top of this, the hero feels his low pay and low status will not net him the girl, despite him being an upstanding and pleasant person.

These are the reader's invited empathetic dilemmas in The Day the Machines Stopped. The mundane start which shows a man arriving at work is typical of workaday science fiction — the fictional scientist in this case just can’t get it together, but you know he’s bound to come good by the end.

This highlights The Day the Machines Stopped's a lack of confidence in the material, which is a shame, because the task couldn’t be simpler. Even if Christopher Anvil had stuck to the synopsis he’d written, he would have felt the angelic powers of his writing flash into action, instead of watching them become bogged down in the sort of office badinage which might entertain for a page or two, but which sets up the scene so thoroughly, it takes nearly a sixth of the book.

Never mind. The mundane is also an apocalyptic theme. In Tomorrow! (1954) and Triumph (1963) by Philip Wylie presents no relief from totally destructive holocausts, which is what one hopes for in earnest. There is a great 1984 novel by Janet and Chris Morris, titled The 40-Minute War, in which the nuclear war is triggered by Islamic jihadists, and in Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974) the war has already come and gone, and exists as a back story, if you will. These are conceits that confidently engulf the reader, and leave me to see The Day the Machines Stopped as a a more half hearted effort.

See also The Shadow on the Hearth (1950) which is in keeping with classic survival SF such as The Shrinking Man, as it shows a New York housewife taking practical measures to cope with a nuclear attack, and a slightly sanitised version of the same in the very popular Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank, which sees a Florida town coming to terms with a similar apocalyptic strike — there was so much more going on in 1950s and 1960s apocalyptic.

Consider: Not This August (UK: Christmas Eve) (1955) by Cyril M. Kornbluth and Vandenberg (1971) by Oliver Lange, both describe a post-nuclear USA governed by Soviets. This semi-realist approach works best of all in Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957), which shows a group of survivors awaiting the arrival of the nuclear fallout, a great subject. These novels place the disaster centre stage, creating a darkened and strangled world — the sort of places the author of The Day the Machines Stopped seeks to avoid.

Post the fallout, the theme is sometimes a return to agrarian or a pre-industrial ruin, as in Ape and Essence (1948) by Aldous Huxley or The Wild Shore (1984) by Stanley Robinson. In books like Alfred Coppel’s Dark December (1960) and James Morrow’s This is the Way the World Ends (1985) the landscape is broken, people are shattered and there’s little hope at all.

While I am here then, two special favourites of nuclear fiction must be mentioned, being A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller, and Riddley Walker (1980) which is a post-nuclear-style Canterbury Tales, which presents a fascinating and mutated England, with plenty punning, bastardised language and effective combinations of the ancient (Adam and Eve, for example) and the futuristic (splitting of the atom):

Eusa wuz anger he wuz & he kep pulin on the Littl Man the Addoms owt strecht arms.

So while The Day the Machines Stopped is a disaster story, it is at times a tad confused by the medium. There are points when it inadvertently conjures up the sort of imagery we see a lot later in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and these arise from small conversations about what’s happening further down the storyline.

The villain is called ‘the Duke’ — think Escape from New York if of nothing else — and the ultimate war zone is a country that turns out to be ‘Not America’ — a fact that belies the novel’s real locus — the fascist past, as opposed to the broken down future. This is one vision of the end of the world, but it is one that looks to the anti-fascist and anti-communist wars of the recent 20th Century, finding all it need to shock in the factual apocalyptic of extremist politics.

If you make it to America, tell them to come as soon as they can. The teaching in the schools here is changed; all the children swear allegiance to the Duke, and the secret police plant spies in every town and in every house. My own daughter is in it, and she’d turn me in as soon as she’d spit, except that this morning (sic) she’s away at a group meeting.

Brian stared at him. “That bad? But what do you mean, ‘If you make it to America’? This is America.”

Barnaby shook his head. “No it isn’t. I mean, where they still fly the flag. Where they still vote.”