There are plenty of dove grey covered books which are synonymous with the kind of output we have come to expect from the divine Persephone books, works by the likes of Dorothy Whipple, D E Stevenson, Mollie Panter Downes and Marghanita Laski. The Hopkins Manuscript is not that kind of book – on paper it isn’t the kind of novel I would read, but prompted by Kaggsy’s superb review I put it on my Persephone wishlist. Although I received it for Christmas in 2013 it has taken me till now to get around to reading it – and it proved absolutely unputdownable. A Sci-Fi novel by the author of the famous World War I play Journey’s End and another superb novel re-issued by Persephone books A Fortnight in September, The Hopkins Manuscript is a brilliant imagining of the moon’s collision with the earth, and the eventual end of western civilisation. Sci-fi novels vary in type, and I have read only a few over the years, but the only kind of Sci-fi I have any interest in, is the type which is set in a recognisable world, where unexpected, unworldly or fantastic events impact seriously upon that world and the people in it.
The novel opens with a foreword in which an Abyssinian scientist explains how the Hopkins Manuscript was discovered inside a flask by explorers examining the ruins of Notting Hill; working to understand the last days of that dead western civilisation. The document was written in the days before the death of that civilisation, and hidden away for men of the future to discover.
The Manuscript begins seven years after the cataclysm; the world of Western Europe is dying.
“I am writing by the light of a piece of string which I have pushed through a fragment of bacon fat and arranged in an egg-cup. I shall write by night, partly because I can no longer sleep through these ghastly, moonless chasms, and partly because by day I must search for food, and the days are short.”
The narrator, Edgar Hopkins a quiet former school master, member of the British Lunar Society, was living in a small house in the Hampshire village of Beadle in October 1945. His concerns were mainly those of a keen breeder of Bantam hens. Edgar’s quiet, comfortable life is thrown horribly off balance when he is called to an emergency meeting of The Lunar Society in London. Edgar travels to London with his heart in his mouth, expecting to be stung for money he can ill afford and rashly promised during an acrimonious earlier meeting. However, Edgar and his fellow members are instead let into a terrible secret, a secret that governments and scientists have known and been preparing for quietly behind the scenes.
“At midnight on the 12th February this year the moon had drawn nearer to the earth by 3,583 miles”
The president of the society lays the facts before his stunned audience, how the measurements have been taken and scrupulously checked, and that according to their calculations the moon will crash into the earth on May 3rd of the following year. There begins much speculation about the nature and severity of the collision and whether it will mean a complete destruction of the earth, or whether the earth will survive altered and in parts devastated but with some life at least preserved. The members of the society are urged to keep the secret until the altered appearance of the moon becomes so discernible with the naked eye that the people need be told. Edgar goes home to his dear little home, his hens and the community with whom he has a reserved relationship nursing his terrible secret.
Bit by bit the world’s fate becomes known, and things necessarily start to change. Sherrif’s descriptions of how the government and media manipulate the populace into calm compliance feels brilliantly realistic; one way to keep the populace busy and active, and giving people hope is in the required development of dug outs in which to spend the hours of the evening of the 3rd May. In the months leading up to the fateful night – Edgar finds new occupations and develops new friendships among the people of Beadle. Aside from a few understandable ructions, the villagers largely pull together, many of them believing in the government’s positive spin on the impending disaster. We know of course right from the start that the earth isn’t instantly destroyed – but that is partly what makes this so compulsively readable, how is the world changed? Who dies? who survives?
Edgar Hopkins is a rather self-important little man (although still likeable enough – he is a recognisable type) he takes great pride in his prize hen Broodie, and has placed himself rather above the patrons of the local pub in the years before that meeting at the British Lunar society which condemned him to the possibility of just seven months left on earth. In the three months before the news of the moon’s collision with earth is made known, Edgar nurses the secret jealously and importantly, imagining how his fore-knowledge will in time make him a hero among the villagers as he calms their fears and intelligently answers the questions that must naturally follow. Things, naturally don’t go quite as Edgar has imagines – but Edgar has skills, and when he begins to throw himself into the creation of the Beadle dugout he finds he has more in common with people from the village than he perhaps thought.
“All the way to the village the birds sang in chorus as birds only can upon a dawn in May. I think the singing of those birds in the moonlight was the strangest sound that I ever heard”
What happens after the 3rd of May is brilliantly imagined, Edgar Hopkins finds himself in a world he doesn’t recognise. Yet, Edgar has been changed and rather humanised by the months leading up to the cataclysm, and so he throws himself into working to re-establish is own little piece of the world amidst the changed and devastated landscape. The irony of course, and no doubt the message of the entire novel, is that it isn’t the devastating natural disaster that destroys the world, but man himself.
This novel is brilliant on so many levels, it is a sci-fi novel which should really be every bit as well known as The Time Machine, yet I am sure few people (non Persephone readers certainly) have heard of it. The Hopkins Manuscript examines, quite poignantly how human beings react under extraordinary circumstances, but it also has a lot to say about the ending of the Empire as it was understood at this time, the relationships between nations and how ultimately man is destined to destroy itself. There is naturally a clear allegorical aspect to a novel written and published at a time of dreadful upheaval in Europe, as the threat of war drew ever closer. Outside of all that however, The Hopkins Manuscript is just a hugely readable story, endlessly compelling I fairly flew through what is a pretty chunky volume.