The World in Winter by John Christopher

For the first time in forever I have a little stash of posts ready to publish. Hence, while I read The World in Winter for Bookish Valhalla’s Backlist Challenge January prompt of a winter theme, I am only now getting round to posting it. And as this is a book from the Motherload boxes, I get to throw up my Digging for Gold flag too – hurrah!


1978 book cover for The World in Winter by John Christopher

The World in Winter is very much a book of its time. Published in 1962 just two years after Nigeria achieved independence, it imagines a reversal of the colonial relationship between Britain and some of the African countries previously under its rule when climate change turns everywhere north of the equator into a winter wasteland.

I was expecting something different to this, I’ll admit. I thought I’d be getting a story about the slow degradation of society and the return of human savagery in response to a harsh new world in which crops do not grow and the infrastructure has collapsed under the strain. And yeah, there was a bit of this. But there was also a lot of domestic commotion that was interesting/irritating by turns, a strong dose of class commentary and this curious (especially for its time) post-colonial irony.

Andrew and Carol Leedon have a nice middle-class life in London. Their two boys are at boarding school; Andrew works in television; and Carol does nothing in particular. After an Italian scientist’s theory about the coming of a new ice-age begins to gain traction, Andrew is put in contact with David Cartwell, a man who works with the Home Office. The two men hit it off over drinks in the afternoon and gentleman’s club dinners and introduce their wives to one another. Carol promptly leaves her husband for David, and Andrew and David’s wife Maddie are left to lick their wounds together.

Meanwhile, (because, hello, that incoming ice-age), London experiences the worst winter on record, and Spring does not bring the usual improvement in the weather. The cold sets in over a period of six months and by March the government has proclaimed a State of Emergency. Martial law swiftly follows, then riots, and then the London Pale (a small, central part of London which is cordoned off: within the Pale law and order is maintained, beyond it anything goes). By summer the highest midday temperature recorded is 3 degrees above freezing. Carol has already headed for Nigeria with the boys, now Andrew and Maddie decide to follow at David’s urging.

The second part of the book then looks at Andrew and Maddie’s experiences in Lagos: their struggle to find work and a place to live as just two of thousands of refugees who have flooded Nigeria, (others have headed to Ghana, South Africa, Algeria and Egypt; in America people are moving down into South America). Everything that was once an advantage for them is now a disadvantage: their education, their previous wealth, their skin colour. Christopher writes some brilliantly observed scenes in this section and they’ve got an extra bite considering some of the recent news about those seeking shelter in the UK. While it feels very removed from the wintry disaster that brackets this section of the book, I actually found this the most interesting reading.

Things then improve dramatically for the pair when Andrew is found by an old aquaintance, Abonitu, and given a job in television as Abonitu’s assistant. Then when Nigeria decides to send a ‘scientific expedition’ into the now ungoverned areas of Northern Europe to lay claim to Britain (after learning that Ghana and Egypt plan similar expeditions) Abonitu and Andrew wangle places onboard to document the journey. Part three then follows the hovercraft squadron (yep, you read that right – they travel by hovercraft because … I don’t know … hovercraft were still thought of as new and cool in the ‘60s?) back to Britain, stopping by Guernsey along the way to encounter a new world order, before re-entering London and meeting up with David again.

I was left with very mixed feelings about this book. I remember enjoying Christopher’s The Death of Grass a good six or seven years ago, but that seemed a more straightforward story. Here the scope is bigger and more political, things which can often take me a longer time to parse. The World in Winter is also a more uncomfortable read. The words negro and negress are used throughout the text, for example. These were still acceptable descriptors in the early 1960s, but there is massive weight to those words now that triggers a negative emotional response every time. Racist attitudes are presented, and although I would argue that these are not Christopher’s own opinions, they are still offensive. His references to class are like grit in the eye, but this is possibly a personal sensitivity of mine. The treatment of women, too, was a problem. I guess, all told, it was an interesting read, but it’s not a book I’d read again. Still, it fills in a little more of the picture of 1960s SFF and is a fascinating contrast to, say, J G Ballard, in that Christopher writes good, solid characters who lead the story, where Ballard is much stronger at creating landscapes.




  1. Christopher was an odd author read for me. I’ve only read his teen stuff but I don’t think I’d like his adult books. What you describe here definitely keeps my opinion the same.

    I am glad that you’re getting a taste of something different from your usual. It is also quite interesting to see what you think of the books (not just these but of the whole collection you amassed) as you have no emotional attachment to them and can just read and judge them from today’s perspective.

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    • I can’t decide if that’s an OK way to approach them. Part of me thinks that I should try to gain some historical context for each read so I can at least appreciate how the book came about … another part of me just wants to read them with no context at all.
      I suspect I’m always going to kind of blend these two approaches – sometimes I’ll want to know more about the time and place that produced a book. Sometimes I’ll just want to take the trip. 🙂

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    • You put it all so much better than I’ve managed! I’m pleased to find I didn’t completely miss the point, though. 🙂
      I’m still wrangling with how to approach a lot of this older stuff – do I make a point of learning a book’s context, or do I just jump in with my current attitudes/opinions?


  2. This sounds fascinating, if difficult. I loved John Christopher’s The Lotus Caves as a teenager and still love it now, but it’s a very different novel…

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  3. Of its time, clearly — and interestingly the real winter of 1962-3 aka the Big Freeze occurred after this was published — in terms of culture as well as climate, I would still love to read this, especially after your interesting review. In the meantime, this being the centenary of Sam (‘John Christopher’) Youd’s birth on April 16th I’m intending to read his first adult novel The Winter Swan soon for a review — he’s definitely more than just another SF author.

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