London seems to get trashed an awful lot, I’ve noticed. Whether by aliens, monsters, diseases or the occasional World War III, this poor city is a punching bag up there with New York. Here’s a small selection of the smackdowns London has received.
Seen in: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year
This one is unique to this list, in that it really happened. It’s also an early equivalent of what we’d now call “docudrama” – real life events set in a fictional framework. The book is a fictionalised account of the Plague of 1665. It was published in 1772, just as a similar plague was finishing wreaking havoc in Marseilles – there was a very real fear at the time of history repeating itself in London.
The concept of an actual apocalyptic event taking place in London is, these days, confined to speculative fiction. Our mindset tends to be that London could get wiped out, but really, what are the chances? The fact that this was a real event, that really did look like it could mark the end of the world, must have given contemporary readers the shivers.
This book also set the template for the apocalyptic events of speculative fiction with its detailed descriptions of the familiar city turned alien.
2. World War III
Seen in: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most important works of fiction of the twentieth century. Read today, the concept of a government that watches your every move, manipulates its people through propaganda and keeps the world in a state of constant war has an uncomfortable familiarity. The terms “thought police”, “room 101” and “Big Brother” are all household phrases originating in this book.
The main character is Winston Smith, a man who dreams of rebelling against the totalitarian regime. His London is a hostile place, filled with cameras and hidden microphones. Anyone could be an agent of the Thought Police, lying in wait for any hint of insurrection. Add to that the constant shortages, the steady pummeling of rocket bombs and the compulsory exercise regimes and you have the perfect dystopia.
3. Daleks and Cybermen
Seen in: Doctor Who, ‘Army of Ghosts’ and ‘Doomsday’.
If I were Doctor Who, I wouldn’t bother travelling. I’d just stake out the major London landmarks and wait for the monsters to come to me. Aliens just love London, and I had real trouble picking out a single attack for this post. I went with the Daleks versus the Cybermen for two simple reasons. One, it has that double-whammy factor of two badass alien armies going at each other, and two, for the trash talk.
“Daleks be warned – you have declared war on the Cybermen.”
“THIS IS NOT WAR – THIS IS PEST CONTROL!”
“We have five million Cybermen. How many are you?”
“You would destroy the Cybermen with four Daleks?”
“WE WOULD DESTROY THE CYBERMEN WITH ONE DALEK! YOU ARE SUPERIOR IN ONLY ONE RESPECT!”
“What is that?”
“YOU ARE BETTER AT DYING!”
Zing! Oh no he di’n’t!
4. Everyone goes blind, then they get attacked by weird killer plants
Seen in: Day of the Triffids
So here’s the deal. These strange plants have appeared, which everyone’s calling “triffids”. They can walk, they’re intelligent to a degree, they have venomous stings and they eat flesh. But they do produce some rather excellent vegetable oil. They’re pretty slow and they’re harmless if you just cut the stinger off. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?
Ruh-roh! Everyone’s gone blind. The protagonist, Bill Masen, wakes up in his hospital bed to silence. Removing the bandages from his head, he discovers that a meteor storm the previous night has destroyed everyone’s sight. And now there’s no one to keep the triffids in check…
The opening of John Wyndham’s novel is an obvious inspiration for 28 Days Later, with a hospitalised survivor wandering around an eerily changed city in the aftermath of the disaster. Recommended reading, all.
5. Zombie Apocalypse
It turns out that Max Brooks was on to something after all. Following an accident in a research laboratory involving a chimp and that guy who was in The Friday Night Armistice, the entire population of Britain has become blood-puking, permanently furious ghouls (you know, like in Belfast). Now, zombie film enthusiasts will argue until long after you’ve become bored over whether the Infected count as zombies or not, given that they’re not technically undead, but close enough. The spookiest scene by far comes at the beginning, when Cillian Murphy wakes up at St Thomas’ Hospital and finds himself staggering through an entirely deserted city.
This film is also responsible for inventing the “fast zombie”. You can’t outrun these bastards.
6. Martian Invasion
Seen in: War of the Worlds
This is the archetypal alien invasion story. It’s been endlessly copied and adapted, but the original still takes the cake. Aliens land in Woking and humanity finds itself hopelessly outdone by the extraterrestrial technology, driven back to the stone age as a few survivors hide out in the ruins of London. The ending (SPOILER ALERT), in which the Martians are only defeated by their susceptibility to terrestrial bacteria to which we have long since become immune, is a classic.
Also worth a read if you get the chance is Ian Edginton and D’Israeli’s graphic novel sequel, Scarlet Traces.
If you liked this, you may also enjoy https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/06/09/five-beasties-to-ruin-your-commute/.