Sunday, 21 December 2014

Penguin no. 1634: After the Rain
by John Bowen

Cover drawing by
Quentin Blake
'What makes a god?' Arthur said. 'Any thinking person will tell you that men make their own gods. They do so by worship. Whatever you worship is God, whether it be a tree, or the sun, or two sticks, or a ring of stones, or a bull, or a lamb, or a river; it does not matter. Simple men worship the things themselves. Complicated men worship the ideas that the things express, or the spirit that infuses the things, but in terms of behaviour it makes little difference. The behaviour - the ritual, if you prefer - is what matters, because, while interpretations change, the ritual endures.'

After the rain begins as a kind of apocalyptic novel, but an unusual one, with events following each other just a little too quickly, and with its focus on appalling events counterbalanced by an equal focus on the absurd. I have read that John Bowen wrote this novel aiming to be for apocalyptic fiction what Michael Innes had been for the crime novel, and it seems to me that he achieved his aim for that is very much how the story reads: it is more fantasy than science fiction.

The unusual duality is there from the beginning, with this surreal story beginning in the most concrete and easily-visualised location - the lower floor of Foyles in Charing Cross Road. It is here that John Clarke meets a putative rain maker intent on selling his entire rain-making library to Foyle's book buyer before he heads to America. Clarke is a copywriter temporarily trying his hand at journalism and he elects to follow the rain maker to Texas where he has been hired on a fee-for-success basis to engineer the end of a nine year drought. The rain maker succeeds on a scale beyond anything he could have imagined, but it is his final act; as the rain maker plunges to his death the entire world is plunged into an extensive period of unceasing rain.

And welcome though it may be in the beginning, the endless rain inevitably brings in its wake disaster. Disease becomes prevalent, cities and towns are flooded, crops fail, looting prevails, and people are drowned. There are allusions to the typical themes developed in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories - how a callous nature improves the odds of survival, how younger women become valuable, older ones worthless, and men begin to think of each other as competitors. There is also an awareness of the burden to be carried by those who survive; they must brace for the task of beginning again, seeking to protect some quantity of human knowledge while carrying a memory of what has been lost. But in this novel every serious concern is tempered with a consideration of the absurd; the constant rain may mean tragedy, death and loss, but it also induces a flood of Noahs who are intent on building and launching their picture-book arks.

John Clarke seems an unusually fortunate individual. Despite the endless rain, he manages to return from Texas, to escape from London, and to ultimately argue his way on to a well-provisioned raft, and in doing so he ensures his survival and that of a companion he has picked up along the way. The story changes direction quite markedly at this point, becoming less about the disaster and more about the dynamics which underpin communal life. This small group of random survivors adrift on some ocean in their raft come to represent all groups who live separately from the rest of the world, and After the Rain turns out to be a satire on how people behave in such groups: some seek to assert power and others seek favourable outcomes by facilitating the actions of the power-hungry.

For the bizarre circumstances combine to benefit a small, forgettable man who would surely find himself completely overlooked in normal life. This story is not just about how people might survive in these difficult circumstances, but what human frailty and perverted reasoning might allow to emerge, with the post-apocalypse world that John Bowen imagines predicated on someone with a God complex seeking to take control, and others allowing it to happen.

First published by Faber 1958. Published in Penguin Books 1961.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 2155: The Birdcage


  1. It appears the author wrote only one other adult novel which could be classed as science fiction, "No Retreat." After the Rain apparently started first as a novel, and then was written as a play. The author was born in 1924 and is apparently still living. There is an interesting article on him in the on-line Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

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