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The Changes Trilogy

Style: Good

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive

In Brief: A thought-provoking look at what life might be like if technology were no longer available. The need to combine skill and hard work in a post-industrial society. An assumed supernatural premise.

Cover of The Changes Trilogy

Author: Peter Dickinson

Series: The Changes

Publisher: Puffin

Published in: 1970

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: Late 20th C

Genres:  AdventureFantasyThought-provoking


Characters:

  • Nicky Gore is a 12-year-old left behind when her parents flee the country in the panic which follows The Changes. When she realises they won’t be coming back for her, she throws in her lot with a party of Sikhs, unaffected by the Changes and seeking a refuge away from the cities.
  • Margaret has grown up with her aunt and uncle in the three years since the Changes. Although more affected than her mechanically-minded cousin Jonathan, she helps him arrange the escape of an American attacked by the villagers as a Witch.
  • Geoffrey & Sally are are brother and sister, accused by the townspeople of Weymouth of having to do with forbidden technology, even though Geoffrey is the town weathermonger with the power to manipulate the weather. They escape to France and are sent back to locate the source of the mysterious Changes.

Synopsis:

One day, without warning, the whole of Britain turns superstitiously against technology and millions of people flee the country leaving the cities and much of the countryside deserted. Those who remain sink deeper into a primitive mindset: anything technological is attacked as witchcraft and certain individuals are gifted with the power to manipulate the weather so Britain enjoys perfect summers, rich harvests and crisp winters.

The rest of the world is unaffected but is unable to take any action: any agents they send in are attacked as Witches or go native, succumbing to the same hatred of technology as the remaining islanders. The Britons who remain become more and more isolated in small communities, lacking anything more modern than a horse and cart to take them further afield. At the same time, certain people are less affected and are ready to use the technology which lies rusting and unused around them, although risking being accused of witchcraft.

The three stories were written in reverse chronological order: The Weathermonger was the first to be published, a standalone story involving a resourceful brother and sister. It introduces the problem of The Changes while it leads us to its solution. Heartsease takes place when the effects of the Changes are well established and concerns the efforts of a boy and girl cousin to smuggle away an American agent who’s been attacked as a Witch. And The Devil’s Children tells the story of a girl who’s separated from her family and left behind in the chaotic days after the Changes take hold; she serves as the means to unite suspicious and fearful English villagers with the foreign but competent Sikh community who’ve taken her in.

Read a précis of the entire story (will contain spoilers)

Notes:

I remember very well the BBC dramatisation of this series in the early 1970s: the chaos as the population of Britain attacked the machinery which had been helping them; the jarring electronic noise which represented the fear and hatred they felt whenever they went near any reminder of their industrial society; and the finale as Nicky approached the cave where the Power which had caused all the Changes lay hidden. As is often the case, it appears somewhat dated viewed today, and the actress playing the supposedly young teenage heroine is clearly older than her character. (imdb.com informs me that she was 20 at the time). But the breakdown and re-adjustment of society at the heart of the stories still comes across strongly.

Each book focuses on one community and on a few individuals within it. These are stories about people with no attempt, except indirectly in The Weathermonger, to refer to the wider world, no God’s-eye view. You see and hear only what the young protagonists see and hear. You see the bond between Nicky, abandoned by her own family, and the aged matriarch of the extended Sikh family. They don’t even share a language but they are “kindred spirits”. You understand why Margaret, a child of The Changes, feels as much at home with the horses as her cousin Jonathan, who’s shaken off the effects, does with machinery.

This series casts across its characters the shadow of isolation, of dislocation, and occasionally of a past lost to them. Set and written in the early 1970s, one might imagine that its author was interested in crafting a ban-the-bomb, back-to-nature parable, rejecting the over-industrialised advances of the preceding centuries. But the situation is more nuanced. The reversion of the people of Britain to a low-tech Dark Age is imposed upon them, not chosen by them as a rebellion against technology. And the resulting world is no utopia. Work is back-breaking and tedious. Without technology, tasks must be done at certain times on certain days so that life can carry on. Food can’t be stored beyond a few short days and there’s no mechanical assistance to help farm-workers. Medical help is crude: a woman whose leg is infected dies within a few weeks. This isn’t a return to an idyllic Golden Age – it’s a very real picture of what life would be like without the technology we take for granted. At the same time we see a land which is free from pollution of any kind and – in the series’ only real concession to the supernatural beyond its major premise – which enjoys storybook British weather.

There is a double-vision effect in reading a work of imagination written decades ago. Not only are we immersed in the author’s fictional world, we’re also implictly living inside the worldview of his time, or at least his version of it. The society on which the mysterious Changes are have their effect is Britain of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I don’t know what today’s 12-year-old readers will make of Nicky’s luggage arrangements as civilisation collapses: a party blouse and a spare skirt packed into a school satchel. And it seems to me that conventional families are taken very much more for granted, as well as conventional politeness. (There’s a bit of light humour when Nicky meets the Sikhs; in politeness she calls the adults “Mr… “ and “Mrs…” but they’re a large extended family and all share the same surname). One effect of the 1970s setting is that society is nowhere near so dependent on electronics nor on electricity in general. True, even in rural communities, almost everyone would have had electricity but the absence of power would affect us far more today.

In a series of exchanges between Jonathan and Margaret, we see the effect of the Changes in two different directions. Jonathan is no longer affected by the horror most people feel for any form of technology. Margaret, while able to tolerate technology, is more a child of the Changed society. Left to his own devices, Jonathan has acquired an clandestine interest in mechanisms, in the rusting tractors and other machinery on his parents’ farm. Margaret, in contrast, has formed an empathy with animals and more especially with the horses and ponies she rides. But for all his delight in technology Jonathan does pass on to Margaret a comment which his father made: that machines are wicked and evil because they’re the devil’s work and men become obsessed by them; Jonathan dismisses the religious suggestion, but agrees that the do indeed work their way into your mind. Given the hold which modern technology has especially on young people, this seems at least a little prescient now.

Part of the return to the Dark Ages is assumed to be a return to a more traditional practice of religion, with a greater prominence given to religious practice and authory. (Here, as in other aspects, the series doesn’t examine its historical sources too closely). There’s a certain generic fear of Witchcraft and talk of the Devil but no real attempt to follow through the implications of any renewed religious practice. As the Sikhs and the English unite at the end of The Devil’s Children, there’s some question as to where the honourable dead should be buried given their respective religious practices. The author wryly comments that the Sikhs aren’t Christians, but that the English are – at least since August, when the Changes began. I suspect that the author himself had no particular feelings about religion and simply felt that it would have been part of the package which a reversion to the Dark Ages would have brought.

Something which always impresses me is the demonstration of competence in one area or another. While it’s perfectly possible to introduce a character who, for plot reasons, has to be incompetent, it’s all too easy to have even a clearly heroic character who bumbles his way into and out of situations merely succeeding by chance or by the undeserved help of others. Well, competence is in evidence here in some quantity. To a certain extent, the nature of the setting is self-selective: those who can manage will survive; those who can’t, won’t. But it’s still good to see the Sikhs in action. In spite of their history as a race of warriors, in their London setting they’ve mostly been bus drivers or factory foremen. But they pool what skills they have, and they learn what they don’t know, and adapt to the extraordinary situation they find themselves in. Likewise, the teenage Jonathan uses and develops his liking for mechanics (a dangerous penchant in the post-Changes Britain) to repair and navigate a long-deserted tug down a canal and onto the open sea through disused lock gates and swing bridges. And it’s great fun to see Geoffrey learn to drive the antique but well-crafted Rolls Royce, using it like a tank across uneven terrain and along the long-abandoned motorways as well as practicing his own particular skill at guiding the weather in a particular direction.

Margaret riding sidesaddle All these are striking examples of male competence. But for some reason the image which stays with me the most is from Heartsease: Margaret with her beloved pony Scrub. She rides skirted and side-saddle, the only way permitted for a girl after the Changes, but covers the miles to Gloucester and back, jumps fences, releases an angry bull, and finally jumps into the Bristol Channel when he’s washed overboard, swimming him to the shore and riding all the way back home. I suspect the illustrator liked the idea as well as there are several images of her among the drawings within the book’s pages. (I don’t suppose it’s a subject matter you’re often asked to draw).

The magic of Merlin which gives the book its background is really little more than a plot device which leads you into a world where modern people live their lives in a pre-mediaeval setting. The series sensibly doesn’t over-analyse the effects (Why don’t people tear off their synthetic fabrics? Or demolish their modern houses? Do they still wear glasses?). It’s more interested in exploring the human relations which result when you take away the elements of out everyday life which we’ve taken for granted for so long and which, perhaps, engross us more than we realise.

Themes:

  • What would life be like if technology stopped working?
  • How much do we really need the things we have?
  • How valid are old-fashioned ideas about women and witchcraft?

Friday 3rd February 2012