The time is a Christmas in near future (e.g. the 1980s); the place is Gloucester, England. The city streets are lined with Christmas trees and decorations, and the shopping malls and groceries are full of presents and fine foods, but not a soul can be found—most have been evacuated before the city falls victim to The Sickness. Astronauts have brought back an extraterrestrial spore which attacks cement/concrete, consuming it and causing buildings to crumble. Cities are turned into piles of rubble, broken glass and bits of masonry and brick, jumbled heaps of civilization and decay. Aside from a token police presence, patrolling the area to evacuate survivors. The remaining population the evacuated ghost-city is four, four people with their own goals and agendas that have kept them in the dying metropolis. The Silent Multitude follows them from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, as the abandoned city crumbles around them…
- Paper Smith is a homeless recluse, having earned his name by obsessively collecting papers and storing them in an abandoned coking plant. He has no idea about the state of the world, living without a radio or TV, and having lost the ability to communicate with other humans—his only friend in the world is the tomcat Tug, who Smith provides meals of powdered milk. He doesn’t even read the papers he hoards. All he’s left with are his faded memories of a wife and some 80,000 pounds he inherited and chose to invest on his own, the remains of which he uses to live on.
- Simeon is the embittered son of a famed local architect, something of a n’er-do-well who’s something of a broken character. As a means of revenge against his upbringing, he has been travelling across England watching in glee as his father’s buildings fall. This leaves him as something of a loose cannon, but also the person best suited to survive what will happen to Gloucester.
- Dean Goodliffe is a creature of habit and faith, and has decided that Sickness or no Sickness, it changes nothing; he will continue to hold services at the Cathedral for as long as it stands. His faith and the 800-year-old Cathedral have become one and the same, and he can’t imagine God allowing any harm to come to this majestic structure. In going about his daily routine in the face of a crisis, he’s left by the authorities to go down with the ship—yet he doesn’t fully comprehend the extent of the Sickness that is coming.
- Sally Paget is the daughter of a newspaper executive, and has braved a military/police cordon to sneak into Gloucester so she can find (and report on) the human element of this story. She finds Smith, and then Sim, bound to the old man by an urge to help him, and she justifies getting stuck with Sim (and his unsavory motives) as a means of survival. She’s a mild suburbanite at heart, or at least so she thinks—she evolves near the end.
The apocalyptic backdrop to is fascinating, but the eroding buildings are more backdrop than a main element; Compton wrote very character-driven works, and The Silent Multitude is more a psychological study of four fascinating characters than it is a typical disaster/apocalypse story. The crumbling decay of the City acts as something of a metaphor for the mental disarray of the characters, the only four people crazy enough to stay in a collapsing city. Smith in particular is unaware of the situation’s magnitude, first thinking everyone is home for Christmas, and then assuming a strike or revolution has broke out. Sim is a malcontent with daddy issues, drawn to these cities to watch in psychotic glee as they collapse. The Dean is fated by his calling, blinded and trapped by the solidity of his belief that things should carry on as they always have. This has the odd effect of leaving Sally as the only proactive character by novel’s end, dispensing some rather good ideas and acting as both heart and brains of this party.
And it’s hard to fault some of these characters for their belief that the Sickness is something they can “ride out;” after all, within Compton’s own lifetime, London had been bombed and blitzed and rebuilt from heaps of rubble and ash, memories carried by generations. Maybe that explains the trend in similar catastrophe works that appeared in the ’60s/’70s; J.G. Ballard’s trio of catastrophe novels (The Drowned World, The Burning World, The Crystal World) comes to mind, sharing many similar themes with The Silent Multitude. But comparing the two is a disservice to both; Ballard packs in surreal imagery that pervades his novels, while Compton is much more interested in following his well-developed characters than the catastrophe—his focus on the human element, and his quieter, more subdued prose, gives his catastrophe a different perspective.
That may be the problem with The Silent Multitude; most readers will probably pick it up having been fascinated with its apocalyptic background, only to find a character-driven, somewhat philosophical examination in lieu of pulp catastrophe. It seems poised as an introspective examination of big themes—the frailty of human constructs, or the true nature of civilization, or the relationship between civilization and cities—but I’m not sure it was entirely successful at being one. It loses some of its experimental steam around two-thirds of the way in, and can be very vague at times, leaving much to the reader’s interpretation without making any strong assertions. Instead, The Silent Multitude is an exercise in nihilism, a quiet and melancholic character study, and a very good read… Recommended for those who think this sounds fascinating, or at least more appealing than some schlock “escape the crumbling city” tale.
Title: The Silent Multitude
Editor: David Guy Compton
Edition Read: Ace SF Special (1969)
First Published: 1966
What I Read: mass-market paperback
MSRP: hard copy OOP / $5.99 ebook
Price I Paid: $2.50
ISBN/ASIN: 0441763855 / B00GVFPFGM