A streak of pastoralism runs through a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction—especially novels set well after the collapse. In these bucolic futures, we find a near-empty landscape, peopled with small communities living in the shrinking shadows of our rusting modernity. Farmers ply the land; traders trade; and no one can much fathom the artifacts of our strange technological culture. When the English Fall belongs to this tradition, but comes at it leftways and inside out: the protagonists in a world where modern technology dies in a day are Amish—members of small, insular, religious community that already largely eschews modern technology. They live the pastoral before the cataclysm, and it is only after that their rustic existence is breached.
Jacob, our narrator, is used to being up at night. His daughter Sadie suffers from seizures that leave him sleepless with worry even when they’re in remission, trapped in that helpless anxiety of loving parents. One night, he and Sadie are awake late, and talking quietly, when the world lights up with what look like angels in the heavens. But the bright lights in the midnight sky are aurora, caused by a solar storm strong enough to knock out most modern technology across the face of the earth. Their modern American neighbors—the English, as the Amish term them—have fallen.
Post-apocalyptic fiction gets good mileage running its characters from a technologically coddled softness to the hard realities of subsistence living. Here, we have something stranger: a people learned in the ways of subsistence in small groups, living off the mercurial land, slowly being overrun by their hungry, scared, sometimes brutally survivalist neighbors. In some ways, depicting the sustenance-based community being overrun, the book runs the post-apocalyptic pastoral backward, throwing the peaceful farming community into crisis at the end of the world, instead of building them up as an idyll in an empty world, still existing long after the end of things.
All that said, this rosy view of old-fashioned living is a somewhat antique vision of the time after the end of days, explored in published well before the turn of the millennium, a goodly number of them now out of print. In Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin details the lives of the Kesh, who “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”; it is a soft, private recollection of a gentle community. When the English Falls fits neatly within this genre paradigm, in a way: it presents us with a portrait of kind, thoughtful folk, but doesn’t needlessly romanticize its members. Not everyone is going to get on, and some people are jerks, but mostly, their society works.
Nowadays, the post-apocalyptic is more often written as something more like an anti-pastoral: consider Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which runs a long, low pan of a ruined and crumbling landscape. Zombie fiction only rarely deals in the simple life of the land, even as it yields up beautiful, awful descriptions of a rotting earth. The human protagonists in a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction must be untethered to survive, not living deep within an interconnected community that values humility, submission to God, and non-violence above all other things. This is where Williams breaks from those rustic pre-millennial visions: When the English Fall takes place in the weeks and months after the cataclysm, not in a now-stable far future: the peaceful pastoral and the brutal end times set against each other.
It takes more than a couple days for Jacob and his community to understand the import of the tech failure precipitated by the solar storm. Early sections of the novel detail Jacob’s day to day chores: collecting with Amish neighbors to mend a roof; sowing the winter broccoli; building chairs for one of the wealthy English; harvesting apples. But the harsh reality of a larger world without electricity, mobility, or connectivity begins to manifest, even for a people who seem uniquely suited to survive such a calamity. Jacob’s English business partner Mike shows up red-faced on a bicycle, to detail the discomfort and instability of his existence since the lights went out. The military comes round for donations of Amish foodstuffs, even while Jacob begins to worry about the community’s stores for the coming winter.
Their non-Amish neighbors begin to take up arms against “looters” and “thieves”—often people starving and desperate. Sometimes the looters and thieves are cruelly violent themselves. As the end times drag on, both the brutality of the violence and its physical closeness to Jacob and his family keep escalating. Jacob (and the reader) can extrapolate into the future. A member of a people that treasures non-violence as one of its most vital tenets, seeing his neighbors take up arms to protect his community feels like an ethical dodge for Jacob. If others must act with violence to protect me, how meaningful is my embrace of peaceful and compassionate living?
While the books is narrated in Jacob’s kindly and charitable voice, often as he simply details his day-to-day activities and interactions with his family, I read this book with a feeling of rising dread. I’m one of the English, one of the technologically dependent hundreds of millions of people who surround the tiny Amish communities in America. At one point, I set down the book to weed my feeble garden plot—like five tomato plants are going to do me any good when the lights go out and the supply lines are severed. I could feel the chain of events that would send me on a collision course with Jacob, with his gun-wielding English neighbors, with the larger implacable reality of the end of days.
While Jacob ruminates on his culture, his ethical responsibilities, and his simple faith, I could feel the pressing, untold stories of countless English driven by hunger and terror out into the tidy Amish fields, and then into their homes. I could feel the coming violence like a roiling storm on the horizon, one that cause indelible and irrevocable damage to Jacob, and his kith and kin. It felt like watching a slasher film—I sat, screaming ineffectually at the principles: The killer is there! Turn and look! But Jacob would not be Jacob without his fundamental beliefs, and he can see the killer just as clearly as I do. In fact, he sees a different killer altogether—mine is one of the body, and his, one of the spirit.
One of the most beloved texts of the Amish is a 17th Century book called Martyrs Mirror, which details the lives, and deaths, of countless faithful Christians whose practice of nonresistance resulted in their martyrdom. Jacob, at times, reads from this text. He finds strength in several stories, such as one where a fleeing Anabaptist turns back to rescue his pursuer who has fallen through the ice, only to be caught and killed in turn. I am not trying to telegraph an ending for our protagonist; indeed, the ending is more ambiguous, hopeful, and uneasy than that. But Jacob is a man who has considered the idea of sacrifice all of his life, and he understands that sometimes instead of dying for your principles, you must live for them, even if that life is uncomfortable, hard, and unrewarded. Maybe especially if.