A freak electrical storm outside a small laboratory in London releases a nitrogen-eating bacterium into the world. B. diazotans, as it’s named, rapidly and unstoppably turns soil into sand, leaving plants without nourishment, so that they soon wither and die. Without grass and vegetation to eat, cattle, sheep and other animals quickly begin to starve. Within a few months humanity is facing worldwide famine.
Such is the background for J.J. Connington’s 1923 novel “Nordenholt’s Million,” the account of how one charismatic business tycoon enacts a drastic, morally disturbing plan to build a fortified, isolated compound and research center in the Clyde Valley of Scotland, stock this so-called “nitrogen zone” with all the food he can acquire at whatever cost, and then abandon everyone outside it to their fate.
Reissued in 2016 as a “Doomsday Classic” by Dover Books, “Nordenholt’s Million” addresses several issues unnervingly familiar from the Trump-covid era. Because of air travel and global tourism, B. diazotans, a.k.a. the Blight, quickly spreads from Britain to all parts of the world. Governments initially pooh-pooh its dangers, set up commissions, panels and seven-step programs, and reassure citizens that all will soon be well again. The scientific data — “the cold equations,” to borrow the title of Tom Godwin’s classic science-fiction story on a similar theme — reveal a far grimmer future.
When Britain’s prime minister, its home secretary and other officials meet with the country’s leading industrialists, Nordenholt — who made his fortune through his profound grasp of human psychology — dismisses the government’s proposals for dealing with the crisis as mere “window-dressing.” As he angrily declares, “You aren’t up against a majority you can wheedle into taking your advice. This time you are up against plain facts of Nature. . . . Now I ask a plain question and I’m going to get a straight answer from you for once: What are your plans?”
In practical terms, the government has none. Nordenholt, however, believes that researchers will eventually defeat the bacterium and discover a way to re-nitrify the soil. In the meantime, given an already diminished and finite food supply, there remains only one logical course of action: “We select from the fifty million of our population those whom we regard as most fitted to survive.” The outraged parliamentarians respond that he is proposing the mass murder of the British people. To which Nordenholt replies: “No. What I am trying to do is to save some millions of them from certain death.”
Eventually, the weak-willed government yields and adopts these draconian measures. Granted dictatorial powers, Nordenholt recruits his carefully chosen scientists, engineers, coal miners, factory workers and other personnel, along with their families. Once these are all securely billeted in the Clyde Valley, his “Labour Defense Force” initiates a destructive Blitzkrieg to protect the Nitrogen Zone from possible invasion by the hungry and desperate: “Every telegraph and telephone exchange was gutted; the remaining artillery was rendered useless; all the printing machinery of newspapers was wrecked; every aeroplane destroyed and practically all aerodromes burned; and as the trains and motors went northward in the night, bridge after bridge on the line or road was blown up.”
Connington’s narrator is an expert in factory efficiency named Flint, a man whose professional life revolves around graphs and hard, material facts. Yet Flint not only succumbs to Nordenholt’s personal magnetism — he also falls in love with Elsa, his hero’s idealistic, highly empathetic niece and secretary. Like everyone outside the Nitrogen Zone’s inner circle, Elsa believes that all the frenetic research is aimed at the common good and that her revered uncle will somehow save all of Britain’s population. The book’s numerous moral complexities come to the fore when Elsa finally learns the truth.
While reading “Nordenholt’s Million,” I was frequently reminded of the Cold War’s classic Fallout Shelter question: If you and your family are bunkered down with just enough food to weather a nuclear blast, what do you do when your panic-stricken neighbors come pleading for refuge? Would you let them in? Or do you threaten to shoot? In Connington’s novel, the king and queen choose to stay in the South and perish with the bulk of their people. Is that the right moral course? Or mere foolishness?
Certainly, Nordenholt’s methods can be revolting, though he justifies them as rational and appropriate to an apocalyptic emergency. To protect the Clyde Valley’s saving remnant, he spreads false information that a deadly plague has ravaged that community and is now threatening the entire country. Thoroughly frightened, the South’s already starving people self-isolate in their homes, where they die alone. When a subversive faction threatens the Nitrogen Zone’s stability, Nordenholt orders its leaders mowed down by machine-gun fire. In one harrowing chapter, clearly meant to recall Dante’s journey through hell, Flint tours London during its last days. There he finds skeletons massed outside pubs and churches, widespread cannibalism, pyromania, orgies, the corruption of the once good and beautiful into creatures of sadistic brutishness, wolf-pack gangs ruling the streets, and everywhere violence and madness.
J.J. Connington was the pen name of Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947), a research chemist who wrote on the side, mainly detective novels. “Nordenholt’s Million” was his first book and his only work of speculative, idea-driven fiction. Today, it might prompt comparison with the miniseries “Chernobyl” or Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”
Though clearly wanting the reader to approve of Nordenholt and his survivalist mission, Connington never shies away from showing its human costs — the disregard for democratic institutions, the disdain for the working classes, the coldly dispassionate acceptance of horrific suffering.
And there let me stop, even though Connington’s provocative and suspenseful novel includes much more than I’ve touched on in this partial precis. Will Nordenholt ultimately save his chosen people from this global biological catastrophe? Will the brown Earth ever be green again? Make your best guess — or just read the book.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
By J. J. Connington
Dover. 256 pp. Paperback. $12.95
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