In the science fiction tradition of great books like Earth Abides, I Am Legend, Empty World, Alas, Babylon, and many others, Junk Day presents us with the end of the world . . . and what comes after. Writers and readers have always been fascinated by this type of story: how can people cope when everything that gave life meaning seems to have been destroyed? The fight to survive is fascinating in itself, but this is the sort of book that puts a writer into a philosophical mood. Is mere survival enough? What is the nature of society? Do we need other people, and the institutions we cherished?
In Junk Day, an artist and former societal hanger-on man named Bryan finds himself a survivor of mysterious convulsions in the planet that have tumbled buildings and destroyed the works of man. He faces his new circumstances with a cynical attitude which seems to predate the disaster. But all of that changes when he meets Vee, the last survivor of her convent, and starts to paint again. Then the two of them meet Barney (in a clumsy play on words, Barney and Bryan are two sides of a coin; a near-anagram which Sellings did not leave us to discover for ourselves.) Barney has created a little kingdom, with himself as autocrat, and an economy based on recovered pre-disaster items. This, of course, explains the novel's title.
A big part of the fun of books like this is the exploration of methods of survival. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank showed us a post-bomb future in which a surgeon has to try to save a man's life with kitchen cutlery, and gasoline is a precious, dwindling commodity, never to be replaced. Alas, Junk Day is very weak in this respect, though the first chapter hints at an every-man-your-enemy quest for survival through a ruined world, but this aspect quickly disappears, and our hero saunters through the world essentially unchallenged for the rest of the book. (Like every other book of this subgenre I have read, canned goods provide sustenance into the indeterminate future. Obviously, few science fiction authors have opened a ten-year-old can of beans and tried to enjoy its contents. Current methods of canning do not preserve food for the ages.)
One distinction between this and similar stories is that in Junk Day, we never learn the cause of the world's breakup. This creates, or should create, a philosophical sense of angst. Did we destroy ourselves? There seems to be no radiation. The earlier novel Earth Abides by George Stewart, suggests that man as a species, like other species, has a limited time to control the world, and natural forces (In this case, a plague) will encompass his replacement. A Wrinkle in the Skin, by John Christopher, uses earthquakes in a similar way. In any case, the unresolved mystery gives Junk Day a touch of subtlety.
Tough-mindedness is often a characteristic of this sort of novel, particularly those written by British authors (like Sellings.) The Death of Grass by John Christopher presents "heroes" who undergo a moral disintegration; a woman comforts a teen whose parents her group has just murdered, telling her , "people kill for food now." The reality of rape is usually an accepted part of the grim future. In Junk Day, Bryan has sex with Vee the day he meets her, and she seems resigned rather than enthusiastic, making conditions before she agrees. There is a tacit understanding the sex is inevitable, giving today's reader qualms. Bryan differs from the rapist who killed Vee's friend, but perhaps only in degree. He also callously abandons his convenient friend Eddie, but he later pays for this sin.
Given that the novel was written in 1970, it would be fair to expect some comments on race. Many books of this sort explore this issue (Earth Abides is courageous in this respect, featuring an interracial romance.) But Junk Day is content to explore the British fascination with class, and the characters are all white, as far as we can tell. I found the character of Barney to be the most interesting study offered: he honestly believes that the working-class fair-play he substitutes for justice is preferable to the pre-disaster system. And perhaps, in a way, it is; at one point, Bryan is ready to kill a man he believes to be guilty of a heinous crime, but Barney and his "gang" quickly uncover the truth.
This novel seems too short for its ambitious subject matter, and it also seems to wander a little. The unifying idea seems to be the study of contrasts: between art and junk, purpose and futility, God and godlessness, hope and despair. Bryan's satisfaction, or lack thereof, with his new efforts at painting is a measure of the hope that is left for spiritual things and purpose. But the book doesn't give us enough time to reflect on its contentions, or a large enough context for them. We get a snippet of the characters' lives, and they aren't very likeable characters for the most part. Interesting minor characters are left undeveloped. The ending is strong and unexpected, leaving deeper questions for the reader to consider. To me, the dismissive opinion of Bryan and his efforts expressed by the last-minute character in the last chapter was welcome, but it is downbeat to say the least.
Junk Day is far from the best novel of its type, and I recommend the reader start with the much more soul-searing works of John Christopher, or the more resonant work by Stewart. But if you have read those and want more, or if you have always wondered how "hippy" philosophy might evolve after the big crash, Junk Day offers enough differences, though too few thrills, to engage you.