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Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: John Wyndham


John Wyndham’s career is divided, and defined, by World War II. Born in 1903, he began publishing SF and detective stories in various magazines in the early 1930s. None of these, I think, are of more than specialist interest these days. Certainly none are anything near as canonical as the four post-war books I’ll discuss below – or several others like The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and The Trouble with Lichen (1960). Wyndham served in World War II, helped found Nova Publications (the home of New Worlds magazine) in the late ’40s, and first achieved widespread renown with The Day of the Triffids.

It’s a cliché for a reviewer to say that at a certain point, a writer has found their voice. But that’s how it feels when you begin The Day of the Triffids and read, ‘‘When a day you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, you know there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’’ The ostensible purpose of that line is clear enough: demonstrating the effect of the disaster that has taken place, and which we guess rightly that the book will explore. But there’s also a certain offhand urbanity there in ‘‘happen to know,’’ as well as an implied worldliness in the fact that the narrator has noticed this at all. And although something has gone very wrong, the narrator feels sufficiently calm about it that he can make this analysis. This is emotion recollected, if not in tranquillity, then certainly at a safe distance.

All these components, plus a kind of journalistic transparency, go into the voice that Wyndham uses for this book and its successors. The narrator here is a man named Bill Maslen, and as the story begins he is recovering in hospital. He has suffered an injury to his face, and so his eyes are bandaged. This enables him to escape what happened the night before: a vast and spectacular green meteor shower, which has rendered everyone who saw it blind. Hence the silence. The second component of the disaster that’s coming are the eponymous triffids, giant plants that are mobile, carnivorous, and equipped with poisonous stings. Up until now, they have been kept in check by human intervention. But, following the meteor storm, they are free to roam, to kill humans with their stings, and to grow. The body of the book depicts the struggle of Maslen and his friends to escape the immediate aftermath in London, and then to survive.

Many of the book’s most memorable set pieces are set in the desolate London that has resulted from this disaster. They sit in the tradition that Brian Aldiss has characterised as the ‘‘cosy catastrophe.’’ In such stories, the protagonist wanders into expensive but now deserted hotels and manages to enjoy, at least for a while, the luxuries of their civilisation with no-one else to disturb them. Wyndham’s book certainly contains such moments, but it’s anchored by many others. For instance, there’s the emotional weight (and plot significance) of seeing a single light burning in the empty city. Moreover, there’s a sense that the book embodies a tremendously detailed act of imagination in how it transforms London. It becomes a suddenly dangerous city, one in which ordinary and well-known landmarks take on very different meanings because of what is happening around them. There’s an overwhelming sense of desperation, made clear in the ways different groups of humans that Maslen encounters have responded to the triffid threat. Indeed, I think this is one of Wyndham’s central themes: how humans as a group respond to trauma. There’s an obvious sense in which this links back to World War II, and the experience of Britain in the Blitz. But Wyndham was also astute and topical: many of the book’s roots and paranoias clearly also derive from the Cold War.

The Day of the Triffids ends on a note of pure hatred. Maslen has survived, with a few others, and concludes the manuscript that makes up the book by saying, ‘‘We believe now that we can see our way, but there is still a lot of work and research to be done before the day when we, or our children, or their children, will cross the narrow straits on a great crusade to drive the triffids back with ceaseless destruction until we have wiped out the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.’’ This is not, in short, an ending. Part of the effect here is a Wellsian sense that the cycles in which the world changes are longer than any one human life. But the old equilibrium is not restored, and can never be. If and when the triffids are defeated, the world will be very different.


The same is true of The Kraken Wakes – also published in the US as Out of the Deeps. Here, as the title suggests, human equilibrium is disrupted by a threat from the sea. Again, the herald of this threat is a spectacular meteor storm. It’s witnessed by Mike Watson, on honeymoon with his wife. But these meteors have a far more long-term role in the plot: they land in the ocean, and it slowly becomes clear that they carry alien invaders who need to use the deeps to breed in.

Again, the voice is journalistic, urbane, knowledgeable. Without being an omniscient narrator, it also has a way of convincing you that you’re somehow privy to as much information as you could have:

Official cognizance of these matters remained underground – if that can be considered an acceptable term for their deep-sea investigations. Every now and then we would catch a rumour which showed that the interest had not been dropped, and from time to time a few apparently isolated items could, when put in conjunction, be made to give hints. Our naval contacts preserved an admirable evasiveness, and we found that our opposite numbers across the Atlantic were doing little better with their naval sources.

It’s a little like the voice John le Carre uses in some of his later books, where he tries to create the illusion that the story he’s telling is stitched together from gossip picked up in various Whitehall watering-holes. It also makes another point about Wyndham’s writing, one that perhaps separates him from most SF writers. When depicting some world-transforming novum, he’s scarcely interested in the question Why has this happened? and only a little interested in What has happened? (Witness how few scenes in The Day of the Triffids actually feature triffids.) The central question for Wyndham is With what consequences? Or, alternatively, How does this affect human life and society? Is it possible to adapt to this new situation, and what aspects of ‘‘civilisation’’ might be jettisoned in adapting? So Wyndham’s attempts to do orthodox science-fictional tasks like explaining the nature of the alien threat in The Kraken Wakes are at best competent and sometimes unconvincing handwaving. What he spends most time on is how life changes.

The Kraken Wakes differs from The Day of the Triffids in that the catastrophe happens by degrees throughout the book rather than all at once. It’s much weaker once the aliens start rolling ashore in their ‘‘sea-tank’’ form to start their invasion proper. Wyndham is far better at building up tension than paying it off. If The Kraken Wakes is less memorable, and maybe less well-structured than The Day of the Triffids, it’s because it lacks the earlier book’s simplicity of image and drive. Like its predecessor, it ends on a note of change, of knowledge that the old world isn’t coming back But it’s far more lightly expressed (‘‘It isn’t going to be a picnic life,’’ Mike says on the last page), and so carries less urgency, less sense that this is a book that had to be written.


The Chrysalids (1955) is a rather different book from these first two, in that the disaster has already occurred many years ago. The disaster is a nuclear war, and the story takes place in one of the isolated rural communities that has survived. In the first chapter the narrator, David Strom, encounters a girl called Sophie. The central thing about this meeting is not that he helps her extricate her foot from a crevasse, but that in doing so he notices she has six toes. David lives in a society that has built up an elaborate structure of laws and enforcement to prevent mutations such as this. The rules are, however, enforced less severely in Sophie’s village than in David’s, where his father imposes the law with unblinking fervour.

So The Chrysalids is a book about how societies deal with difference. After the encounter with Sophie, much of the story is spent in David’s community, exploring the intricacy of the various rules against mutations and how they’re fulfilled. Some perspective on this is given by a journal from another man that David embeds into his narrative: it seems that the prohibitions on mutation are driven by ‘‘the Right Wing Church Party,’’ and that they have defined what areas can and can’t be inhabited. David has certainly grown up with a strong sense of where he can’t go, and whole areas of his world are sectioned off as ‘‘Badlands.’’

The real story, only gradually spelled out, is that the fight to stop mutation is both damaging and futile. Mutations are emerging in the human population, and David’s real secret is that he and others harbour telepathic powers that would have them killed or banished if they became public. Eventually, David and some friends encounter a larger group of telepaths, and the book ends in a kind of slingshot to what that new world might be. The ending is strongly reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon books like The Dreaming Jewels (1950) whose emotional movement is from being an outcast to finding a community of other outcasts and calling it home. (The unbending ferocity of the Law that binds David’s village is also reminiscent of Patrick Ness’s recent Chaos Walking trilogy.) As the title implies, this is a book about growth into a new and striking adult shape.

It might, I suppose, be possible to construct a reading of The Chrysalids that was narrowly political, that read it as an assault against intolerance of difference in society. It’s certainly tempting given the reference to the Right Wing Church Party that I quoted earlier. The problem with that reading is that the book positions many mutations not just as different but as better. Once again, there’s no status quo to be achieved: change is coming, and it may be painful for some.


The last book I want to discuss is Chocky, from much later in Wyndham’s career. Unlike the other books, it’s very clearly a ‘‘young adult’’ story, as well as being one where, ultimately, equilibrium is restored. It also focuses on a much simpler system than the others – just a family, in essence. At its centre is a boy named Matthew who starts behaving oddly, and seeming to have an imaginary friend named Chocky. The book is narrated by his father, who wants naturally enough to get to the bottom of what seems to be a psychological disorder. The action of the book reveals that Chocky is an alien secret sharer living inside Matthew’s consciousness and observing life on Earth. At the end of the book, Wyndham strikes the authentic Wellsian note when Chocky departs from Matthew. Matthew’s father asks him if he can draw his own natural form:

There was a pause, but then it was followed by a ‘‘No’’ that was quite decisive.

‘‘No,’’ repeated the Matthew-Chocky voice. ‘‘Even with my training I sometimes find it hard to believe that forms like yours can house real minds at all. I think you could find it still harder to believe that mine could if you could see me. No, it is better not.’’

So, for once, Wyndham is putting some things beyond language or description. Matthew’s family has been preserved, but at the cost of knowing that there is an impossibly larger world out there that they will never know fully.

By comparison with the other books I’ve discussed, Chocky may seem like quite a ‘‘safe’’ one, certainly one that doesn’t involve a world-shattering disaster. But, of all of them, it’s the one that seems most close to home. To imagine a London taken over by killer plants requires a leap of imagination; to imagine worrying over a child’s strange behaviour doesn’t – even if you don’t have children. It’s also the book where Wyndham comes closest to speaking about the society he’s writing from. As Chocky’s nature and powers slowly emerge, Matthew becomes of interest not just to psychologists but to elements of the government. Wyndham’s view of human nature was never terribly optimistic, especially when considering how humans act in groups. There are several roads-not-taken in Chocky that could have led to very dark endings instead. As it is, though, the book closes with Matthew restored and the sense that something worthwhile has been preserved. It’s an unusual note for an SF novel, and for Wyndham, but a welcome one.

*

For many people, especially in the UK, Wyndham was their first contact with SF. His influence certainly persists, both in authors who have taken forward aspects of his work (Baxter, for instance) and those who’ve reacted against it (Ballard, Aldiss). Re-reading him brings home how slick he was, how much he was in tune with the concerns and values of his time. Some of those values may now seem dated – such as, for instance, the presumption that men were always the natural people to narrate these stories or to take action in them. And, as I’ve suggested, he was never especially innovative as a creator of science-fictional ideas. His peculiar genius lay in presenting them, and in working through their consequences. In doing so, he uncovered anxieties about society and how it’s held together that can be called, without exaggeration, universal.


This column was first published in the December 2010 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

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Time December 13, 2010 at 5:20 pm

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tori Lafferty, Locus Magazine. Locus Magazine said: Review: Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: John Wyndham http://tinyurl.com/2a3ymg5 [...]

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Time December 18, 2010 at 3:21 pm

[...] Yesterday’s Tomorrows: John Wyndham Graham Sleight Locus Online An overview of the life, craft, and books of John Wyndham: When a day you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, you know there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’’ The ostensible purpose of that line is clear enough: demonstrating the effect of the disaster that has taken place, and which we guess rightly that the book will explore. But there’s also a certain offhand urbanity there in ‘‘happen to know,’’ as well as an implied worldliness in the fact that the narrator has noticed this at all. And although something has gone very wrong, the narrator feels sufficiently calm about it that he can make this analysis. This is emotion recollected, if not in tranquillity, then certainly at a safe distance. [...]


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