I recently reread The Kraken Wakes, always my favourite John Wyndham book. Wyndham for me is something like comfort food, or cartoons: when I need a light, refreshing, familiar interlude I can always turn to one of his novels to tide me over to the next challenge. In this case, I had left the book I intended to read at the office, leaving me stranded over a weekend with nothing to read.
Oh, the horror.
A good friend once labelled Wyndham (and this one in particular, as I recall) as “all jolly hockey sticks” – and he was absolutely right. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. The novels are both rooted deep in time in which they were written as a result, and yet curiously timeless, set in an eternal middle-class Surrey. It takes little to transport the stories into almost any era. If anything, our 21st century wonderland would be even more crippled by blindness than the unspecified time gone by that he pictured. Perhaps more so – in those days, the radio was still a valued communications medium; we have become quite bad at conveying news and so on without images – television has made us lazy.
Taking it one step further – would we fare even worse in attempting to fend off triffids and rebuild our world afterwards? Or is 21st century homo urbis even more helpless than his (grand)father was? The main character, comfortingly, teaches himself to farm from books, and marries a woman who struggles to cook or sew. I feel obscurely satisfied that I could manage as well as they do; I am as clever as they are resourceful – it would all even out. Of course, I’d also watch the green flashes and be blind as a bat, and then dead by triffid – so it’s all a bit academic.
It occurred to me as I re-read The Kraken Wakes that there might be a case to be made that Wyndham was in fact railing against the urbanisation of mankind with his spate of invasions that decimated our population and drove us back to the land. Typing this now, I think I remember debating the point with iain_a_wilson years ago – and, of course, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
In The Midwich Cuckoos, a country village is visited with a slow-gestating menace specifically because it is sleepy and remote. Web focuses on the horror of a remote island. The countryside is as threatening as the city. Nonetheless, in his choice of perspective, Wyndham always conveys an abiding love of the country and a quiet disdain for London (and by extension urban life). His characters refresh themselves at country retreats, or flee London for a quieter/better life. Only in The Chrysalids do we find a setting where the city is a marked improvement on the religion-obsessed, purity-driven, murderously-prejudiced countryside. And it is not the country to blame here – his critical eye is firmly on our fear of change and our obsession with human differences (as it is in Midwich, really).
I find it far too easy to relate to Wyndham’s point of view. I, too, have a deep-seated scorn for the barren city streets – and the same romantic attachment that he occasionally betrays (such as the scene in The Kraken Wakes where the protagonist and his wife stand in a ruined Trafalgar and struggle to adjust to their new world). The hard-nosed Darwinist within appreciates his high-handed approach to casualties, too. In Day of the Triffids, he kills off practically the entire population of Britain (a few thousand survivors out of millions); in The Kraken Wakes it is only two-thirds – but they die of the natural results of their situation (eerily, influenza – combined with crop failure, and with no avian connections). There are no heroes who save the world, only ordinary fellows (and I choose the phrase advisedly – jolly hockey sticks, remember) who muddle on through as best they can and chronicle what they experience.
Of course, the books generally end on a positive note. The world as we know it is marred or on the brink of changes with unknowable consequences, but our heroes survive to face it with their usual pluck and steadfast stubbornness, love interest at their side. His faith in human (or at least British) endurance and innovation is unshakeable, but so is his conviction that we are, deep-down, horrors as great as any affliction he visits on us. The meteorites/comets and the Triffids are all ultimately assigned to human agency – the very latest in biological warfare – and there is a repeated assumption that humanity will not – cannot – endure any challenge to his lordship over the Earth. Any other intelligence must, in the end, be eradicated. This is voiced most poignantly in The Midwich Cuckoos, where it is argued by the golden-haired, golden-eyed Children, but recurs in The Kraken Wakes with its ineffable sea monsters.
How much of this is a subtext for the Cold War is unclear. From theft of triffid seeds to political scorn, Wyndham is dismissive of the stand-off where it is mentioned directly. Should we extrapolate from his visions of alien doom that this eastern superpower cannot be tolerated by the West, and interpret all his tales as prophecies foretelling our inevitable clash? If so, The Chrysalids is the only place in which he explores what could happen next. It could have been interesting indeed to read a book written from the Soviet perspective – but Wyndham appears to have stuck to what he knew; middle-class men of middling imagination and clear conscience. His heroes are interchangeable, and if Phyllis (The Kraken Wakes) is a particularly lovable instance of the female stereotype, she does not stray far from type either.
Deconstructed, it is all easily dismissable. The governmental/social response to the situations is similarly inept across the novels, and the population given to panic or anarchy. Wyndham’s Britain is populated by down-to-earth men on the street and Sun readers, with a smattering of old boys and Surrey set for his leads to interact with.
Flawed and dated as they may be, I still love these books. I would love for modern Hollywood to update the appalling attempts made at dramatisation in the past; I would inevitably hate whatever they made of them. Intellectual comfort food: I know it’s doing nothing for me, but I’m not going to give it up.
Besides, I followed it up with ranting because my copy of Beowulf does not have the Old English original on the facing pages of the translation after page 1 – intellectual enough, surely?