Review of John Wyndham: assorted works

John Wyndham
The Kraken Wakes
The Chrysalids
The Midwich Cuckoos
The Trouble With Lichen
[rate 5]

I’ve said over and over how great John Wyndham is an an author, which is why it saddened me so much when I reviewed “Stowawy to Mars” and it left such a very bad taste in my mouth. So, in order to restore the balance, I bring you Wyndham at his best: “The Kraken Wakes“, “The Chrysalids“, “The Midwich Cuckoos“, and “The Trouble With Lichen“. I’d also bring you “Day of the Triffids” but I seem to have mislaid my copy so haven’t read it recently enough to feel sure of reviewing it.

The Kraken Wakes:
The ostensible plot, of aliens trying to take over the world from deep under the sea, can be more or less put to one side, if not ignored in its entirety. Wyndham follows Wells in “War Of the Worlds” and never explicitly reveals where the ‘alien’ threat has come from, leaving you to make up your own mind, as it should be. Moving away from the alien causation, you have here an allegory for global warming, and a biting comment on the idiocy of the Cold War, and weapons of mass destruction. Themes include, but aren’t limited to the traditional Wyndham cannon of ‘fear of the other’, apocalypse, and benign military.

The Chrysalids:
The plot lays the ground for that of “A Canticle For Liebowitz“, and many others. You have, once more, the post-apocalyptic world, fear of the unknown, religious fanaticism, and racial tensions (the only black people are only found on an island of ‘deviants’). This is one of the more overtly sci-fi books that Wyndham wrote. It is set in the unidentified future (most of the other are in the near-present) in a post-apocalyptic world gone to hell in a hand-cart, where ‘mankind’ survives in a few small pockets including Newfoundland. Any genetic deviations are a sin against God, and destroyed the instant they appear, even children. So what happens when the deviations don’t have any physical manifestations, but are purely mental? Their scripture doesn’t define what is normal for the mind so, is telepathy a gift or a curse?

The Midwich Cuckoos:
Most people know this story from the film Village of the Damned. A small rural town suffers a ‘day out’ and wakes to find all the women folk impregnated… Nine months later lots of golden eyed children are born and start to cause all kinds of mayhem.

The Trouble With Lichen:
Immortality is just around the corner, apparently, as the result of a rare lichen. This is one Wyndham’s books that doesn’t resort to aliens in order to get the plot off the ground. Based totally in believable (at least believable in 1960) science this novel addresses how mankind my cope if they were faced with the possibility of immortality, or at least a vastly extended lifespan. One of the first books, to my knowledge, that addresses what might happen if people really could live to 300 and the social upheaval that would ensue. Asimov does similar, at around the same time, with his Robot Series (Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, Robots of Dawn etc, leading to the Foundation series) but sets it firmly in the fantastical future.

Some general points:
Love Wyndham. Always will, hence the five mug rating for all of them. Here are few random observations I’ve made on this latest read through.

There is a repeat plot device of the outsider-reporter to whom events don’t totally happen. They are invariably reports from after the events (looking back, hindsight), and attempts to assume the authority of historical narrative. A way of gaining our trust as an impartial observer, but at same time displaying the unique knowledge of the insider. Yes, as a device it is fairly obvious, but it works for him.

Women are, if not the main character (as in “The Trouble With Lichen“), then married to the main character, and shape what happens. Very much a partnership. In Kraken, it is the wife who realises that they may need to quit London in a hurry and lays in supplies. In Cuckoos, it is the wife who manages to keep the village calm. The women don’t seek the fame, and frequently outsiders assume that it is the men who have done the work, but the men themselves don’t claim any of the glory, and make it quite clear to the people that matter that it was the women who did good.

The theme of the military as good, there to help. Undoubtedly a relic of WW2. Quite a marked difference to the sinister and evil overtones that the military is painted with in most modern literature.

As an aside, there is also at least one Holmes reference in each book. More a little nod to Connan Doyle‘s creation.

Amazing that on page 187 of Cuckoos, Wyndham in 1957 basically summarizes the plot of Independence Day and every other major sci-fi book and film since. Not sure if that’s a sign of how visionary he is, or how little pulp sci-fi has changed in the last fifty years.

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