John Wyndham (1903-1969) was a writer of the novel of ideas, where broad ideas take priority over character, mood, dialogue and naturalism. He follows a chain of events that present characters with situations and choices which illuminate the author’s themes. Wyndham’s mature novels have a lot in common with the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. Wyndham had a great variety of occupations before the war and the breadth of his experience shows up in his later writing. His early writing was stories for pulp magazines, mostly American, writing in the genres of crime and science fiction. These were published under pen names. The early stories have been reprinted and are worth reading. They are rich in ideas and provocative conceits; they are not too distant in that respect to the stories of J.G. Ballard.
During the war Wyndham worked in military intelligence and his experience of viewing the destruction of war first hand led him away from fantasy towards stories set in the present day. The experience of mundane reality overturned by the catastrophic became a staple of his literary thought thereafter. His first published novel was The Day of the Triffids (1951). It is that novel and the subsequent one, The Kraken Wakes (1953), which will be discussed here.
Wyndham was the product of a childhood during the Great War, the instability and rise of authoritarian regimes in the 1920s and 1930s, the Great Depression and the shattering experience of World War Two. This was followed by the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. Underpinning all of Wyndham’s post-War fiction is the consideration of competing mutually antagonistic ideologies which explicitly and implicitly shape his outlook on the survival of mankind. This is sometimes in the form of overt discussions of Communist and Capitalist reactions to alien threats (Triffids, Kraken, Midwich Cuckoos); at other times the competition is a matter of inter-species rivalry (Triffids, Kraken, Midwich Cuckoos, Chrysalids, Web)
The Day of the Triffids follows the narrator Bill Masen, who awakes in a London hospital to discover that the majority of the human race has been blinded by a supposed shower of comet debris (later mooted as an accidental transmission of a weapons satellite). Masen has a number of unnerving encounters with the blind before rescuing a young woman called Josella. Josella had been a socialite and novelist before the comet. Together they discuss leaving London to find a rural retreat. They join a small group of sighted people who plan to help a limited number of blind and to form a new society based on rational and pragmatic considerations. Before this group can depart as planned Bill and Josella are kidnapped and forced to serve as leaders of bands of blind people. These groups are depredated by sickness and attacks of the triffids (newly developed ambulatory plants cultivated for their nutritious oils and which are capable of stinging to death people). Bill and Josella are separated and flee London. Later reunited, the pair forms a small family group and attempt to survive on a farm surrounded by triffids.
The triffids are not the subject of the story. Indeed, they are little more than a means to hasten the break-up of society and add an element of the unknown to an otherwise mundane catastrophe – widespread blindness. Wyndham is not interested in triffids per se but in examining how societal norms fragment under pressure and how difficult it is for man to adjust his expectations under extraordinary circumstances. Old habits and customs outlive their usefulness; sentiment can undermine necessary pragmatism; excessive ruthlessness can impose intolerably inhumane conditions; good intentions can lead to barbaric outcomes. Wyndham follows different approaches and examines the viability and validity of each.
The novel was an enormous success, sold very well and was critically well received. The concept of the triffids entered common parlance. The story was filmed a number of times but the only adequate dramatization is the 1981 BBC television adaptation, available on DVD. That adaptation hit a sweet spot between faithfulness to the original text while making necessary adjustments for the format. It captures the spirit and letter of the novel and is highly recommended. There are a number of radio readings of the novel which are also effective and recommended, especially the Roger May reading for BBC Radio 4/4 Extra.
Triffids is superbly constructed. Wyndham tells the story in such a way that explores many branching possibilities: the serving of large groups of the blind by the sighted and also their abandonment; scavenging a living in an urban environment and farming in the country; the adherence to traditional values of Christian society and the establishment of a pragmatic humanitarian alternative; the imposition of authoritarian feudal serfdom and how it must – in the main – collapse. As a novel of ideas it follows characters living these alternative realities rather than the narrator describing them. The narrator’s life is tied into the farming of triffids. Being a triffid expert, Masen is in a position to supply first-person narration of background to one of the two alien elements in this fictional world (the other is the development and –putatively accidental deployment – sophisticated satellite weaponry).
There are logical faults to Triffids which are plot devices. Almost as soon as the catastrophe takes place, characters are committing suicide and succumbing to despair. In reality, people would have been waiting for aid and for their eyesight to return. The arrival of the triffids in London is unrealistically hasty. The plague (apparently artificial) kills most of the blind within days. These elements artificially accelerate the phases of the story and inject surprise, conflict and tension. The despair of the blind cements the irrevocable loss of sight; the confrontation with the triffids as soon as the day after the disaster brings forward the theme of inter-species rivalry; the plague clears away the surviving blind, ends attempts to aid the blind and removes our protagonists from cities and sets them on the road. One can acknowledge the effectiveness of Triffids’s overall pacing and progression while still finding the plague’s artificiality irksome and the immediate suicides of the blind jarring.
Josella is an example of Wyndham’s highly competent female characters. Wyndham’s co-educational experience at the progressive Bedales School left him with a lifelong belief in the equality of men and women. His fiction is full of strong female characters. There is a speech given by Coker in Triffids which presents what one might take to be Wyndham’s beliefs. It is worth looking at this speech, not least because it is sometimes misunderstood.
Coker confronts a woman at the traditionalist Christian group in Tynsham Manor when he discovers that an electrical generator has been going unused because the women there (the only sighted persons at the manor are women) have not worked out how to operate the generator. He chides her not just for her group’s lack of competence but more for its lack of initiative. She retorts
“It’s not my fault if I’m not any good at things like that.” “I’ll differ there,” Coker told her. “It’s a self-created fault. Moreover, it’s an affectation to consider yourself too spiritual to understand anything mechanical. It is a petty, and a very silly form of vanity. […] Hitherto we have been able to afford to amuse ourselves with that kind of mental laziness and parasitism. In spite of generations of talk about the equality of the sexes there has been much too great a vested interest in dependence for women to dream of dropping it.”
Coker goes on to say that the myth of female impracticality in matters technical was one fostered in a post-War British society to allow women to concentrate on domestic matters and ensure that men went on uncontested in mechanical professions. Now such niceties are unsustainable and women – every bit as competent as men when trained – must learn as much as possible for the advanced society to survive. Coker’s point is that the practice of learned helplessness is one that can only be sustained in a sophisticated, well-ordered, safe society. Wyndham points out the social construction of gender roles, suggests that change is not only possible but absolutely necessary in certain circumstances and might anyway be welcome otherwise. Not only that, he has the discussion take place in a situation germane to the setting and the narrative. It is typical of Wyndham to address sophisticated sociological points in unobtrusive ways within the context of his fiction. This is true of all his books but particularly Triffids and The Chrsyalids. Though Wyndham was writing within the conventions of Britain of the 1950s and 1960s – with a consequent dated tweeness to some of dialogue, which can be off-putting to new readers – his ideas were as advanced and considered as any author of the time. How much he chafed at the restraints of British social mores and publishing norms can only be guessed at. Wyndham may not have been a radical but he may have wished to be more direct about matters sexual and violent and in terms of swearing.
Wyndham’s prose is rarely discussed but it is one of the great strengths of his books. It has the restraint of English middle-class emotional reserve and the crispness of American crime noire diction. His humour is dry. (A pub sign bears “a reputed likeness” of General Montgomery.) Adjectives are carefully chosen, adverbs rare and there is no straining for literary effect, though there are passages that both memorable and evocative simply through the quality of the prose. Wyndham can be elegiac as well terse. Poignant encounters are underplayed, leaving the reader to draw out the terrible implications. Readers are implicated as silent observers walking alongside Masen as he sees the blind confronting practical difficulties to succeed and fail.
That famous jibe of Brian Aldiss, that Day of the Triffids is an example of Wyndham’s “cosy catastrophe” is quite wrong. It is true, as Aldiss observed, that the hero spends much of the later chapters living with his companion in a world unfettered by law and economic contingencies in a land of supplies so plentiful that they are effectively unlimited. Characters repair to deserted saloon bars to discuss tactics and Masen considers himself liberated from social strictures that numbed him. But just because this adventure takes place in urban and pastoral England populated by the middle-classes, it is quite wrong to assume that the matters Wyndham approached were somehow less serious than the wave of “hard sci-fi” novels of the 1960s. Wyndham is always interested in characters testing their social situation and responding to change. Science, creatures and disasters are merely means by which to effect change in the social, economic and political status quo.
Far from existing in a cosy dream of middle-class liberation, Masen witnesses death by murder, suicide and illness; he assaults and is assaulted, and deals with the consequences of kidnapping and attempted rape. Masen is forced to be brutal and cold-hearted in order to save himself and to confront his innately selfish desire for self-preservation. All of this seems more pointed and real because it takes place in the world we inhabit. Rather than taking place in a space station or on a foreign world or at some time in the distant future, we experience an alternative reality which is theoretically only hours away. We confront our social assumptions and reconsider our fragile existence supported by a highly developed economic system.
The Kraken Wakes (1953) shares many similarities with Triffids. The novel is presented through the eyes of a couple of journalists, Mike and Phyllis Watson, observe the approach of alien spacecraft while on a honeymoon cruise. The craft descend into the sea. Soon the couple learn that the phenomena is widespread and unexplained. One of the leitmotifs is the mutual hostility of the capitalist West and Communist East and the suspicion that the opposing side is responsible for the unfolding events. This Cold War conflict makes scientific research, dissemination of accurate information and working in a common cause difficult at times impossible.
Phyllis is another of Wyndham’s strong women. He makes clear that Phyllis is actually the better journalist and more farsighted of the couple. Together the couple report on attacks on unexplained sinking of ships which causes worldwide disruption to travel and trade. It becomes clear an alien intelligence is engaging in marine warfare which humanity is ill-prepared to confront. The Watsons travel to Escondida, a tropical island, to document attacks by sea tanks on human habitations. The attack kills many of their colleagues and presents mankind with a new peril. The next phase of the attack on humanity is the melting of sea ice and the raising of worldwide sea levels. In a setpiece narrator Mike Watson describes high tide breaching the Thames walls and flooding London. London abandoned and much of Great Britain in anarchy, the Watsons flee in order to attempt surviving at their Cornish holiday home, now an island.
The subject of outright alien invasion is less approachable than Triffids, which features only one improbable element – a mobile, man-killing, carnivorous plant. For Kraken Wyndham has to introduce an alien species (never described in the novel), sci-fi technology and global warfare between mankind and aliens. Every new element adds distance between the fictional reality and the reader’s experience. The reliance on newspaper and radio reports likewise detaches readers from the events discussed, though the modern fictional approach (derived from sci-fi movie) of describing individual vignettes through the eyes of multiple characters (or an omniscient narrator) would have been more unsatisfactory. Wyndham’s approach has at least the advantage of brevity and avoids the dislocating effects of multiple perspectives and unnecessary secondary characters. Kraken does the same by having the Watsons personally involved at the arrival of the alien species and following developments closely as journalists. (Something similar happens in The Midwich Cuckoos, subject of a future post.)
The subject of global warming is prescient and precedes Ballard’s Drowned World by nine years. There are many effective scenes but the changing phases of the war feel disconnected and most are viewed from a distance. John Wyndham’s social – even anthropological – preoccupations touch upon environmental disaster and geopolitics. Though enjoyable and with a number of memorable set pieces (such as the attack of the sea tanks in Escondida and the flooding of London), The Kraken Wakes is a less effective novel than The Day of the Triffids. It ends in an almost identical situation – an isolated small group moving from a rural retreat to join a more populous group in order to form a new society – but because the Watsons’ situation and setting are less completely described and explained as the product of the evolution over a period of time, Kraken is less narratively satisfying and emotionally powerful. At the end of Triffids, when Masen’s group flees from their farm under duress we share in their mixture of emotions: we feel their anxiety and loss but also the sense of joyful release. We can imagine the farm and its setting, whereas the Watson’s cottage and surroundings is barely described. Significantly, in Kraken the message the Watsons get is that the battle against the alien lifeform is all but won, whereas in Triffids the struggle is yet to begin in earnest.
Both novels share the themes of inter-species rivalry, the threat Cold War conflict, the catastrophic decline of established societies and economies, the struggle for life in an anarchic setting and the more overarching theme of remaking society better after disaster. Both are powerfully grounded in reality but use invented threats as the catalysts for sudden upheaval. Though Kraken has perhaps the more dramatic imagery – sea tanks attacking a sleepy tropical island village at night, London streets flooded and peopled by lone bandits – it is Triffids that is more satisfying as a whole.
While many high-brow social novels and technologically prescient sci-fi stories have become dusty curiosities, Wyndham’s novels live on as exciting stories, incisive in social comment and memorable in imagery. Wyndham’s best novels are as serious, intelligent and thought-provoking as any fiction produced in the immediate post-War period in Britain.
Read part 2 here.