Re-reading John Wyndham, II: The Enemy Within

In the first two novels published by John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris as John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Kraken Wakes (1953)), the author examines the conflict between sophisticated predatory species. He thought such conflicts were inevitable and would be pursued with absolute ruthlessness, leading to extermination of the weaker group by the stronger one. This was a lesson of evolutionary science applied to human history, specifically in the form of Social Darwinism. (That discussion is here.) They form a pair of thematically-linked novels; the following two novels form another pair addressing related issues. Although it seems this was not a conscious plan, the pairing seems apparent. The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) both explore the responses of human societies to the danger of infiltration by distinct sub-groups which threaten the unity and even survival of those societies or species.

The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids is set in a future after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed our current civilisation (whom they call the “Old People”), made much of the world uninhabitable and caused substantial genetic mutations in living things due to radiation. We follow David Strorm, who is a member of a fundamentalist Christian society located in Eastern Canada, which has strict definitions of physical normality and which exiles people and destroys animals and plants which deviate from the society’s standards. Technology is reduced to pre-industrial levels, travel is limited and the land is sparsely populated. Knowledge of history and science is greatly reduced. The society venerates the pre-holocaust civilisation yet its natural wariness of innovation – each scientific discovery potentially undermines Christian teaching – means the society is only slowly and piecemeal recovering the technology and knowledge of the Old People.  As a child, David befriends Sophie, a girl who lives locally but does not form part of his community because her parents keep her existence secret. She has a minor deformity which would lead to her exile (or death) in the Fringes (an area beyond the boundaries of cultivated land) if she were examined by an official of the main community. Eventually Sophie is discovered and her and her family are banished. David comes to recognise the potential of banishment for abnormality. When David realises he was born physically normal but with the very rare power of telepathic communication, he understands that he could be classed as a deviation.

David, his cousin Rosalind and a small group of other local children are telepaths who bond as a result of their sense of communal closeness. He and his fellow telepaths must deal with the constant fear of exposure and expulsion. They develop a code of silence to protect themselves. As the children age they realise that there are instances of people evading normality standards applied to domestic animals, crops and even people and that standards within their community are debated and applied with varying degrees of strictness. David’s Uncle Axel discovers David’s telepathic deviation and chooses to conceal the boy’s condition; he advises and supports the telepaths. He has travelled widely as a sailor and has heretical views on the purity standards, believing that they are subjective and too rigid.

David and the telepaths discover David’s younger sister Petra is a telepath of greater power than the others in the group. A series of accidents and slips lead to the community discovering the existence of the telepaths and their persecution of members of the group which they can identify. David, Rosalind and Petra attempt to escape to the Fringes and are pursued by a posse; others in the telepath group are captured and tortured for information by the community, which is alarmed at the presence of this secret group of deviations. The strength of Petra’s projections alerts a technologically advanced society in New Zealand, where most inhabitants are telepaths and telepathy is considered the norm. The New Zealanders send an aircraft to rescue the fleeing telepaths. The aircraft arrives during the climactic battle between the Fringes band of outcasts and the community posse; David, Rosalind and Petra are rescued by the New Zealanders and are taken to their city.

The novel is written as an adventure story particularly suited to young adults. It features a rich cast of characters and describes David’s community in varying degrees of detail – especially detailed on the matter of the identification and treatment of deviations – all of which combines to present a vivid world with many memorable images and exciting action. Beyond the world of the story, Wyndham’s intention is to examine ideas of purity, nature v. science and pragmatism v. dogmatism. Wyndham looks at how a community forms its ethical and economic standards by combining the demands of viability in an environment prone to accelerated heritable variation while cleaving to a long-established religious code.

The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos is a story set in a small fictional English village of Midwich. The village becomes subject to an inexplicable force field caused by an extra-terrestrial intelligence. All people inside the affected zone fall unconscious, as does anyone entering the zone. Before the authorities can decide on a response to this situation, the force field disappears, as does what was apparently an alien spacecraft that had landed in the centre of the village. It is subsequently discovered that all women of child-bearing age are pregnant.

The authorities monitor the situation. Our narrator is Richard Gayford, a resident of the village who was outside of the village at the time of the event. Military intelligence ask Gayford (who served in the army during the Second World War) to provide updates on subsequent developments in the village. We do not get strong impressions of most of the villagers. The exception is Roger Zellaby, a scientific authority and writer, who provides an informed commentary and is a something of an investigator of the developments in the village. Zellaby and his family are the only villagers who have distinct characters.

Sixty-one babies are born and seem to be human-alien hybrids: appearing largely human but with silver-gold hair and golden irises. “The Children” develop fast and are discovered to have powers of telepathic communication and learn as a group in the manner of a hive entity. The Children are emotionally detached from the host community and use powers of telepathic control to coerce their mothers to support and protect them. They also prevent the mothers from taking the Children out of the village. Some of the babies are abandoned by their mothers and those are brought up by foster families. While the Children are infants the narrator leaves the country for work reasons. We also leave the narrative at this point, to resume seven years later, with the Gayfords returning to Midwich.

Despite the passing of only seven years, the Children have developed at an abnormally fast rate and are physically equivalent to human children of twice the age. They share their knowledge telepathically, therefore their schooling is done by teaching a single girl and single boy, who pass on their knowledge to the hive mind. We discover Children are using their mental powers of coercion and collective intelligence to control the behaviour of villagers in order to protect themselves. The villagers are frightened of the Children and resent them but are unable to confront them. The Children are acting as parasites, using a mixture of collective action, psychic powers and the hosts’ residual (but ebbing) maternal sentiment to provide for them.

Gayford learns from his military contacts that other such groups have been recorded in different places in the world. There are suspicions that the Midwich Children may be in communication with (or aware of) the experiences of other groups and may become super-intelligent. Zellaby summons the Children for a film display, during which he explodes a bomb which kills him and the Children. He sacrifices his life to destroy the Children, whom many villagers and military/governmental authorities consider an increasing threat to society. We learn that in the USSR, a colony of Children has been destroyed with a nuclear explosion and that the Children in Midwich may have soon acted more brutally to preserve themselves.

Although Richard and his wife Janet are the readers’ viewpoint on events, most of the writing is omniscient and the first-person perspective is a dramatic device for artificially limiting the information provided to us. Gayford is inactive as a protagonist; he and Janet mainly act as insiders who can observe events and acquire official intelligence by liaising with authorities. Out of Wyndham’s first four published novels, The Midwich Cuckoos is the one that is closest to a pure novel of ideas. Character, environment, mood and prose description are at a minimum; plot and concepts dominate, though we do get vivid glimpses of how the villagers respond to events. Midwich is perhaps the least satisfactory novel of the four for those reading for enjoyment. The denouement is unsatisfactorily convenient and also a plot hole. If the Children learn through only one girl and one boy experiencing events, why do all of the Children gather for a film showing? Surely only two Children would have needed to attend the film showing, which one presumes the Children would have treated as an educational experience, as they do not seem to be much swayed by sensory pleasure.

Discussion

Both novels succeed on their own terms and are replete with insights into human nature. They are novels of ideas but sustain tension and narrative drive, though Midwich largely lacks the striking images and dramatic scenes that make Wyndham’s other novels so memorable. The only event that we experience close-at-hand through the narrator’s eyes is the foiled revenge shooting by a villager. Everything else is reported second hand or alluded to.

Midwich misses the distinctive characters (other than Roger Zellaby) that people Wyndham’s mature novels; the police officer and the village doctor are only ciphers. Wyndham’s specific ideas and approach in Midwich meant that elaboration of character or complex interplay between characters would have slowed the pace and distracted the reader. The dramatis personae fall into three groups: the Children, the villagers and the outside authorities. Distinctions within these groups are minimal; the names of individuals hardly register with readers.

Chrysalids has many memorable characters – even the minor ones leave strong impressions. The imagery is powerful and Wyndham’s writing flourishes. There is action, drama, romance, adventure and humour. The most horrifying passage is the story of Uncle Axel, where he recounts the devastated world sailors encountered. The weird imagery gives us a nightmare vision of a post-nuclear-holocaust world, complete with blasted lands, radiation sickness and glowing horizons. This is one of our only views of the outside world which the Christian enclave in Canada has turned its back upon. Wyndham thoroughly presents the social and psychological realities of fundamentalist religion as a refuge from the horrors of devastation and as a template for a society in search of stability in a world ravaged by genetic fluctuation. For young readers, Chrysalids serves as a primer for how it is to live in a deeply conservative society and encourages empathy for freethinkers and minorities. In terms of skill and power, Chrysalids is Wyndham’s greatest accomplishment. The deeply emotional scenes of young David mourning the loss of his friend Sophie (whom he thinks he has betrayed) and the confrontation between David’s mother and aunt about the birth of a deformed baby are tours de force that brilliantly impart the moral implications and emotional impact of the novel’s drama. Chrysalids is Wyndham’s most sustained imaginative feat.

Chrysalids presents us with a degree of ambiguity regarding the two competing societies. He shows us the Canadian society as capable of instilling solidarity and bravery and of being an effective means of supporting people, including eccentrics. (Consider the characters of Uncle Axel and the passing mention of a local man who runs a steam engine as a novelty). His New Zealand society of technologically advanced telepaths is welcoming to the telepaths but dismissive and hostile towards the non-telepaths, whom they regard as an inferior sub-species due to fall into extinction as the Old People had. The representative of the New Zealand telepaths is portrayed as cold, lacking empathy, morally complacent and arrogant. As readers, we wonder how we would cope in a society composed of individuals who read emotions and thoughts so clearly. How would be able to retain any privacy?

The novels interweave drama, action and adventure in stories that raise serious intellectual, political and moral ideas. Indeed, there is no way of separating these. Midwich is considerably less successful as a reading experience than Chrysalids because we lack the characters to care about and we do not relate strongly to the narrator. The absence of emotional involvement makes Midwich something of a thought experiment or exercise in applied morality rather than a compelling story. There is no adventure to speak of, more a series of logically extrapolated steps. The protagonist does not take part in the action merely observes and engages in discussion. In Triffids we see the multiple routes and alternative scenarios played out in a novel that has great organic and narrative consistency, making Midwich’s limitations appear even more unfavourable. As a novel of ideas, Midwich does not need to be rich or engaging but it would have benefited had Wyndham found some way of developing the story in a way that was closer to Triffids or Chrysalids. However, the limitations of Midwich are perhaps inevitable as Triffids and Chrysalids are adventures, character-driven dramas and immersions in alternative worlds, whereas Midwich is an investigation into morality in a very limited scenario, admitting little room for character investigation or world-building.

The Enemy Within

The theme which links the two novels most strongly is that of societies dealing with sub-groups that present a threat to their standards and even their existence. In Chrysalids and Midwich, Wyndham presents us with two stories that deal with inter-species rivalry that he had already addressed in The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, this time in a new form: inter-species rivalry within the human race. The telepaths in Chrysalids and the Children in Midwich are both human in form, with familial relatives, names, schooling and places in their societies, yet they are also different from the society around them. Telepathy and brood parasitism are phenomenon that separate humanity in these stories into two groups: majority and a newly emergent minority. In Chysalids we view the minority group from the inside and grow to care about and support the minority; in Midwich we view the minority group from outside and grow to fear them and recognise the danger they pose to the majority (and, implicitly, us as we conceive of ourselves). Wyndham’s pessimistic view that inter-species rivalry between apex predators in a world of limited resources inevitably leads to warfare resulting in the extermination of the loser here takes a chilling turn: the enemy is within. In a situation where no compromise is possible between different strands of humanity, our conflicts present us with existential annihilation of opponents who are almost identical to ourselves and may even be members of our own families.

The pair of novels raises awful questions which force us to address the most essential moral questions. How do we differentiate between competing formulations of humanity and society? What makes us human? How far would we be prepared to go to defend our civilisation and society? Would we kill members of our society or our own family to preserve our society? Encountering a superior society or sub-species of humanity which is incompatible with ours, what can and should we do?

The themes of religious persecution, inter-species competition and cultural conflict are pressing matters. The revival of Socialism among the young in the West, the morality of human genetic engineering, the possibility of viable artificial intelligence and the rise of Islamist terrorism in Europe all present us again with the Wyndham’s questions of how do we define our societies, how do we decide to include or exclude individuals, how do we deal with fundamental ideas which are incompatible with our societies, how do we respond to dissident groups and what does it mean to be human. How fair is it for us to regard supporters of totalitarian absolutist ideologies as members of competing groups which threaten our societies? How far can we go to defend our civilisations without becoming totalitarian ourselves? Too much resistance and we become monstrously intolerant; too little resistance and we are swept away by murderous opponents convinced of their righteousness.

Wyndham’s view that conflict is inevitable, pursued ruthlessly and resultant in extermination of the losing group is as far from the “cosy catastrophe” as can be imagined.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

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