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Of Krakens and Chrysalids

The first grown-up science fiction writer I read was H G Wells; the second was John Wyndham.  The reason for that was simple; like Wells, Wyndham was respectable. There were no lurid paintings of bug-eyed monsters or space-princesses in boilerplate bikinis on the jackets of his novels; they were sober, orange-and-white Penguins, which sat comfortably on my parents' bookshelves alongside the works of writers like Eric Ambler and Hammond Innes.

Brian Aldiss, writing at the height of 'New Wave' sci-fi in the '60s, referred to novels like The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes as 'cosy catastrophes', and  there is something oddly reassuring about  the way Wyndham's heroes navigate the collapse of civilization with stiff upper lips, old fashioned British pluck, and a brave girl at their sides.  But 'cosy' is a hardly a word that I would apply to his coolly athiestic books, which explore how precarious humanity's perch at the pinnacle of evolution is, and how easily we might be displaced by new forms of life.  The double-disaster format of Triffids always seemed slightly contrived to me (the man-eating plants of the title can only be a serious threat if everybody suddenly goes blind...) but that didn't stop me turning the pages.  As for The Kraken Wakes, in which the menace is not so much the alien invasion as society's complete unwillingness to come to terms with it, it seems just as relevant to the age of global warming as it must have done in the Cold War.  (I still remember that passage where the 'sea-tanks' make their first appearance as one of the great spine-chilling moments of my childhood reading.)  And there is surely nothing remotely cosy about The Midwich Cuckoos, Wyndham's eerie story of an English village in thrall to a batch of mutant children who may be the spearhead of an extraterrestrial take-over.  

A similarly chilly vision underlies The Chrysalids, which I think may be my favourite John Wyndham book.  It is unusual among Wyndham's major works in that it takes place not in the England of the 1950s but in a far future Novia Scotia, in a superstitious farming community which resembles the New England of the 17th Century, complete with witch hunters.  For although the characters in the book have only a vague understanding of the 'Tribulation' which destroyed our civilization, it is clear to the reader that this a world recovering from Atomic war; large parts of it are still uninhabitable, glowing wastelands, and genetic mutations are frequent, to be ruthlessly stamped out whether they occur in plants, animals or human beings.  The hero is a boy who gradually comes to understand that he is himself a mutant; although he seems outwardly normal he is capable of telepathic communication with a small group of neighbouring children.  A few sympathetic adults try to help and shelter them, but as they grow up, and their otherness becomes harder to conceal, they are forced to flee for their lives from their own family and friends.  In some ways the story is an alternative Midwich Cuckoos, this time told from the point of view of the children.  Its ending is actually every bit as unsettling.

I think I first read The Chrysalids when I was about eleven, and all that I remembered of it was the heroine's russet dress*.  At least, that's all I consciously remembered, but when I re-read the book this year I realised that the world of Mortal Engines owes much to John Wyndham's descriptions of a low-tech future in which own own society is just a dim and confused memory.  There must be any number of books which take a similar approach, but I suspect that this was one of the first, and is still one of the finest.  It was certainly the first that I encountered.

Reading it for a second time, I was impressed by Wyndham's lean prose and the swift pace at which the story moves.  It's not a big book, but it deals with big ideas.  The young protagonists are sympathetic,  but the fears of their persecutors are understandable.  The children's fate is in the balance right to the end.  It's not a YA novel - there was no such animal in 1955, when The Chrysalids was published - but it's just the sort of adult book which can be enjoyed by reasonably confident younger readers too.  I wish I had rediscovered it sooner.  I certainly won't let another 33 years go by before I read it again.

* I was a romantic child, and I hoped that a tall girl with a russet dress would play a part in my own teenage years.  (She never did show up.)


Anonymous said...

Have you ever read The Outward Urge? It's probably Wyndham's most "generic spacey" and also one of his more dated (of that very Cold War style of science fiction), but great nonetheless - it's a sort of long alternate history of discovery.

I was lucky in my parents throwing Wyndham at me, though my wonderful Year 9 English teacher also liked him (and there was a Bristol-wide promotion of The Day of the Triffids at the time, with council-subsidised copies being handed out.)

agorton79 said...

It seems to be a common thread throughout Wyndams oevre, that humanity cannot stand a presence of a rival intelligence, whether it be alien or human offshoot. In Kraken, humans have no interest in and no use for the Deeps because they cannot survive there, so in theory they could have left the new occupants well alone. Yet they were certainly the agressors in the story. Its a very bleak but very accurate view of human nature.

Philip Reeve said...

I think the aliens in 'Kraken' are hostile-ish - they start sinking ships without any provocation, if I remember rightly. What impressed me was Wyndham's understanding of political inertia; states and media are all stuck in their cold-war tramlines and incapable of responding to a new threat. "They think they can muddle through this like one of their wars," someone says towards the end, as the sea level rises and London slowly floods. It's haunting stuff.

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