Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Four novels by John Wyndham

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was the son of a barrister. After trying a number of careers, including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, he started writing short stories in 1925. After serving in the civil Service and the Army during the war, he went back to writing. Adopting the name John Wyndham, he started writing a form of science fiction that he called 'logical fantasy'. As well as The Day of the Triffids, he wrote The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned) and The Seeds of Time.

The Day of the Triffids (1951)

Far too many years ago to remember exactly when, I was playing in the woods with a few other kids. I’ve forgotten everything about that day except one thing: I fell backwards into a ditch that was full, literally full, of nettles. I remember this because it hurt a lot. Now imagine that nettles have stings so painful they can kill you. Imagine that nettles can whip their sting out at anyone and anything that gets too close. Imagine that they don’t just sit in a ditch waiting for a hapless child to fall into them. They come to you, they kill you, they eat you. Whoa.

Like a lot of good stories, this one begins in the Soviet Union; the birthplace of the Triffids. Wyndham’s story predates genetic engineering by an impressive twenty-two years, yet that is where they come from, created as a cheap alternative to petrol; their oil being far more efficient. Not only is the oil motif even more poignant today, but it provides a sane and considered reason as to why people keep these wandering, chlorophyll-filled, murderous blind psychos around in significant quantities.

This logic is consistent throughout the book; Wyndham explores every pathway with an interesting rationale that sometimes drags, but more often than not enlightens. He provides reasons, so you never feel as if you’re being left in the dark, yet he never patronises his readers. Simply put: everything has an explanation, a necessary guide in a book so fanciful and imaginative.

The first-person viewpoint throws the reader directly into the action — or lack of it. A terrifyingly quiet hospital is where it begins; blindfolded after an eye operation. Wyndham heightens the tension brilliantly, without reverting to the horrific cliché of instantaneous panic, drawing us slowly towards the fear and letting it rise up the spine instead. We’re taken on an exceptionally paced journey from normality through niggling fear and worry, eventually arriving at our terminus: all out terror. Don’t think that because the emotion is handled gradually that the story takes a while to get going; the first death of the book occurs amidst a shower of smashing glass just nine pages in, and the jarring moments don’t stop there...


The Kraken Wakes (1953)

I read The Chrysalids when I was a kid, and I read all the rest of Wyndham when I was about twelve, but I never managed to own a copy of The Kraken Wakes. I’ve re-read the others occasionally over the years, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve re-read The Kraken Wakes since it went back to the library in 1978. I’d remembered it as being a cosy catastrophe where the world is destroyed by sea monsters, and rather second-tier Wyndham, but I’d done it an injustice. The Kraken Wakes is quite an unusual cosy catastrophe, and really much more interesting than I’d remembered it.

To start with, it’s an alien invasion. The first things are “red dots,” fiery meteors landing in the deep sea, which are actually alien craft. It’s speculated that they might come from Jupiter or Neptune and like living at high pressure under water, and it’s speculated that humanity could share the planet with them, since they need different things. The rest of the book is a series of attacks by the aliens, never called krakens in the book, culminating in the scene that starts the novel where rising sea water and icebergs in the Channel have entirely changed the climate and landscape of Britain and the protagonists are trying to escape. This is essentially the story of how some very unusual aliens conquer the world in 1953, and it’s much closer to The War of the Worlds than it is to Wyndham’s other novels.

The action takes place over a period of about ten years, which is very unusual for a cosy catastrophe. You kind of have to assume it’s ten years of 1953, or ten years in which the social, political, and technological themes of 1953 continue unchanged. The eagerness with which the Americans, British and Russians use “the bomb” against the dwellers of the deeps, and the blithe indifference to radiation (and the quaint spelling “radio-active” with the hyphen) date attitudes precisely. There’s also the “EBC,” the English Broadcasting Company for which the protagonists are reporters, and the running joke about how people thought they said BBC—the first actual British commercial TV network was launched in 1955. Wyndham’s ideas about how such a thing would work, without having seen any commercial TV, and in an era before TV became widespread are quaint—people writing scripts for news rather than live reporting, reporters having days and weeks after an event to write long thoughtful pieces about it before it becomes news. The way in which it is 1953, or the day after tomorrow in 1953, is one of the things that’s most interesting about reading it now—it’s an alien invasion of a very specific and very different world...


The Chrysalids (1955)

The Chrysalids is set in the future after a devastating global nuclear war. David, the young hero of the novel, lives in a tight-knit community of religious and genetic fundamentalists, who exist in a state of constant alert for any deviation from what they perceive as the norm of God’s creation, deviations broadly classified as “offenses” and “blasphemies.” Offenses consist of plants and animals that are in any way unusual, and these are publicly burned to the accompaniment of the singing of hymns. Blasphemies are human beings—ones who show any sign of abnormality, however trivial. They are banished from human society, cast out to live in the wild country where, as the authorities say, nothing is reliable and the devil does his work. David grows up surrounded by admonitions: KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD; WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT.

At first he hardly questions them, though he is shocked when his sternly pious father and rigidly compliant mother force his aunt to forsake her baby. It is a while before he realizes that he too is out of the ordinary, in possession of a power that could doom him to death or introduce him to a new, hitherto-unimagined world of freedom.

The Chrysalids is a perfectly conceived and constructed work from the classic era of science fiction. It is a Voltairean philosophical tale that has as much resonance in our own day, when genetic and religious fundamentalism are both on the march, as when it was written during the Cold War...


The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)

I would suggest, however, that the novel becomes more interesting when you stand back from it and see it in the context of late 1950s British attitudes, and also within the terms of the development of popular science fiction itself. Within the novel there is more than a hint of the importance of wider social issues and problems - of Britain's position within the international order, attitudes towards science and technology, and attitudes towards the role and efficacy of liberal intellectual moral arguments about politics and pacifism in the late 1950s. It is also significant that the novel is written on the eve of the so-called 'New Age' of Science Fiction writing, associated with writers such as Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, writers who self-consciously moved away from the so-called 'Age of Wonder'/'Amazing Stories' type of science Fiction of the 1940s, and from the 'hard-core' science-based Science fiction of writers such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and A.E. Van Vogt. In the works of these later writers we see a 'softer' and less technical treatment of science and technology, and the introduction of perspectives from psychology and sociology, the human sciences. Wyndham's writings are, in this sense, "on the cusp", between the technological wonders of that previous age of Science Fiction, and the more speculative and frequently pessimistic writing on the social role of science and technology. This can, in turn, be linked to changes in the perception of Science and technology in the 1950s, and the decline of confidence in science that manifested itself in the 'Horror Science Fiction' of the 1950s. This lack of confidence was based either on fears of a future based on scientific and techno-rationalistic thinking alone (science detached from morality), or alternatively an expression of the limits of scientific thinking (science rushes in where angels fear to tread!). How these fears manifest themselves in The Midwich Cuckoos is something I would like us to explore through various activities.

(i) A Terribly British Invasion. From the opening page of the novel we are made aware of a setting which is presented as quintessential English. Much of the action is centered on life and its disruption within Midwich, and it is only near the end of the novel (Ch 19) that we jolted out of this provincialism and informed that the 'invasion' is international, not just confined to this English village. How is the village presented? What sort of community is it? How does the markedly middle class narrator present it? Is it important that it is a relatively quiet and untroubled hamlet, with its minor intrigues but, in general terms, relatively tranquil and peaceful style of life? What is the impact of the fact that this closely-knot community has to come to terms with the fact that it is part of an international world, and therefore part of the world of international issues of power, politics and "real-politick"? Are their any grounds for seeing this as symbolic of Britain's wider role in international affairs, and the impact of this on everyday English life?

(ii) The invasion and the invaders. How are the children presented as "aliens" and as 'other' to the villagers? What, in particular, do you think is significant about their appearance, about the way in which they assume human form, and the manner in which they invade? It is worth noting the significance of the fact that, when the women realise that they are pregnant, the novel explores the issues of 'natural' pregnancy and the cultural attitudes towards 'natural' processes of conception and childbirth (look, for example, at the account of the women's reactions, and the ways in which they have to learn new attitudes towards their pregnancies). How does the novel treat the children as alien invaders, and particularly the perspective which the children bring towards notions of the life force?

(iii) Science. Would you describe the novel as Science Fiction? Does it follow what you would consider to be the conventions and expectations of scientific fiction? How, also, is science presented within the novel as a whole? Look at the way that the novel, at various points, attempts to derive a rational and scientific approach towards the events which are described, as opposed to seeking supernatural, metaphysical, religious or purely psychological forms of explanation for events. Does this mark the novel as belonging to a particular genre of popular fiction?


In 'No Place Like Earth' Dan Rebellato examines the importance and influence of John Wyndham on the history of British and American science fiction. The programme is produced in Manchester by Nicola Swords. 1st broadcast: Tuesday, 21 December 2010 - 11:30 - BBC Radio 4:

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The lost city of Detroit, Mighigan

At the time of posting, it is difficult to find any significant text on the subject of the abandonment of Detroit. There is of course an abundance of visual media, as, for those who do not live in Detroit, this a very visual phenomena. Even for those that live in the city, the desire to capture their thought-provoking surroundings on still and moving image, is undeniable. What follows is part of an interview with Julien Temple, regarding the making of his documentary: Requiem for Detroit? Spoilt as I am for choice, I have also included some photographs by David Kohrman. Note: Some of these buildings have since been demolished... (r/j/l-h).'s hard to believe what we're seeing. The vast, rusting hulks of abandoned car plants, beached amid a shining sea of grass. The blackened corpses of hundreds of burned-out houses, pulled back to earth by the green tentacles of nature. Only the drunken rows of telegraph poles marching away across acres of wildflowers and prairie give any clue as to where teeming city streets might once have been.

Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the US could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth. The statistics are staggering – 40sq miles of the 139sq mile inner city have already been reclaimed by nature.

One in five houses now stand empty. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in Detroit over the last three years. A three-bedroom house on Albany Street is still on the market for $1. Unemployment has reached 30%; 33.8% of Detroit's population and 48.5% of its children live below the poverty line. Forty-seven per cent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate; 29 Detroit schools closed in 2009 alone.

But statistics tell only one part of the story. The reality of Detroit is far more visceral. My producer, George Hencken, and I drove around recce-ing our film, getting out of the car and photographing extraordinary places to film with mad-dog enthusiasm – everywhere demands to be filmed – but were greeted with appalled concern by Bradley, our friendly manager, on our return to the hotel. "Never get out of the car in that area – people have been car-jacked and shot".

Law and order has completely broken down in the inner city, drugs and prostitution are rampant and unless you actually murder someone the police will leave you alone. This makes it great for filming – park where you like, film what you like – but not so good if you actually live there.

The abandoned houses make great crack dens and provide cover for appalling sex crimes and child abduction. The only growth industry is the gangs of armed scrappers, who plunder copper and steel from the ruins. Rabid dogs patrol the streets. All the national supermarket chains have pulled out of the inner city. People have virtually nowhere to buy fresh produce. Starbucks? Forget it.

What makes all this so hard to understand is that Detroit was the frontier city of the American Dream – not just the automobile, but pretty much everything we associate with 20th-century western civilisation came from there. Mass production; assembly lines; stop lights; freeways; shopping malls; suburbs and an emerging middle-class workforce: all these things were pioneered in Detroit.

Further information here, here and here.