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Category Archives: John Wyndham

The golden-eyed Children: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957)

midwich-cuckoos-front-coverAfter the post-nuclear war landscape of The Chrysalids John Wyndham’s  fourth novel, The Midwich Cuckoos,  was a return to familiar (though  as we shall see unsettling) territory, a possible alien invasion of  the world.

It begins with a small ordinary  English village being subject to a mysterious field with renders all within it unconscious for a whole day on  Tuesday 27th September (which would have fallen in  1960).   The authorities outside cannot get in:  an aerial photograph reveals an object in the village  with “a pale  oval outline, with a shape, judging by the shadows, not unlike the inverted bowl of a spoon.” When the village come back to life the object has gone, while the villagers appear not to have been harmed by what they come to  call the “Dayout”.

Some months later, however,  every woman of childbearing age, married or single, discovers that she is pregnant. The story is told, partly at least, through the eyes of  village resident and  writer Richard Gayford and his wife, Janet, who fortunately were not in the village at the time of the Dayout.  Gayford is recruited by an old friend and government intelligence officer, Bernard Westcott,  to observe what takes place in the village after the Dayout and report back.  Gayford is the typical Wyndham protagonist, intelligent enough, but his wife is cleverer. The novel also has that familar Wyndham character, the older man who sees what is really going on, which in  The Midwich Cuckoos  is Gordon Zellaby, who lives in a large house in the village,  and writes learned books. His daughter Ferrelyn, planning to be married, is one of the pregnant women.

When the  61  children are born they appear  to be normal human children, except they all have a sheen to the skin, golden hair  and golden eyes. Soon, however, they  display mental powers, forcing those mothers who have left the village to bring them back so that they can all be together.  Zellaby carries out  some tests and realises that the Children of Midwich  are a single entity, one girl and one boy, who share intelligence, thoughts  and learning.A lready Zellaby suspects what is really going on,  but blanches at the course of action that  he feels is neccessary :

Cuckoos are very determined survivors. So determined that there is really only one thing to be done with them  once one’s nest is infested. I am,  as you know,  a humane man…As a further disadvantage I am a civilised man. For these reasons I shall not be able to bring myself  to approve of what ought to be done. Nor, even when we perceive its advisability, will the rest of us. So, like the poor hen-thrush we shall feed and nurture the monster, and betray our own species.

village-of-the-damned

The novel resembles The Kraken Wakes in that the tension and  the disturbing incidents  is built quite slowly. Unlike  his other novels all the action takes place within the village, and nowhere else, creating  a claustrophobic feeling. One of the odd things about the novel is  the chief storyteller up to now, Richard Gayford, whom the reader no doubt, expected would take the narative forward,    leaves the village with Jane  at the end of Part One,  and  is absent for  eight years.

 

Returning to London for a short visit he bumps into Westcott,  and accompanies him on a return trip to Midwich, during which he is brought up  to date with what has happened whilst he has been away.   The Children grew up much quicker than human children  – by the time they were nine, they were the size of teenagers – and eventually the authorities decided  that it was  best to set up a special  school in The Grange  to look after them together.  Westcott is  returning  for an inquest into the  death of a young man,  Jim Pawle, killed when his car hit a wall. The verdict is accidental death, but  Gayford learns  the truth from Zellaby, that the  car hit one of the Children by accident,   and they appear to have  deliberately made Pawle crash.

After the inquest Pawle’s brother, David,  shoots and wounds one of the Children,  who then make him shoot himself. This leads to an attaks by the villagers on the Grange which ends in deaths and injuries when the Children use their mental powers to make them attack each other. Afterwards, one of the Children gives Westcott  and the others a chilling warning

I will put it more plainly. It is that if there is any attempt to interefere  with us or molest us, by anybody, we shall defend ourselves. We have shown that we can, and we hope that that will be warning enough to prevent further trouble.

Zellaby  explains that he believes an interplanetary  invasion is under way:

we have not grasped that they represent  a danger to our species, while they are in no  doubt that we are a danger to theirs. And they intend to survive.

Westcott now  reveals there were other Dayouts in other parts of the world. In most  cases the Children were killed at  birth, but  in the Soviet Union one group of Children  survived in a town called Gizhinsk,  which  he has just learned, has  been wiped out by an attack by an atomic cannon, killing the entire population. The Soviets then issued a warning calling  on all governments to “neutralize” any such known groups as the Children were “a threat to the whole human race.” Zellaby sums up  the dilemma  they are now  facing:

In a quandary where  every course is immoral, there still remains the ability to act for the greatest  good of the greatest number. Ergo, the Children ought to be eliminated at the least possible cost, with least possible delay. I am sorry to have to arrive at the conclusion. …It is the right step…But of course, our authorities will not be able to bring themselves to take it…

At the end of the book it is  Zellaby who takes on the moral responsibility for dealing  with  the dilemma. Gayford accompanies him to the weekly film show that  he runs for the children at the Grange and  reflects as he watches them help Zellaby unload the equipment:

There was nothing odd or mysterious about the Children now…For the first time since my return I was able to appreciate that the Children “had a  small ‘c’ too”. Nor was there any any doubt at all that Zellaby’s was a popular event. I watched him as he watched them with a kindly, half-wistful smile. I had a confused feeling that these could not be the Children at all; that the theories, fears and threats we had discussed  must have to do with some  other group of Children.

Shortly after Gayford returns to Zellaby’s home he sees a flash of bright light and a blast hits the house, smashing the windows, He realised that Zellaby has blown up himself with all the  children. His wife Angela finds a note which  reveals that Zellaby  had a terminal illness and ends:

As to this –  well we have lived so long in a garden that we have all but forgotten the commonplaces of survival…If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does.

The core of the novel  is the moral  question of how  to act  against invaders who arrive,  not in spaceships or cylinders as in Wells; The War of the Worlds,  but in the form of children. Step by step Wyndham leads us  down  the path to a dreadful conclusion, that the Children must be killed. He emphasises the horror  of this of this by making the Childrem seem, just before this happens, the most like children they have been for the whole novel.

This is not Wyndham’s best novel,  but it is certainly his most unsettling one, sonething he perhaps empphasis  by  placing the action in the archetypal English village, where nothing ever happens. Is there a nod here,  perhaps,  to Went the Day Well? Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1942 film in which an English village  resists  a German invasion (the Germans are disguised as British soldiers).

Films and radio

The novel was filmed in 1960 by MGM , retitled  somewhat senastionally as The Village of the Damned.  The Richard  Gayford character does not appears , the film’s hero is Gordon Zellaby,  played George Sanders, whilst his wife is played by Barbara Shelley (who also appeared in the film version of Quatermass and the Pit in 1967) . You can watch a trailer here.

The novel was adapted by William Ingram in three 30-minute episodes for the BBC World Service, first broadcast in  1982. It was directed by Gordon House. Yiou can listen to this  here.

Another  adaptation by Dan Ribellato in two 60-minute episodes for Radio Four  was broadcast first in  2003. It was directed by Polly Thomas.

Surprisingly no television  version has been made.

Other posts

In my previous posts I have looked at Wyndham’s previous novels

The Day of the Triffids

The Kraken Wakes

The Chrysalids

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Watch Thou For The Mutant”: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)

chrysalids-front-coverIn previous posts I have looked at The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which were set in the contemporary Britain of the 1950s,  and showed the breakdown of society when faced with an unprecedented  threat.  John Wyndham’s third novel  The Chrysalids is quite different in tone and content.

The novel set  in the future, perhaps  several centuries after our own time. The story is told through the eyes of David Strorm as he grows  up in a rural part of Labrador, called Waknuk, which is a religiously fundamentalist society, fearful of any kind of physical difference in human bodies. Every Sunday  without fail they recite a creed:

And God created man in in His own image. And God decreed that man should have one body, one head, two arms and two legs; that each arm should be jointed in two places and end in one hand; that each hand should have four fingers and one thumb; that each finger  should have a flat finger-nail..

We, the readers, soon divine that the “Tribulation” of which  they talk of was in fact a nuclear war,  and that this is the society that has somehow survived,  plunged back into a subsistence way of life, based on farming, with no technology. They use  horses for travel, and  bows and arrows for weapons, for instance.  It’s clear that the fall-out is still creating mutations in humans, “deviations”,  which when discovered  are driven out of society to “The Fringes”. David’s father  Joseph, is particularly fervent on rooting out “blasphemy”. They believe:

The penance of Tribulation that had been put upon the world must be worked out, the long climb faithfully retraced, and, at last, if the temptations  of  the way were resisted, there would be the reward of forgiveness. – the restoration of the Golden Age.

chrysalids-1As he grows up David’s austere but orderly world is disrupted by a series of events. This begins when he becomes friends with a girl called Sophie,  and  discovers one day that she has six toes, not five. He  does not report this, as she is his friend and he does not see her as a “deviation” but as a person.  Eventually, of course,  this secret  is discovered: Sophie and her family are driven out, while David is brutally beaten by his father.

watch-thou

But David has his own secret, he too is a “mutant”,   able to communicate by telepathy with his cousin Rosalind and a number of other teenagers. Somehow they have made it  into adolescence  without being discovered. David does have one ally, his uncle Axel who finds out about David’s ability,  and warns him that he must never reveal his secret. Axel is that  familar figure in Wyndham’s novels, the older man who challenges  the received wisdoms and “commonsense”  of their time. He is a close cousin to Michael Beadley in the Day of the Triffids and Alastair Bocker in The Kraken Wakes.  A former sailor, Axel  has travelled widely and seen things on sea and land  which make him very  sceptical of the rigid pieties of his own society.

“Preacher words!” he said,  and thought for a moment. “I’m telling you,” he went on, “that a lot of saying a thing is so, doesn’t prove it is.  I’m telling you that nobody, nobody, really knows what is the true image. They all think they know – just as we think we know, but, for all we can prove, the Old People themselves may not have been the true image.”  He turned, and looked long and steadily at me again.

“So,”  he said, “how am I, and how is anyone sure that this “difference” that you and Rosalind have does not make you something  nearer to the true image than other people are? Perhaps the Old People were the image; very well then , one of the things they  say about them is that they could talk to one another over long distances. Now  we can’t do that  – but you and Rosalind can.  Just think that over, Davie. You two  may be nearer to the image than we are.”

chrysalids-3

David’s mother gives birth to another child, Petra, who appears perfectly normal  until  one day, when still  a young child,   she falls into the river, and in panic  displays  astonishing telepathic power,  summoning  Michael and the others to rescue her. As she grows up they are able to teach her to use her power – and to  keep it a secret. Then one day, whilst out riding,  Petra is attacked by a  wild cat which kills her pony. Again she screams for help telepathically summoning  all the group to help her. This gathering  is observed by a passing stranger,  who becomes suspicious and starts to make enquiries. A few days  later in the middle of the night two of the group, Sally and Katherine, are seized by the authorities  and tortured to make them reveal their secret. Alerted by the sisters,  David, Rosalind and Petra steal horses and flee towards The Fringes. Another of their group, Michael, undiscovered,  is with the armed posse which sets off to hunt them down. He tells his friends;

They’re afraid of us. They want to capture you and learn more about us – that’s why there’s the large reward. it isn’t just a question of the true image – though that’s the way they’re making it appear. What they’ve seen is that we could be a real danger to them. Imagine if there were a lot more of us than there are, able to think together and plan and co-ordinate without all their machinery of words and messages : we could outwit them all the time. They find that a very unpleasant thought; so we are to be stamped out before there can be any more of us. They see it as a matter of survival – and they may be right, you know.

That “matter of survival” is the key theme of the rest of the novel, both of the travellers and  of the human race.  As they flee Petra tells them  that she has made contact  with another “think-together” person, a woman who lives  a very long way away across the sea  in a place called “Sealand” where everyone is telepathic.  The woman tells them that she will come and rescue  them because of Petra’s remarkable power.  In the meantime,  Michael, Rosalind and Petra make it to the Fringes,  where they are helped by Sophie who is living there in poverty and squalor. The pursuing posse attacks the camp and Sophie is killed, but the group is saved when the flying  machine  arrives and sprays glistening threads that  land on everyone in the camp, and bind them tight. The  Sealand woman makes her way to the cave where they are hiding:

Petra raised her hand and tentatively touched the woman’s face, as if to assure herself that it was real. The Sealand woman laughed, kissed her, and put her down again. She shook her head slowly, as if she were not quite believing. “It was worth while,” she said in words  so curiously pronounced that I scarcely understood them at first. “Yes, certainly it was worth while!” She slipped into thought-forms, much easier to follow than her words.

“It was not simple to get permission to come. Such an immense distance; more than twice as far as any  of us has been before. So costly to send the ship: they could scarcely believe it would be worth it. But it will be…” She looked at Petra, wonderingly.”At her age, and untrained – yet she can throw a thought half-way around the world!”

David  suddenly realises that the threads have killed all the attackers, but  the Sealand woman is unrepentant, explaining that they are  a doomed race and that the  “think-together” people are the future:

Your minds are confused by your ties and your upbringing: you are still half-thinking of them as the same kind as yourselves. That  is why you are  shocked. …They  can see quite well that if it is to survive they have not only to preserve  it from detioriation, but they must protect it from the even more serious threat of the superior variant. For ours is a superior variant…The essential  quality of life is living: the essential  quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.

chrsyalids-2

The woman takes David, Rosalind  and Petra in the flying machine off to New Zealand:  Michael stays behind  to rescue another member of the group,  Rachel, promising to make their way to find them one day. The novel finishes as the machine  arrives above a sunlit city with  David sensing  something new,  a kind of suffused glow:

“What  is it?” I  said,  puzzled. “Can’t you guess, David? It’s people. Lots and lots of our kind of people”.

The Chrsyalids is Wyndham’s  masterpiece.  His chilling  vision of a dystopian  future is perfectly realised and the narative is compelling,  carrying the ring of truth  in its  depiction on how societies  can bond in fear against perceived “Outsiders” and repress dissent and change.

Wyndham wrote, of course, during the Cold War:  a time when there was a real fear that the two superpowers, the USA and  the Soviet Union – now armed with hydrogen bombs of enormous destructive power –  would  destroy the world between them. This  fear found its way  into a good few science fiction novels  and plays, some of which I have listed below  This survey is by no means exhasutive.

Novels

The Spurious Sun, by George Borodin (1948) begins  with an H-bomb-like explosion in Scotland which ignites the upper atmosphere; savage wars ensue worldwide, the UK is eliminated by nuclear weapons, and both Leningrad and San Francisco are obliterated. 

 Death of a World by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1948). An expedition to a deserted Earth turns up a diary describing the last days of Earth.

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (1948) is a  satire on the potential for the destruction of humanity.

Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril (1950)  tells the story of Westchester housewife, Gladys Mitchell, coping with the aftermath of a nuclear attack on New York.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)  is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war and  it portrays a world where scientific knowledge is feared and restricted.

 On the Beach by Neville Shute (1957) is   set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear  war,  and follows the fate of  group of  people awaiting the arrival of  the fallout from the northern hemisphere. The government  issues suicide pills to the population. The novel was a worldwide bestseller and  was filmed in 1959 and again in 2000.

On the Last Day by Mervyn Jones (1958)  features  a Russian/Chinese invasion of Britain, during a non-nuclear Third World War , and of the successful attempt of the British government in exile (in Canada) to build a new intercontinental missile. Jones was  an activist  in CND.

Two Hours to Doom by Peter Bryant (1958)  imagines an attack on the Soviet Union by American  planes,  ordered in by a paranoid general. The USA cooperates with the Soviets to shoot the planes down, and when one plane  gets through the Americans  offer to destroy one of their own  cities as quid pro quo. At the last minute the plane fails to reach its target. The novel was the basis for the the film Dr Strangelove.

Alas,  Babylon, by Pat Frank, (1959) shows the aftermath of a nuclear war as it affects a small town in Florida, Fort Repose.

The Last Day, a novel of the day after tomorrow  by Helen Clarkson (1959).  The story takes place in a  village on the New England coast, and tells what happens in the six days following a nuclear war.   You can read it here

Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1959) is the story  of soldier X-127 living with others  in an  underground military bunker,  Level 7,  who  narrates the tale of  life in the bunker  before, during and after a nuclear war that kills the rest of humanity. 

Dark December  by  Alfred Coppel (1960) is set in a world after a nuclear war. A soldier sets off on a journey to his home in California. En route he saves a captured Russian pilot.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960) is a  series of linked stories which begin  six  hundred years after a nuclear war.  Society rebuilds itself,  but political conflicts lead to  another  nuclear war.

Drama on television

Number Three, broadcast by the BBC on 1st  February 1953. This was dramatised from a novel by Charles Irving by Nigel Neale and  others.  Scientists at an atom research station  working on a new form of nuclear power discover  the project leader plans to  use it as a weapon.

Doomsday for Dyson  by J B Priestley, broadcast on ITV on 10th March 1958. An anti-war fantasy about a man standing trial in the afterlife for killing his family in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. It was followed by a short studio discussion on the issues raised.

Underground, broadcast  by ATV on 30th  November 1958 in the “Armchair Theatre” series.  It was written by James Forsyth, adapted from novel by Harold Rein Few Were Left, directed by William Kotcheff.  The survivors of a nuclear holocaust are trapped in the London Underground.

The Offshore Island, broadcast by the BBC on 14th  April 1959. It was written by Michael Voysey, based on a play by  Marganita Laski, an activist in CND.  A  drama about a family whose farm remains unaffected, eight years after a nuclear war. Their peace is disturbed by a force of American soldiers and then a Russsian one.

The Poisoned Earth, broadcast by  ITV on 28th  February 1961 in the “Play of the Week” series. It was written by Arden Winch. Moral problems are raised when a new type of nuclear bomb, with limited fallout range, is developed.

The Road, broadcast by the BBC on 29 September 1963.  It was written by Nigel Kneale,  and was  part of  the “First Night” drama series.  A  scientist and a philosopher  in C18th investigate  “ghosts” that appear on Michaelmass Eve each year. In the end we realise  that they are actually visions from  the future of  people fleeing down a road from a nuclear war.

Terror from the Deeps: The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (1953)

1075_JOHN_WYNDHAM_The_Kraken_Wakes_1960In a previous  post I discussed The Day of the  Triffids In his second novel  The Kraken Wakes John Wyndham again imagines  the  breakdown of  human civilisation, but in a very different  way and from a very different kind of menace. By contrast with  The Day of the Triffids  –  in which the Triffids were home-grown destroyers and  highly visible throughout the novel – in The Kraken Wakes  the  invaders appear  to be  from another planet,   and  are almost  never seen.

The story is told through the eyes of Mike and Phyllis Watson, radio journalists for the English Broadcasting Company, whose  profession  means  – conveniently for the narrative –  that they are either  present  at some of the key events or are in touch with the scientists or military officers trying to make  sense of what is happening. It’s quite clear that Phyllis,  like Josella in The Day of the Triffids, is the  sharper, more  prescient,  of the couple, and also has a greater imagination than Mike,  who comes across a stolid man of the 1950s: he probably wears a tweed jacket.

The story is spread  over several years as  the menace and terror  escalate a little at a time:  in fact the three chapters are titled Phase One, Phase Two and Phase Three. Phase One begins with Mike and Phyllis taking  their honeymoon  on a cruise ship from  which,  nearing the Azores, they observe  five fuzzy red  fireballs landing in the ocean and disappearing. After reporting this  when they get back home they learn that there have been  similar sightings around the world and that the sea sectors in which  the fireballs  land correlate with the deepest parts of the ocean.  The Watsons are invited to join a Royal Navy  expedition to investigate which lowers two men in a bathyscope,  equipped with cameras. Finding nothing in the depths,  they think  that they see something as they ascend to the surface, as Mike Watson relates:

This time we could undoubtedly make out a lighter patch. It was roughly oval, but indistinct, and there was nothing to give it scale….Again the camera showed us a glimpse of the thing as it passed  one of the bathyscope’s ports, but we were little wiser; the definition too poor for us to be sure of anything about it. “It’s going up now. Rising faster than we are. Getting beyond our angle of view. ought to be a window in the top of this thing…Lost it now. Gone somewhere up above above us. Maybe it’ll – The voice cut off dead. Simultaneously, there was a brief, vivid flash on the screen, and it too went dead.The sound of the winch outside altered as it speeded up….At last, the end  came up…Both the main and the communications cables ended in a blob of fused metal.

After this incident shipping starts to sink and the powers-that-be decide to drop an atomic bomb into the ocean near the Marianas, but with no effect. At this point Wyndham  introduces Dr Alastair Bocker into the narrative, whose analyses and predictictions are invariably derided by conventional scientific  and political opinion, but  usually turn out to be correct. Wyndham uses him to play a similar role to that of Michael Beadley in The Day of the Triffids. Bocker suggests that the intelligences in the deep have  come from another planet, possibly Jupiter, and that an invasion is under way. He also suggests that the discolouration of the ocean,  which has started happening, is  caused by the intelligences drilling communication routes between the various ocean deeps.

deep sea

In Phase Two  a string of ocean going  passenger liners  are sunk with the loss of all passengers,  forcing  the authorities to acknowledge the reality of the deep-sea menace, which  the public now reluctantly accepts, having been inclined to blame the Russians up to now. (This novel was written during the Cold War, remember). “Back room boffins”  eventually come up with   anti-attack devices, which when fitted to ships  deal with this particular threat,  but it’s far from  over.  Soon reports come in of  mysterious  raids on remote islands  in which the population vanishes: all that can be found are tracks leading to and from the sea and slime covering the ground and buildings. Mike and Phyllis go off on a expedition, led by Bocker, to an island called Escondida  where he predicts the next raid  may take place. Nothing happens for several weeks and the group takes it easy,  enjoying the sunshine. Then it starts.

What follows is one of the most  horrific episodes in modern science  fiction as Wyndham  presents us with grey metal  “sea-tanks”, some 35 feet long, which  grind their way  out of the sea and into the town square. They then release white cilia, sticky  tentacles,  which ensnare the  fleeing crowd. Phyllis physically stops Mike from going out (almost certainly saving his life),  so he watches from a window:

The thing that had burst was no longer in the air. It was now a round body no more than a couple of feet in diameter  surrounded by a radiation of cilia. It was drawing these back into itself with whatever they had caught, and the tension was  keeping  it a little off the ground. Some of the people it was pulling were shouting and struggling, others were like inert bundles of clothes.

I saw poor Muriel Flynn among them. She was lying on her back, dragged across the cobbles by a tentacle caught in her red hair. She had been badly hurt by the fall when she was pulled out of her window, and was crying out with terror, too. Leslie dragged alongside her, but it looked as if the fall had mercifully broken his neck.

Over on the far side I saw a man  rush forward and try to pull a screaming  woman away, but when he touched the cillium that held her hand his hand became  fastened to it, too, and they were dragged along.

As the circle contracted, the white cilia came closer to one another. The struggling people inevitably touched more of them and became  more helplessly enmeshed than before. There was a relentless deliberation about it which  made it seem horribly as though one watched through the eye of a slow-motion camera. ..the machines…still lay where they had stopped, looking like huge grey slugs, each engaged in producing several of its disgusting bubbles at different stages. …I looked out again. Half a dozen objects, looking like tight round bales, were rolling over and over on their way to the street that led to the waterfront.

After this the raids increase to a full onslaught on coasts  around the world with hundreds of “sea-tanks”  causing thousands of deaths. However the machines (if that is truly  what they are) are  vulnerable to explosive shells,  and eventually they are held at bay   by a combination of mines, weaponry and an alert public:

It was the Irish who took almost the whole weight of the north-European attack, which  was conducted, according to Bocker,  from a base somewhere in the Deep, south of Rockall. They rapidly developed a skill in dealing with them that made it a point of dishonour that even one should get away…England’s only raids occurred  in Cornwall, and they too were small affairs for the most part.

The raids cease but,  as  Bocker prophesies in a radio  broadcast, “These things, whatever  they may be, have not only succeeeded in throwing us out of their element  with ease, but already they have advanced  to do battle with us in ours. For the moment  we have pushed them back, but they will return, for the same urge drives them as drives us – the neccessity to exterminate, or be exterminated. And when they come again , if we let them, they will come better equipped…

icebergs

In Phase Three the intelligences succeed in melting the Arctic  and Antarctic polar ice,   and water levels around the globe start to rise rapidly.  As  London is progressively  flooded the government flees to Harrogate.  Mike and Phyllis stay on in the capital  to broadcast from an EBC studio  until   conditions  become impossible. By now the government has ceased broadcasting,  and the country has balkanised   into a series of armed enclaves of  desperate people,  ready  and willing to shoot at others seeking safety and food.  The Watsons manage to find a boat and, after a number of adventures, make their way to their cottage in Cornwall, where Phyllis, with her usual foresight,  has laid in stocks of food.

Some months later they learn from a neighbour that their names have been  broadcast by Bocker, who is  part of a Council  for Reconstruction. He wants  them to go London  to help in  the business of rebuilding a post-deluge society. What about the inteligences?  According to Bocker, scientists   have succeeded at last in building an ultra-sound weapon that is being used to systematically to kill them   and  clear the deeps.  The last words in the novel go to  Phyllis, wise as ever:

I was just thinking…Nothing is really new, is it, Mike? Once upon a time there was a great plain, covered with forests and full of wild animals. I expect our ancestors hunted there. Then one day the water came and drowned it all and there was the North Sea…I think we’ve been here before, Mike…and and we got through last time.

Stories about what might lurk in the sea and one day rise to the surface are part of folk-culture and go back centuries. Wyndham successfully plays on these primitive fears in what is a deftly plotted story, driven by  the narrative, which  slowly rachets up the tension.   He also  subverts the conventional alien invasion novel   in which “they”  crash to earth and set about  the violent destruction of humanity. In The Kraken Wakes  “they” arrive silently and stealthily: in fact we are never quite clear whether this is  really an  invasion at all;  are the intelligences  simply seeking a new home in the deeps, but are then forced to deal with  the intrusive behaviour of humanity who will not leave them alone?

In the end  it seems the planet  cannot be shared, a conclusion that  even the humanitarian Bocker is forced to accept. The idea of the aliens “shrimping” human beings in their sea raids,  as Phyllis graphically  puts it,  is surely a nod by Wyndham  to Wells’ The War of the Worlds in which the Martians’ war machines use their ” long, flexible, glittering tentacles” to harvest  human beings and put them in a basket to be later used,  as Wells hints,  for some ghastly alien purpose.

As in  The Day of the Triffids,  Wyndham cannot resist some social  satire, poking fun at the fickleness of public opinion which demands immediate action, any action, to solve  a perceived problem,  and the stock responses of the press:

The news of the latest sinking was announced on the 8am news bulletin on a Saturday. The Sunday papers took full advantage of  their opportunity. At least six of them slashed at official incompetence with almost eighteenth-century gusto, and set the pitch for the Dailies. The Times screwed down rebukes to make the juice  run out. The Guardian’s approach was similar in intention, but more like an advancing set of circular-saws in manner…The Worker, after pointing out that in a properly ordered society such tragedies would have been  impossible since luxury liners would not exist and therefore could not be sunk, rounded upon owners who drove seamen into danger in unprotected ships at inadequate wages. 

It  can plausibly  be The Sea Devilsargued  that The Kraken Wakes influenced Maclolm Hulke’s 1971  Doctor Who serial “The Sea Devils”,  in which an undersea colony of Silurians – intelligent reptiles who once ruled the earth millions of years ago –  are awoken and begin attacking ships, sinking them.  In one episode they also come ashore to attack the coast.  The Doctor tries to make  peace between the Silurians and humanity – but fails,  and they are destroyed.    As Malcolm once said,  What you need for science fiction is a good original idea. It doesn’t have to be your original idea.” You can read my post on the work of Malcolm Hulke here.

 

Productions

It is  surprising that The Kraken Wakes has never  been filmed or produced as a television  series, since it offers a great deal of dramatic incident, while the melting of the icecaps chimes with contemporary concerns over global warming.

The novel  has been produced as a radio series on a number of occasions.

In  1954 it was produced by Peter Watts  on the Third Programme from  a script by  John Keir Cross. Michael Watson was played by Robert Beatty, Phyllis Watson was played by Grizelda Hervey.

In 1965 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an adaptation starring Sam Paine, Shirley Broderick, Michael Irwin and Derek Walston. You can listen to this here

In 1998 it was produced by Susan Roberts on Radio Four from  a script by John Constable. Michael Watson was played by John Branwell, Phyllis Watson was played by  Kathryn Hunt.

In 2008  it was produced by Susan Roberts on Radio Four from  a script by John Constable. Michael Watson was played by Jonathan Cake, Phyllis Watson was  played by Sarah Todd.

On 8 January 2016 a new adaptation, written by Val McDermid, was recorded live in Media City,  Salford, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It  starred  Tamsin Greig, Paul Higgins and Richard Harrington. The score was composed by  Alan Edward Williams.  The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, played herself in pre-recorded section. This production was  broadcast on Radio Four on 28  May 2016. More information here

Finally, the title of the book comes from a poem by Tennyson, The Kraken.

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

 

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

 

 

 

Falling off the tightrope: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Falling off the tightrope: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

Triffids front cover

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.” This is the arresting first sentence  of  The Day of the Triffids, the novel  which made John Wyndham’s name as a science fiction writer and has remained in print  ever since its  first publication in 1951.

Wyndham was born in 1903: his full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. He had a public school education, including sometime spent at the liberal school,  Bedales. He tried his hand at a number of professions before turning, like many a down at heel young person, to writing.  By the early  1930s he was making a living selling science fiction stories to American  magazines such as Amazing Stories, under the pen names of John Beynon,  John Lucas Harris and Lucas Parkes. In 1933  his short story “The Puff-Ball Menace” was published in Wonder Stories,  in which  an enemy  country plants a fungus in Britain which breeds rapidly  and is fatal. He also wrote a  novel Planet Plane which was set on Mars. None of his work was noticed by the general public.

After serving in the army during the Second  World War he went back to writing, now using a new  pen name  – John Wyndham – and had his first success with The Day of the Triffids.

John Duttine as Bill Masen

Bill Masen (John Duttine) in 1981 TV adapatation

The narrator is Bill Masen  whom we find at the start of the novel in hospital,   having suffered a minor eye injury and awaiting the removal of his bandages.  He calls repeatedly,  but nobody comes.  Plucking up the courage to take off the bandages, and venturing on to the streets of London, he discovers that most of the world has gone blind overnight, apparently after watching a metor shower. He rescues a young woman, Josella Playton, and they  meet up with a group of other survivors, led by Michael Beadley, who  plan to leave London and set up in the countryside. Before they can do do so Bill and Josella are separated, captured by another group of survivors, led by a man called Coker.  Bill is forced  to lead a group of blinded people, finding food for them,  until he frees  himself when they die from a form of  plague. Bill teams up with Coker for a time, seeking Josella,  but they part when  Bill  heads off to Surrey looking for a farm house mentioned by her. On the way he rescues a young sighted girl, Susan, and eventually  they find Josella and her friends, who are blind. They survive by farming,  but are menaced by the triffids, a  plant which  mysteriously appeared around the planet some decades  before. It  was bred for its oil,  but can walk on three stalks and kill with a poisoned lash.

Bill and Josella (Emma Relph) battle a triffid

Bill and Josella (Emma Relph) battle a triffid

After six years the small group is found by a helicopter from the Isle of Wight,  where Coker and  Beadley have established a colony. They plan to go there,  but are  then found by another group, a para-military outfit from Brighton, who plan to turn the farm into a feudal-type seigneury. Bill, Josella  and the others get them drunk and successfully make their escape as the triffids pour into the farm.  The book ends with Bill completing his memoir:

” We think now we can see  the way, but there is still a lot of work  and research to be done before the day that we, or our children, or their children, will cross the narrow straits on the great crusade to drive the triffids back  and back with ceaseless destruction until we have wiped the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.”

The novel’s  opening grips the reader with its vivid scenes of a London where most people have gone blind, and which quickly descends into  violence  and chaos.  This  is not a sentimental read:  a number cannot face a future without sight and kill  themselves,  while others try and capture a sighted person to act as the guide. This is what has happened to Josella until Bill frees her.  Some can cope. I  like the little vignette  of Bill encountering a blind man who, when he learns what has happened , gives a short, bitter laugh and says “They’ll be be needing all their damned patronage for themselves now,”  and sets off again “with an exaggerated air of independence.

Having set out  the  opening scenes Wyndham goes back  into past to explain the presence of the triffids which, he suggests,  were developed behind  the Iron Curtain for their oil,  but then scattered around the world when a plane was shot down in which a man  was trying to smuggle the seeds  to a company in the West. As a young boy  Bill was nearly killed by one that grew in his garden, but then went on to work with them, which is why he is wary of them from the beginning of the novel.  He is proved right when the triffids escape from the farms and began  killing the now defenceless humans.

In  Wyndham’s  novels   his male leads, whilst  decent and  resourceful in the face of crisis,  are never   the smartest people in the room.  Josella is often sharper  on the uptake than  Bill;  Walter, his   work colleague at the triffid farm, theorises that  that the plants are using their rattling stalks to communicate (something Bill has never  noticed) telling him, “there’s certainly intelligence there,  of a kind.”;  Michael Beadley points that the world they knew has gone and will never return; Susan,  when grown up at the farm in Surrey, points out that the triffids respond to noise and can act in concert by massing together. Bill is given one  insight  when, towards the end of the novel,  he suggest that the blindness was not a natural phenomenenon,  but  caused by a satellite  weapon which had been accidentally triggered.  Wyndham did not invent the idea of satellites orbiting the earth,  but he was one of the first writers  to suggest their potential as weapons.

Whilst the 1950s has come to be viewed as era of   peace and stability,  this is far  from the truth.  The Second World War had devastated  much of Europe as cities were bombed and burned,  whilst millions died in extermination camps. This was followed by the Cold War  in which both sides stockpiled nuclear weapons: the threat of another, even more destructive war, seemed very real.  Wyndham gives a key speech to Michael Beadley,  near  the beginning of the book,  which sums this up: “From 6 August 1945, the margin of survival has narrowed appallingly. Indeed, two days ago, it was narrower than it is at the moment. If you need to dramatize, you could well take for your material the years succeeding 1945 when the path of safety started to shrink to a tight-rope along which we had to walk with our eyes deliberately closed to the depths beneath us.”  Society, Wyndham suggests, is  so fragile it  could vanish  overnight.  Bill suggests to Josella later in the novel: “You remember  what Michael Beadley said about the tightrope we’ve been walking on for years….Well,  I think what happened was that we came off it – and that a few of us just managed to survive the crash.”

still from 2009 TV version

a  still from 2009 TV version

Amidst his vivid depiction of the end  of the world,  Wyndham finds time for some social satire. At  the meeting chaired by Michael Beadley at the University, a Dr Vorless, a Professor of Sociology, shocks some of  the audience when he tells them  that conventional social morality is dead and that in order to survive, “The men must work and the women have babies…In our new world, then, babies become very much more important than husbands.” He suggests men should have three partners, one sighted, two blind. Bill is  taken  aback,  but Josella  reassures him, “You won’t need to worry at, all, my dear,  I shall choose two nice, sensible girls.”Oh“,  says Bill.

Wyndham gives a misogynist speech  to  Coker  who,  after  he and Bill have  made  their way a manor house  being used  as a refuge by survivors,   discovers that they are using candles. He  gets a plant going to provide electricity, but then  rails against a young woman: “You know perfectly well that women  can and do  – or rather did – handle the most complicated and delicate machines when  they took the trouble to understand them. What generally happens is that they’re too busy to take the trouble unless they have to. Why should they bother when the tradition of appealing helplessness can be rationalized as a womanly virtue – and the job just shoved off on to somebody else? …Men  have played up to it by stoutly repairing the poor darling’s vacuum cleaner, and capably replacing  the blown fuse. The whole charade has been accepatable to both parties.” This  feels like somehing said by a travelling commercial agent after several gins in the saloon bar of a Tudorbethan pub in Surrey. Did Wyndham personally  believe this  or did he wish to define Coker’s character more strongly?

John Wyndham

John Wyndham

Wyndham was interviewed on the Tonight programme on 6  September 1961. He said, “what one starts with is the theme, and then you work it out to the logical conclusion as far as possible…The upper limit of sheer invention is what is acceptable to the public whom you are hoping to please, whose attention you are hoping to keep.  Somebody once said that  the heart of fantasy is the willing suspension of disbelief. But you must not go beyond a certain barrier,   if you can find it, in which that willing suspension is shattered.” He explained  that the idea for the triffids came one night when he was walking along a dark lane in the country: “the hedges were only just distinguishable against the sky and the higher things sticking up from the hedges became rather menacing, one felt that they  might come over  and strike down or sting at you. The whole thing eventually grew out of that.” You can watch the  whole interview  here.

Overall The Day of the Triffids certainly stands the test of time as a well-plotted and  imaginative read. It sold very well and was followed by a number of other successful novels that I will be looking at in future posts.

Barbara Shelley

                             Barbara Shelley

The book was adapted for radio and broadcast on the BBC Home Service  in July 1953. In 1960 the  BBC  broadcast  another adaptation, written  by  Giles Cooper,   with Patrick Barr as Bill and Monica Gray  as Josella.  Another version was broadcast  in 1968, also written by Giles Cooper, with Gary Watson as Bill and Barbara  Shelley as Josella. You can listen to both versions here . The 1968 version has music created  by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  Incidentally, Barbara Shelley appeared in a number of films,  including  The Village of the Damned (1960) (an  adapation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos) , the film version of  Quatermass and the Pit (1968),  and also on television in  The Avengers‘ episode “From Venus with Love” (1967) (in which Jon Pertwee also  appeared).

An adaptation by Lance Dann in two 45-minute episodes for the BBC World Service was first broadcast on 8 and 22 September 2001. It was directed by Rosalind Ward , and the cast included Jamie Glover as Bill and Tracy Ann Oberman as Josella.

You also can listen  to the book being read by Roger May   in 17 episodes  here

In 1962 The Day of the Triffids was filmed with Howard  Keel and Jannete Scott  in the main roles,  while Carole Ann Ford had a small part, later to play Susan in Doctor Who in 1963. It’s not very good,  but if you feel you must,  you can watch it here.  In 1974 a triffid, presumably left over from the film, was amongst the props offered for sale in a huge clear-out at Shepperton Studios.

In 1981 the BBC broadcast a six part  adaptation,   written by Douglas Livingstone,  produced by David Maloney and directed by Ken Hannam. It starred  John Duttine as Bill and  Emma Relph as Josella. It been  updated to the early 1980s,  but otherwise follows the book very  closely and respectfully.  I think it’s very good, but you can judge for yourselves  by  watching  it on Daily Motion, beginning here.

In the mid 1980s a band from Perth, Western Australia called The Triffids achived a measure of fame.

Finally there is whole website devoted to the book:  The Readers Guide to Day of the Triffids.

Review

“John Wyndham in The Day of the Triffids writes a Wellsian fantasy and raises up a truly sinister vegetable for the chastisement  of mankind. He has imagination and wit, but to the averagely bedevilled awareness, his use of them here may seem mal a propos2. Paul Bloomfield,  The Guardian,  24 August 1951, p. 4.

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

In my next post I will be looking at The Sleeper Awakes by H G Wells (1910)