Ade Couper blames Jon Pertwee for his life-long interest in Science Fiction & Fantasy, having started watching Doctor Who back in the early 70's. An avid reader, he is on the Bristolcon committee, is studying a part-time English degree at Bristol University, and campaigns for Amnesty International. When he's not doing any or all of those, he works as a nursing assistant on a mental health unit.
You can find Ade on Facebook ("Ade Couper"), or on twitter as @bigade1665.
Many thanks to Ade for his post on the work of John Wyndham - A very English Apocalypse....
“A Very English Apocalypse....”
There has been a recent upswing of interest in dystopian fiction lately, due perhaps to the deserved popularity of the “Hunger Games” books & movies (and also the forthcoming “Divergent” series), but I would like to look back through the mists of time to the days of a particularly English dystopian fiction....
John Wyndham has fallen out of fashion these days, which frankly, IMHO, is a shame. As well as writing a superb collection of science fiction short stories (“The Seeds of Time”, which is well worth a look), he wrote some superb dystopian novels.
“Day of the Triffids” is probably his best-known work; it tells of mutant plants (the titular Triffids), who effectively take over the world after a meteor shower blinds a large percentage of humanity, and only those who avoided seeing the meteor shower are able to avoid them. The imagery of this has been used to good effect since Wyndham wrote it, appearing to have influenced pieces such as “Doctor Who & The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, as well as “28 days later” (the start of this is almost a carbon copy of Triffids- read the scenes of Bill Masen waking up in the hospital & compare them to the beginning of “28 Days later”....). This also generated a sequel, “Night of the Triffids” by Simon Clarke, written in the style of the original- highly recommended.
“The Midwich Cuckoos”, filmed as “Village of the Damned”, is another excellent dystopian work- it tells of the artificial insemination of the female population of a typical English village by creatures unknown (& never referred to or identified in the text), & the subsequent birth, growth & development of these strange children, all of whom have strange unearthly powers, & who are all identical. Wyndham makes much of the amorality of the children, who are subtly identified as a possible future development of humanity- if you like, a “bad” version of the homo superior of the original TV version of “The Tomorrow People”.... (Although Alfred Bester gets credited with being the inspiration of The Tomorrow People”, Wyndham would appear to have also been a major influence, as we will see shortly.....)
“Trouble with Lichen” also has a dystopian flavour, but is different in that it is also a biting satire on the quest to look younger & retard the effects of aging. When Diana Brackley, a scientist investigating a rare form of lichen, discovers it has the ability to stop the aging process, much trouble ensues: this is a powerfully satirical (& incredibly funny) look at the whole “anti-aging” fad still prevalent today, which has some very interesting points to make.
It’s a mystery to me why nobody has ever filmed “The Kraken Wakes”, which is an excellent end-of-the-world story. Mysterious meteors fall from space into our oceans: soon shipping is under attack, then island populations mysteriously disappear.....before long the sea level starts rising....
I will come clean and admit that this is one of my favourite novels- it reads like a war story, &, bearing in minds when it was written, this may be Wyndham’s take on a possible invasion by the USSR and China. As with “The Midwich Cuckoos”, the alien protagonists are faceless, only seen in their “sea-tanks” during attacks on islands- Wyndham may well have been inspired by anti-soviet propaganda, which made communists out to be amoral, inhuman, & incomprehensible to the “civilised” West. The novel even has a comic-relief character, Tilly, who automatically blames everything on Russia, & comes across as a spot-on caricature of a Daily Mail reader.....
The four novels above are all set in a world that would have been recognisable to Wyndham’s readership, and it may well be that the familiarity to readers of the setting helped make the stories so memorable (Jon Pertwee’s “Yeti on a loo in Tooting Bec” theory of why Doctor Who worked well in contemporary settings springs to mind....): the portrayal of a recognisable society deeply affected by hostile events would have been incredibly unsettling to people who had just survived the 2nd World War & were now living under the threat of the Cold War. However, the last work I want to look at is very different....
“The Crysalids” is set much further in the future. It tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world, where civilisation has effectively collapsed. (Interestingly, Wyndham does not directly specify what caused the apocalypse, although there are hints, such as the fear of mutations, that this is a post nuclear holocaust novel....)
The Crysalids tells the story of a group of teenagers who are developing telepathic powers in a world where mutations are ruthlessly rooted out and dealt with (the story of the tail-less cat that was destroyed because people had no records of Manx cats is quite chilling)- the adults in the novel have a profoundly puritanical outlook, and the feeling throughout is of such horrible events as the Salem witch trials...Will the children manage to hide their powers? Can they escape to the welcoming community of Zealand?
This is a really powerful look at a post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario-again, Wyndham’s readership were “living in the shadow of the bomb”, & as the world lurched closer to crisis, this would have seemed like a very real vision of the future. The telepathic children may well have inspired the original version of “The Tomorrow People”, particularly their need to keep their abilities secret.
In conclusion, John Wyndham is, I feel, unjustly neglected & under-rated these days, seen mainly as writing about how inconvenient the apocalypse is for nice middle-class people in the Home Counties. However, his tales do present a gripping, often doom-laden, & occasionally incredibly funny look at the future as seen half a century ago. Definitely worth a revisit.
Many thanks to Ade for this post. I do like me some Wyndham! And am now looking longingly at my shelves where all the books mentioned by Ade reside, worth a revisit indeed...
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