John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was a prolific writer of novels and short stories, all published under variations of his name. John Beynon, Lucas Parkes, Wyndham Parkes, John Beynon Harris and Johnson Harris were all called into service as a nom de plume at various points during his writing career1, but it was as John Wyndham that he achieved lasting fame. Wyndham's position within the literary canon is a variable one, for at times he has been admired for writing science fiction which appeals beyond the normal readership for the genre, while some critics dismiss his major novels as 'cosy catastrophes' with little depth or insight and thus easily dismissed.
John Wyndham's early life was far from settled. He was born in 1903 in Knowle, Warwickshire. His parents separated eight years later, and John and his brother Vivian spent the rest of their formative years in many different towns and boarding schools across England. After leaving school in 1921, he tried his hand at various careers including farming, law and advertising before settling on a career as a writer.
From 1931, his stories began to appear in pulp science fiction magazines such as Wonder Stories, Modern Wonder and Amazing Stories. Many of his early stories were fairly typical SF fare, but Wyndham wanted to stretch the rather limited boundaries of what was considered commercial in the genre and began to explore concepts and themes within these stories which would eventually lead to his more famous novels of the 1950s. These persistent themes include human nature (both good and bad), the co-existence of intelligent species, the evolution of mankind and children being gifted with unusual powers. Like other British writers of science fiction (such as Olaf Stapledon, whose most important works were published during the 1930s; or HG Wells in the final years of the 19th Century), Wyndham was arguably more interested in the exploration of ideas than in characterisation or an eventful plot. However, although glimmers of his ambitions did show through in stories such as 'The Puffball Menace' (1933) and 'Child of Power' (1939), the economics of genre publishing at the time meant that most of his experimentation would have to wait. The editors of the magazines were chiefly interested in straightforward stories of action and adventure.
During the 1930s and early 1940s, Wyndham had some two dozen stories published, many of them falling into the category of 'space opera', although he did also write Foul Play Suspected (1935), a detective adventure set in the world of advertising. Then, during the Second World War, he served his country, first as a censor in the civil service and later in the Royal Signal Corps.
After the War
In the aftermath of the Second World War, and amid the beginnings of the Cold War, Wyndham's published output changed greatly. Science fiction in general became more serious than it had been during the 1930s, and some of Wyndham's earliest post-war stories display a profound melancholy, most notably 'Time to Rest' (1949) which explores the end of Earth and the decline of human civilisation elsewhere. During the 1950s, Wyndham wrote the four novels for which he is best remembered. They reflect the fears of the time and also allowed Wyndham to explore the ideas that had been stifled in his earlier short stories. These are the so-called 'cosy catastrophes' where humanity's status quo is threatened by strange and disturbing forces.
The Day of the Triffids
Originally serialised in Collier's Weekly in 1951, The Day of the Triffids focuses on an everyman hero and narrator, Bill Masen, who wakes up after an eye operation to find that most of the world's population has been blinded following what may have been an exceptionally bright meteor shower, or possibly a malfunction in an orbiting system of satellite weapons. At the same time, bands of triffids - intelligent, mobile carnivorous plants bred behind the Iron Curtain, valued for their oil and feared for their sting - are roaming the country. These plants take advantage of mankind's sudden mass blindness, and could thus become the dominant species on the planet. Masen wanders the country and encounters a number of groups attempting to deal with the catastrophe in various ways. Slavery, religion and feudalism are options presented to the hero, who rejects them all in turn, preferring to fight the triffids in a small pseudo-family unit. Although the novel does end with a glimmer of hope, much of the situation is left unresolved.
The book was adapted for radio four times between 1953 and 1971. It was also adapted for film in 1962, with the triffids transformed from man-made creations to true aliens which came to Earth in a meteor shower. Starring Howard Keel2, the film expanded the scope of the action to include continental Europe and also gave the triffids a simple weakness that would allow mankind to wipe them out. A BBC television adaptation in the 1980s was more faithful to the original book and continues to be fondly remembered.
In The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham explores the various ways in which society would cope with a huge catastrophe, and finds all existing models of society to be inadequate in this situation. Various groups are doomed because they stubbornly cling to the old ways; by the end of the novel it is clear that adaptation is essential. As Clytassamine, a character in 'Pillar to Post' (1951), says of our civilisation, long gone in her time:
Each new discovery was a toy. You never considered its true worth. You just pushed it into your system - a system already suffering from hardening of the arteries. [...] It never seems to have occurred to you that in Nature, life is growth and preservation is an accident.... What is preserved in the rocks or in ice is only the image of life, but you were always regarding local taboos as eternal verities and attempting to preserve them.
The world of this catastrophe is certainly not cosy. There are triumphs of the human spirit, but human nature is also seen at its worst: suspicious, exploitative or despairing - several suicides are observed by the narrator.
The Kraken Wakes
Two years after forcing mankind to face genetically-engineered plants, Wyndham wrote another book with a similar pattern. Strange meteor showers are observed and, after a while, mankind comes under attack. Ships and islanders disappear and the polar ice caps begin to melt as water-dwelling aliens decide to make this world their own. Our everyman narrator this time is writer Mike Watson, who, along with his wife Phyllis, observes the events. The two of them take very little part in the fight against this fearsome new intelligence, but observe and comment on the effects of the invasion. Phyllis Watson is, for the time, a very strong female character, who has more determination than her husband. They both suffer a nervous breakdown after witnessing a terrible scene, but it is Phyllis who recovers first and who takes some sensible precautions for their future.
Once again, Wyndham examines society's response to a terrible threat, and this time he takes a more global view, as the differing reactions of many different governments and groups are discussed. Essentially, most governments turn out to be rather incompetent and the European response is initially to pretend that nothing's happening - the bureaucratic equivalent of a collective sticking of fingers into ears and singing loudly. With such concentration on the 'what if...' of the situation, there are less action set pieces than in The Day of the Triffids, as Wyndham moves further away from standard science fiction. However, although much is left open-ended, The Kraken Wakes does have a more obvious happy ending than his previous novel.
The Kraken Wakes is also known as Out of the Deeps and has been serialised for BBC Radio three times. The most recent version, which has been released on audio cassette, takes itself terribly seriously and thus ends up being unintentionally amusing.
Sometimes also known as Re-Birth, Wyndham's third novel of the 1950s followed after another two year gap and altered the pattern completely. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, set many years after a great cataclysm (more than likely of nuclear origin) in what was once Canada. In this world, all mutants are feared, hunted and exiled as humanity clings to a rigid religious purity that parallels Senator McCarthy's anti-communist witch-hunts in America. The narrator of the story is David Storm, a telepathic boy, part of a group of similarly-gifted youngsters who must hide their gift for fear of persecution, exile or even execution. Of all Wyndham's novels, this is the most action-packed and one of the most morally ambiguous. Among the various human factions there is no clear right or wrong - almost all factions are quite happy to destroy anyone who is not like them.
As in the two earlier novels of mankind versus the alien intelligence, this novel explores the different ways in which society copes with a cataclysm, but does so with hindsight. The most successful society is the one that is most prepared to adapt, but even this group is not a particularly desirable model to follow. Although this novel has one of Wyndham's most obviously 'happy endings', it is an uncomfortable one.
The Chrysalids has been adapted for radio several times and a stage version was also produced in 1997, performed at the National Theatre in London among other venues.
The Midwich Cuckoos
In 1957, the fourth of Wyndham's most influential novels was published. This is the disturbing tale of what happens when an insignificant English village is cut off from the outside world for a day and finds that almost all of the women present are suddenly pregnant. The resulting children are soon discovered to be quite different from the people of the village, with mental abilities which nobody can fully comprehend. Wyndham's alien intelligence is much more normal than mobile plants or undersea monsters, and all the more creepy because of it. The children are compared, within the book as well as in its title, to cuckoos - birds which lay their eggs in the nests of other species, coercing them to rear alien offspring and draining all their resources.
The novel has many similarities to Triffids and Kraken. The narrator is almost entirely an observer of events - his wife is not among those who bear the children and he is absent from the village for many years. He simply reports on significant events, being present for many of them, but never directly involved. The alien intelligence embodied by the children has a form of hive mind, and the various reactions to the situation, both within Midwich and later, as reported from elsewhere in the world, are examined, to explore once again the ways in which humanity copes with the unexpected. And a consistent theme rears its head once more - where two intelligent species are sharing the same planet, cooperation between them is strained and may not be sustainable. The survival of the fittest includes sapient beings.
A radio adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos was broadcast on the BBC World Service. It has also been filmed twice, under the more lurid title of Village of the Damned.
Wyndham never stopped writing short stories, but, like his novels, they changed in tone in the years following the war. The 'space opera' genre was largely abandoned, or when it was used, the stories were more chilling than the usual adventurous fare - 'Survival' (1952), is a borderline horror story and 'Dumb Martian' (also 1952) explores the issues of racism and sexism. Like many other science fiction authors, Wyndham also took an interest in the possibilities of time travel. While his pre-war time travel tales had included alien intelligences, he explored various different paradoxes and concepts during the 1950s and early 1960s. 'Pillar to Post' (1951) is a battle of wills across the millennia; 'Pawley's Peepholes' (1951) is an entertaining speculation on the potential form of time tourism; 'Chronoclasm' (1953) and 'Opposite Number' (1954) are love stories involving time travellers of one kind or another; 'Consider Her Ways' (1956) involves a vision of a future world where the men have been wiped out by disease3. Other stories ponder robotics or raise environmental concerns4. The closest Wyndham came to typical 'hard' science fiction, was in The Outward Urge, a series of linked stories (1958-1959) about the exploration of space which take place over several generations. These stories include much technical detail alongside the reactions of various members of the Troon family to the stages of space exploration which they experience. During the 1960s, Wyndham also published two further novels.
Trouble With Lichen
Published in 1960, this novel explores what happens when two scientists simultaneously identify a substance which slows down the aging process. Both of them realise that such a substance will increase exploitation of the impoverished and widen the gap between rich and poor and each ponders how best to use it for the betterment of mankind. One decides to suppress it, though he is not above using it on himself and his family. The other decides that she trusts women more than men, and in order to tap into the influence that women have over their husbands, she opens an exclusive and expensive beauty salon which is frequented by the wives of MPs and business magnates.
Unusually for Wyndham, this book does not have a single narrator, which makes it clearer than ever that his interest is ideas rather than people. Once again, this book is a theme in search of a plot and characterisation, exploring issues surrounding the commercial exploitation of science which are even more urgent now than they were when it was written. Wyndham also casts light on the situation of women in the middle years of the 20th century: Diana Brackley is presented as an intelligent, forward-thinking scientist and a resourceful and successful businesswoman but, significantly, she is unmarried. Her mother and most of her customers seem content to give up their own power in order to take the rôle of supportive wife and helpmate.
A touching and intriguing tale quite unlike much of Wyndham's other work, Chocky (1968) concerns a young boy who appears to be in communication with some other form of intelligence. His parents and others wonder whether this is a particularly developed invisible friend, a case of possession, or something else entirely. Unlike most of his earlier work, the book concentrates on one family and thus explores psychological reactions to the strange events in place of the usual sociological speculation.
In another move uncharacteristic of Wyndham, everything is explained at the close of the novel, and the truth of the situation is reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon's Starmaker. This is in many ways a more positive view of alien intelligence than that offered in his novels of the 1950s, although it does contain similar musings on mankind's unwillingness to change.
Chocky has been dramatised twice for BBC Radio and was also filmed for Thames Television as a children's series, later inspiring two original TV sequels - Chocky's Children and Chocky's Challenge.
The End and After...
In 1963, Wyndham married Grace Wilson, a teacher. He had been in regular correspondence with her during the war years, but they had known one another for over twenty years before they married. The couple lived in Hampshire until Wyndham's death in March 1969.
Just as many of his novels ended, but didn't quite tell the end of the story, Wyndham's publishing career continued even after his death. Various collections of short stories emerged during the 1970s, and ten years after his death, his estate released Web, a tale concerning intelligent, co-operative spiders which inevitably come into conflict with mankind. The book contains many of Wyndham's most persistent themes - two intelligent species in conflict with one another, a species with a hive mind, the role of women in society, mankind's folly - and while it is not as polished as the novels published during his lifetime, it is generally held to stand up well alongside his other work.
Wyndham's novels were staples of school reading lists in the United Kingdom for many years, and several of them are still very popular, both with science fiction devotees and with members of the reading public who generally avoid the genre. Very much products of their time, his books continue to resonate fifty years later, not only for the frightening alien intelligences, but also for the issues they raise.