John Wyndham (1903-1969) had been writing professionally for almost a quarter of a century before he enjoyed success with a novel written under a new pen name: The Day of The Triffids (1951). This began a run of bestsellers that captured the imagination of contemporary audiences, and which continue to be read and adapted today. Each generation has its own television series of The Day of the Triffids, carefully updated, from the BBC’s 2010 TV adaptation to these giant daffodils that terrorised the corduroy- and cardigan-sporting public of 1981:
Triffids trashing the shrubbery (c) BBC Worldwide Video Limited. The series is available on Amazon:http://www.amazon.co.uk/Day-Triffids-DVD-John-Duttine/dp/B0006GVKE8/ref=sr_1_2?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1340033321&sr=1-2
Wyndham created unique science-fiction scenarios that lie just at the edge of plausibility. His early novels feature humanity under great threat, even an all-out alien attack in The Kraken Wakes (1953). However, as his success grew, his work became more and more original. In each book, Wyndham always had a key philosophical question driving his plot:
‘What if the majority of human beings were blinded overnight?’ in The Day of the Triffids (1951).
‘What if alien invaders took over the bits of the planet that we don’t really use (the sea)?’ in The Kraken Wakes (1953).
‘What if aliens impregnated women and forced them to rear their own enemy?’ in The Midwich Cuckoos (1957).
What if a form of lichen meant that people could live for hundreds of years?” in Trouble with Lichen (1960).
In every case, he draws on real-life, and the basic idea is not that impossible. This is what Wyndham called ‘logical fantasy’. In 2012, it seems bizarre to base a science-fiction novel on lichen, but Wyndham was writing only twenty years after a similar miracle had come from a bit of mould in a laboratory. Though Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin’s anti-bacterial properties in 1928, it only really became medically available in the 1940s. If mould could extend life so far, why not lichen?
This archive interview shows Wyndham discussing the real basis of his writing work: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/writers/12206.shtml
Possessing original ideas is not enough to be a great science-fiction writer. It is also important to plug into people’s emotional world, their fears and preoccupations. As a veteran of the D-Day landings himself, Wyndham was always interested in the effect of trauma on the personality. The hero of The Kraken Wakes is no lantern-jawed buffoon who shakes off the perils he encounters in a single bound:
“There was something wrong and I knew it. I didn’t admit to the doctor, though I did to the Harley Street man, that it was more often Phyllis than Muriel that I saw being dragged along by her hair, and more often her than an unknown man that I saw pulled to pieces. As a quid pro quo he told me that Phyllis had been spending most of her nights listening to me and dissuading me from jumping out of the window to interfere with these imaginary happenings.”
Around about 1955, Wyndham’s preoccupations changed. In the post-apocalyptic world of The Chrysalids, he starts to explore inter-generational conflict. The 1950s is famed as the birth of the teenager, a time when parents discovered that their children were changing. The baby boomers were rejecting long-held views. Adolescents were becoming complicated and impossible to explain.
It is no coincidence that in the later novels, we see parents constantly struggling against their children. In The Chrysalids (1955), un-mutated parents are desperate to retain the purity of their line, even when the “deformity” is little more than an extra toe, as subtly shown in this Penguin cover by Brian Cronin:
The elders who rule the survivor communities expect total obedience to their laws, both in physical terms (mutants are expelled from society) and in terms of belief. Unfortunately, there are many more mutants among them than they realise.
The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) has a whole village forcibly impregnanted by an unseen force, and left to raise children that are eerily alien, with golden eyes and a gestalt intelligence. Though they remain incomprehensible to normal human beings, the alien children understand each other perfectly well. They seem to inhabit a world that is impenetrable to outsiders, i.e. the adults. Finally, in Chocky (1968) a pair of everyday parents discover that their eleven-year-old son has changed out of all recognition, seemingly overnight. How many other parents in the summer of love must have felt like their offspring too was suddenly under the power of an intelligence from beyond the stars?
One of the most frequent criticisms of John Wyndham is that his novels are not epic enough, that they have a rather twee, suburban feel. It is true that he often uses settings that would be familiar to his readers, all the better to draw them into the extraordinary events that unfold. His use of bucolic England in many of his books was, however, very much intentional and not a form of quick crib. When the occasion demanded, he was prepared to use a wide range of settings. In The Kraken Wakes, the story begins mid-Atlantic, somewhere off the Azores, with the action spreading to Java, the Caribbean and the ocean depths, before returning to his familiar happy hunting ground of London.
In The Chrysalids, he goes a step further and creates an entire post-apocalyptic world. It contains some of his very finest writing, of the ravaged wilderness:
“There are plants which grow on the cliff-tops and send thick, green cables down a hundred feet and more to the sea; and you wonder whether it’s a land plant that’s got to the salt water, or a sea plant that’s somehow climbed ashore… [Further on] The whole seaboard is empty – black and harsh and empty. The land behind looks like a huge desert of charcoal. Where there are cliffs they are sharp-edged with nothing to soften them. There are no fish in the sea there, no weed either, not even slime, and when a ship has sailed there the barnacles and the fouling on her bottom drop off, and leave her hull clean. You don’t see any birds. Nothing moves at all, except the waves breaking on the black beaches.”
With his fine prose, original plots, as well as his ability to plug into the fears of his readers, John Wyndham was the pre-eminent author of post-war British science-fiction.