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Friday, 10 February 2017

Wyndham - or hot air?

John Wyndham was an English author of the 1950s and '60s who made a name for himself with a string of literarily respectable SF novels, most of which injected a seed of something very strange into an everyday life decribed in matter-of-fact, if not humdrum, terms. You should anticipate spoilers...

The Day of the Triffids
Why “cosy catastrophe” – Brian Aldiss’s description of the genre to which The Day of the Triffids belongs? To begin with there’s the narrative tone, sometimes described as middle-class, whatever that’s meant to imply. But the cosiness must mostly come from the triffids themselves. Not that they aren’t threatening, but it’s an otherworldly threat that locates this apocalypse in a safely fantastic framework. Imagine instead that mankind went blind and was then menaced by packs of wild dogs, or rats, rather than ambient vegetables. That might be too close to reality for many readers, and it certainly wouldn’t be cosy.

Wyndham is clearly making up the plot of Triffids as he goes along, especially at the start where every character the narrator meets has to top themselves in order to prune what would soon become a cluttered narrative. Take the doctor that Bill encounters soon after leaving his ward. He must have been blind for all of two hours, he’s a medical professional, he’s in a modern well-equipped hospital, and he has a sighted helper in the person of our narrator. Yet the moment he finds the phone network is kaput he’s gone head-first out the fifth floor window. Reeling across the road for a stiff drink after witnessing that, Bill finds the publican drowning his sorrows. His wife has already gassed herself and the kids, he just needs a few more G-and-Ts to work up the courage to join them.

Really? Would you not wait a few hours to see if help came? If you were a doctor, wouldn’t you at least have a go at finding a cure? Or give it a day or two in case it was a temporary effect? I wouldn’t be diving straight through the nearest window myself, but Wyndham needs to get rid of these inconvenient plot hangnails so that they don’t hold his narrator back.

After Bill runs across a sighted woman called Josella, Wyndham suddenly remembers the triffids – and having remembered them has a half dozen of the buggers packed into every lawn in St John’s Wood. One of them has even got into Josella’s house and done for her dear old dad – handily sparing him the need to find a shotgun or a pack of rat poison to get him out of the way of the plot. “She was not going to care for the idea of leaving her father as we had found him,” muses Bill. “She would wish that he should have a proper burial.” But you can almost hear Wyndham’s sigh as he contemplates a chapter spent de-triffiding the house and burying the old cove. So he has a convenient triffid leap from behind a bush to attack their car. “Drive on!” cries Josella. “Oh, let’s get away before it comes back.” And dead dad is never mentioned again.

I first read this when I was nine or ten years old. I loved the triffids, second only to Daleks in my esteem, but I couldn’t figure out how they were connected to the meteor shower. “They’re not,” said my dad. “The triffids were created, then the meteors blind everybody and that gives the triffids the whip hand.” I was wary of double mumbo jumbo even then, and late in the book Wyndham seems to decide that he ought to link this all up, at least thematically, so throws in the notion that the blinding lights in the sky were caused by orbiting man-made weaponry rather than simple meteors. But what then is the book’s theme? Mankind meddling in things we were not meant to know? Gimme a break. Antibiotics, central heating, water purification, surgery, electricity… It’s too lazy just to wheel out science as a bad guy because nothing else leaps to mind.

Another criticism: Bill and his sighted friends give up on the rest of humanity far too easily. Most of us would have many blind friends and relatives, and we wouldn’t just abandon them. I can think of ways to set up farms with a ratio of several hundred blind workers to maybe a dozen sighted people. The characters in Day of the Triffids barely even try, to the extent that you begin to wonder why Wyndham didn’t just kill the majority off with a plague rather than blinding them and then having to have them commit suicide or wander off. About halfway through, that occurs to him too, at which point he brings in a mysterious plague (also satellite-borne, amazingly) to trim the fat.

Still, Day of the Triffids is fantastic rip-roaring stuff if you’re ten years old and it’s quite fun for adults too. If we hadn’t had Terry Nation’s much better Survivors in between then and now, I might not have found so many faults with the book. And at least triffids are a lot more original and interesting than zombies.



The Midwich Cuckoos
After finding Triffids a bit of a disappointment, I thought I'd better give Wyndham another chance, but this one bears out the same impression, namely that he had fabulously original ideas but then proceeded to flatten the life out of them with a dry, distant, ironic, and indeed slightly comedic prose style.

"The essence of cosy catastrophe," says Brian Aldiss, "is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off." It's hard to describe the narrator of The Midwich Cuckoos as the book's hero. In fact, he hardly seems to exist at all, and after a few chapters tells us that he's basically going to have to make up a lot of stuff that he's pieced together later and has written up like a third-person novel.

What is the narrator even there for? We know he's going to survive the story, and his wife isn't one of the women who become pregnant with the Cuckoos, so he is certainly cosily looking on from outside. In a review in The Guardian, Dan Rebellato thinks that the narrator (I had to look up his name: Richard Gayford; he hardly features) is there to be unreliable, to make us look more warily at the gaps and unexamined aspects of the story. Well, that's charitable. I just think Wyndham launched in with a first-person viewpoint and never went back to change it.

It's hard going. The ideas are there, but Wyndham (or his narrator) is determined to undercut any drama in the telling. We're halfway through the book before the babies are even born. Much of the novel just tells us drily about how the whole thing is organized. The government take almost no interest, despite having an MI5 chap keeping an eye on the village. The way that the plot is explained to us is through a local author called Zellaby. He's the sort of opinionated crackpot whom one dreads getting stuck in a lift with. Every so often, when Wyndham needs us to understand what's going on, Zellaby will come out with some nugget of aboriginal wisdom like, "It can only be what Huxley calls xenogenesis," or, "Man cannot have evolved on Earth as there are too many gaps in the evolutionary tree." We're supposed to take all this as the pronouncements of Yoda, but I'd rather Wyndham had found a way to show us what he was thinking instead of bunging in this Basil Exposition geezer.

The story is wrapped up without any set-up; we don't know how the character concerned knows how to do what he does, it just happens. And by this time we've been fed so much narrative nitrazepam that what ought to be shocking comes across as a so-what moment. The way Wyndham tells it, the eeriness of the children hardly comes across at all. Deaths feel untroubling, almost comic. It doesn't build so much as swell until it's time for the author to let the air out. And any subtextual themes - for example, the concern of a mother at finding she has no emotional bond with her child - aren't handled with a tenth of the skill and tension of something like We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Yet there is a strong, creepy idea in there, and lots of imaginative touches like the villagers falling asleep. The 1960 movie makes it all nail-biting; Wyndham tells it as if he's relating a particularly uninvolving shaggy-dog story. A case where the book is not better. Because the ideas in Wyndham's classics are so strong and different, they would make excellent settings for a role-playing game - and because the execution of those ideas in the novels is so flat, I'd feel no compunction about ripping them apart to use in that way.

43 comments:

  1. One pretty interesting take on The Midwich Cuckoos is Warren Ellis' Freakangels. It sort of posits the idea of the kids growing up into disaffected 20-somethings who are trying to deal with the effects of an apocalypse that they caused.

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    1. That's interesting. I never thought of Freakangels as the same concept, but I suppose it is - and (more tenuously) so is the original X-Men comic book.

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    2. "the Midwich Cuckooss as disaffected 20-somethings" was how Ellis described the work to us on his Whitechapel message board. It was actually my first introduction to "The Midwich Cuckoos" as a novel. I knew about Children/Village of the Damned but not the novel behind them.

      I'll admit I have no real desire to read the original works now. There's something a little off-putting about the idea that the deaths of almost everyone else on the planet makes some character's personal situation much better - and that we're suppose to root for that person.

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    3. In the novel the Midwich Cuckoos are aliens, but I think their origin is left ambiguous in the movies? The characters' conclusion that mankind's only option is to kill or be killed seems a tad off-the-peg - not so much convincing as necessary to inject some tension into the storyline. Certainly the movies and Freakangels are better, so you haven't missed anything by bypassing the novel.

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  2. The Midwich Cuckoos turn up in Utatti Asfet for Call of Cthulhu; they are transposed to some bayou in the American Deep South. It's not very well done.

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    1. Even Wiki doesn't have that one. Maybe time to edit the page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Midwich_Cuckoos#Allusions.2Freferences_in_other_works

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  3. Incidentally, do you like Jizzle, Dave?! I have to admit to being a Wyndham fan, The Chrysalids being a favourite. More evidence most of my tastes (and humour it seems) either haven't evolved much from childhood or have reverted back. Another problem with Triffids is the monster menace is so easily and obviously negated. Some thick pyjamas, a balaclava and some swimming goggles should do the trick (by crikey, I think we've cracked it fellas. Going to be frightfully uncomfortable come August though). The early 80s TV adaptation is worth a watch. Have vivid memories of watching it first time round but missing the last episode, which I watched some 30 years later. A cliffhanger on a par with Avenger.

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    1. I did read both Jizzle and The Trouble With Lichen recently and enjoyed them both, so possibly I'm giving an unfair impression of Wyndham's work by focussing on just these two books. And there's no doubt about the quality of his ideas -- although certainly a trip to Homebase to stock up on weed killer would soon deal with the triffids.

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  4. There's a lovely interview with John at the BBC archive, where he talks about British people not liking spaceships and third-eye-mutations being 'tasteless'. There's undeniably a grey flannel sensibility that permeates the work.

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    1. Interesting! Thanks for pointing that out.

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    2. What a treasure trove. Huxley, Amis, Woolf, Forster, Maugham... I'm going to be spending a lot of time there. A pity the Beeb didn't do them as podcasts, though.

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  5. Granted that it's off-topic, but for those interested in Lone Wolf stuff, there's a new Kickstarter for the sequel to Autumn Snow: The Pit of Darkness:

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/57119387/autumn-snow-2-the-wildlands-hunt

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  6. I tried reading "The Midwich Cuckoos" twice but it was a real struggle and I didn't get very far. "Day of the Triffids" is an easier read but rather flawed. I read it at school when I was 14 or 15 and again 10 years later. It seemed much more sinister the second time, presumably because I had a better understanding of the consequences of societal breakdown.

    "I can think of ways to set up farms with a ratio of several hundred blind workers to maybe a dozen sighted people."

    Our English teacher had us write a short story in which we had to do exactly that, so it's not that difficult. I may even still have it lying around somewhere.

    I will say that I've thoroughly enjoyed some of his shorter works, collected together in "The Seeds of Time"; particularly "Dumb Martian" which is much more engaging than "Midwich Cuckoos", though that's not a high bar to reach!

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    1. I might try the short stories. As I said, I do like Wyndham's imagination, and in later works he seems better at keeping the pace going.

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    2. Agree with other Andy re his short stories, The Seeds Of Time, Consider Her Ways and Jizzle being the best of them. Although his John Beynon early Sci-Fi efforts have a certain charm about them.

      Any opinion on another Sci-Fi John I rate, Dave, John Christopher? Nowhere near as popular (or perhaps original), but The Death Of Grass and Wrinkle In The Skin I think stand up well. The Tripods trilogy is my guilty holiday pleasure most years!

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    3. I have to confess that I've never read him, Andy. What's a good one to start off with?

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    4. The Tripods is The Day of the Triffids meets War of the Worlds, with aliens forcing the human survivors of the invasion to live in Medieval re-enactment villages. I seem to recall a 1980s TV version around the same time as Robin of Sherwood ? (Ah, the days of 4 channels !)

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    5. That's the one, John! I deliberately overlook its obvious flaws. The 80s TV series actually got me into the books and drew me further into the genre. The TV series was way too drawn out with unnecessary filler, but not without its merits. The BBC pulled the funding before they made the third part of the trilogy.

      I'd go with The Death Of Grass, Dave. If only because that's supposed to be his seminal work. I think some of your observations about Triffids could be aimed at Grass as well (I'm sure there's an joke there somewhere). At least in as much society seems to break down rather too easily. For me it's Christopher's young adult stories that evidence he was more than just a Wyndham clone. Dom and Va (aka In The Beginning) and The Guardians I really enjoyed. The Sword Of The Spirits trilogy also.

      On other matters, any news on Oliver's and your wife's new novels? Also, just got around to reading Doomwalk again. Stands the test of time very well. I assume from the last post I found on the matter (pre me finding your blog) that The Walls Of Spyte reissue is never going to happen?

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    6. Oliver's book, which I read in manuscript as The Knight of the Fields but which may get retitled for publication, is now with a top US literary agent and getting a lot of interest. A year ago publishers deemed it too dark, but now the zeitgeist has caught up.

      Meanwhile Roz is still crafting her novel, but recently put it aside temporarily while she worked on a Bill Bryson style travelogue. Expect that later in the year, and the novel hopefully soon after that.

      As for Walls of Spyte... I did have a look at it the other day, but there is so much that needs fixing. Sections that need flow charting, fights that are impossibly hard, clues with no payoff. It's quite a mess. I know I should dive in and fix it, but I need a spare month to work on it full-time. Even after that, it's no Doomwalk!

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    7. The first BBC series of The Tripods was rather tedious but the second was much better; it's a pity they never made the third. The first John Christopher I read was the Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and that was very good.

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  7. Hi Dave, would it be quicker just to 'knock down' the Walls of Spyte and start afresh ? Also can you give us a teaser trailer for Oliver's novel ? It sounds intriguing

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    1. I did think about a complete rebuild of Walls of Spyte, John, but that's a big project in its own right. As I started editing it, back when I reissued books 1-4, I began making notes on how to make it a better fit with the preceding four books. That could be done as a Kickstarter, I suppose -- though does Blood Sword have enough fans to make a KS work?

      Oliver's novel is a splendidly Gothic tale set in a startling different world, so truly fantastic as to be almost magic realist. A lone tower in the middle of a city smashed flat years ago by a sorcerous tidal wave, occupied by survivors who live under a brutally repressive theocratic regime. The style is like Gormenghast, full of baroque beauty. The themes: hope, alchemy, betrayal, dominance.

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    2. Could you tie it in with the new gamebook you were considering, Dave? I'm assuming you wouldn't just release BS5 as is, warts and all? I'm sure others may disagree, but for me it's more about completing the collection again than anything else. If it's too hard, illogical or even impossible to complete, it doesn't really bother me. Then at the start of book 6, you could have the Enchanter come out of the shower and discover book 5 was just a bad dream. Count me in for £50 if you do the full rewrite, a few quid more if you write a new one and a quid more than that if you sign my Golden Dragons!:)

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    3. I'm going over to Somerset to see Leo Hartas next month, and if he agrees to do the maps then a new Legend-set gamebook is a definite possibility. I'm not sure if I or the readers would want that to use Blood Sword rules, though! And Jamie and I are meeting up tomorrow to talk about another new gamebook -- something very, very different from anything we've ever tried before. If it goes ahead you'll hear it here first :-)

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  8. If you call it Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, I'll put £300 in.

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    1. That would only be fair, seeing as Ian did an Eye of the Dragon. Maybe we'll call it the Forelock of Wiretap Mountain.

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    2. Excellent. The gamebook that Dick Francis never wrote. I had been thinking more just remove the "The" from the title as Ian did, but your idea is much better. Hope the meeting was productive.

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  9. I like John Wyndham very much; the short stories in particular. He would get on very well with Bill Maher! He makes some beautiful and gentle asides such as "Economies would collapse if women didn't have disposable income". And the short story Consider Her Ways is anything but "cosy and middle class".

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    1. I'll take a look at that one. I'm not sure why he had the urge in those early novels to underwhelm his own rather brilliant ideas. For me it's the flattening of excitement rather than cosiness that weakens Triffids and Cuckoos. Maybe he was just embarrassed to be writing SF at first. As for his attitudes to women... best that we draw a veil over that.

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    2. Rather late to this, forgive me...

      I was going to respond specifically to "as for his attitudes to women..." It's been a number of years since I read some of his books, but one specific thing I remember is being surprised by his positive depiction to women, despite the strong air of the 1950's middle-class. Notably in Trouble and in a particularly significant twist in Kraken.

      Rather than make the case based on memories approaching 20 years old, I'll leave it to a woman who can do a better job than I:

      https://katemacdonald.net/2015/03/30/john-wyndhams-trouble-with-lichen/

      This is also quite interesting:

      https://callumhonoursproject.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/review-consider-her-ways-john-wyndham/

      I'm not suggesting these prove anything, but I think there is more to his attitudes than you appear to suggest in your final line.

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  10. Count me in if you launch a kickstarter for Blood Sword, Dave. The set up for Oliver's novel sounds great - will look out for it. Also, my son is about to start Jamie's Dark Lord trilogy - he wants to read it himself but I am offering to read it to him as I fancy sharing it !

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    1. I really recommend the audiobooks, John, if you can find them. They're narrated by Jamie so score even higher on crazed humour.

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  11. Hi John, You can get the audio book here in fact, but only the first two books. Well, unless your German is excellent, as there are German audiobooks for them all! For some reason the Germans love comedy books about an Evil Overlord, it seems They do better in Germany than they do in the UK! Anyway, here's the link. http://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Children/Dark-Lord-The-Teenage-Years-Audiobook/B00E5UJLM4/ref=a_search_c4_1_1_srTtl?qid=1487683423&sr=1-1

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    1. Hi Jamie, many thanks for the link ! Have been wandering elsewhere on the internet for a few days and only just came back into this room. Funnily enough we are planing a trip to Berlin later this year so might get James the German version to work on his vocab !

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  12. I've just stumbled across Headmaster Of Doom on Amazon. Wunderbar (not Ten Pole Tudor). Have I missed a post?! Are your marketing men on the right pills, Morris? Maybe I should execute their editor!

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    1. Oh yes... What happened there is we've been waiting so long for the 4th Dirk Lloyd book to come out (publishing takes forever) that it took us by surprise when it finally arrived. Like that scene in Holy Grail when John Cleese comes charging up to the castle. But there's plenty to say about the book so I'll whip the post-writing slaves right now.

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    2. Well, its on the order list now. I'll be checking out the audiobooks for use in a year or two. In the meantime my son will have to make do with Daddy's limited vocal range performances of the Mr Men. Dull monotone (narrator), deep (Mr Uppity), squeaky (goblin), bad Sean Connery (king of the goblins).

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    3. Just thinking.. A lot of movies could have been improved by having Bad Sean Connery as the villain.

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  13. I couldn't put my finger on what was missing from the new Star Wars film until you said that! Your John Cleese analogy has also got me in Grail mood. One of the few films that couldn't possibly be improved.

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  14. I haven't seen it in far too long. Could be about time for a triple bill with Life of Brian and Jabberwocky.

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  15. I'll go for with Life Of Brian and Time Bandits, if only because of the Sean Connery connection.

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  16. Saw it again recently. Of course, that's Good Sean Connery -- times two.

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