The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham ~ 1957. This edition: Penguin, 1971. Paperback. ISBN: 140014403. 220 pages.

Lutescent.

Isn’t that a great word? I hardly ever run into it in fiction reading, though it’s a relatively common descriptor in botany and entomology. “Of a yellowish colour” is the nuts and bolts definition, but in practice it is generally used to describe an overall golden glow, a tint rather than a deeper dye.

The children – perhaps that should be in quotations? – with whom this science fiction – horror? – novel are concerned are definitely lutescent, what with their glossily sheened skin and their beautiful golden eyes. (Though Wyndham might not actually use the term; I thought he did but I can’t find it on reexamination of the pertinent bits of text.)

Almost inhumanly beautiful, they are, which encompasses the whole point of this morally wrought tale. They’re not human. So, when it appears that the existence of the golden ones may threaten the existence of humankind-as-we-know-it, do all the normal rules of civilized behaviours apply?

That is the Big Question.

Let me back up.

Here’s the story.

Strange events in the peaceful English village of Midwich!

Within a defined circle of countryside, with Midwich roughly at the centre, at 10:17 P.M. on a mild-though-damp September evening, everything goes to sleep. Insects, birds, farm animals, and most definitely the humans. They drop where they stand, frozen in a sort of catatonic trance. (The lucky ones are caught indoors or in  bed; some of the people out in the elements – well – not so good.)

The first edition dust jacket depicts a clever idea dreamt up by some of the army people to define the edge of the Sleep Zone. Canary in a cage, long stick, bucket of whitewash to mark the point where the canary keels over. Very ingenious. Oh, later extended to the innovation of a cageful of ferrets hanging from a helicopter by a long cable, with a man on the ground with binoculars signalling where the danger point kicks in. Perfect. This is a great book, full of deliciously understated humour.

The outside world realizes something fishy is going on the next morning, as telephone lines don’t respond and buses mysteriously fail to continue on their post-Midwich routes.

Here comes the army! (Not to mention M.I.) A high-flying scout plane catches a glimpse of a strangely shaped dome in the epicentre of the sleep zone; a closer-flying plane crashes, pilot apparently overcome by whatever-it-is.

A nerve gas?? Could it be…possibly…The Russians?! (Or “the Ivans”, as they are referred to by one of the side characters, which I must confess amused me greatly for some strange reason. Oh, dear. Not sure what that says about me. Probably nothing good.)

Nope, it’s not the Russians. It’s – wait for it – ALIENS! (Hey, it’s Wyndham. Was this ever even a question?)

The “dome” vanishes.

Everyone wakes up. (Except for a few unlucky souls caught in burning houses, or overexposed to the elements.)

Life returns to normal. For a month or three, anyway.

Because quite suddenly, quite coincidentally (it at first appears) there are an astonishing number of pregnancies becoming evident in the population of Midwich. As in, every woman of child-bearing age. Virgin schoolgirls, sedate housewives, the younger partner of the local lesbian couple, the adult daughter of the local squire and her youngish stepmother. All of them. Sixty-plus expectant mothers, all at the same stage of gravidness, estimated date of conception…well…you figure it out.

How interesting! How strange. A press ban is imposed and – this being England in the 1950s, an apparently rule-abiding place – the press politely abides by the word from on high. Nothing happening at Midwich. Just a little conceptional anomaly. Move along. Nothing to see here…

The babies are born, all of them – aside from the few obviously “naturally” conceived – with perfectly formed limbs, silken skin, and those golden eyes. And strange powers of mind. For the babies appear to be able to compel their mothers to certain actions. Baby hungry? Mother stops in mid stride on the high street, plunks herself down on the curb, and hikes up her blouse. Baby poked by diaper pin? Mother turns pin on herself, stabbing and stabbing in self punishment. Little things like that.

Interesting.

The babies show astonishing growth, maturing roughly twice as fast as a normal child would. And there is a remarkable phenomenon becoming apparent: the children all communicate by thought. All of the girls are linked, as are all of the boys. When a special school is set up to a.) educate and b.) study, it becomes the norm for the lessons to be taught to only one representative of each sex, the others showing mastery of the skill or concept as soon as the representative learner masters it.

Where’s this all going, you ask?

In a sentence: Humanity-as-we-know-it is doomed.

These are our replacements, sent to colonize Earth by an alien super race.

Well, by George! This can’t be allowed to happen, can it?!

But…but…but…they’re children.

I am stopping here. This is a vintage science fiction book worth reading, for under all the clichés and stereotypes and era-expected maunderings, it’s rather clever and nicely thought-provoking and (to borrow a cliché myself) a rattling good read, in a well-mannered, deeply English sort of way.

(“The Ivans.” Ha! Still makes me laugh. Can’t you just hear the plummy yet deadpan way in which this is intoned, speaker with one eyebrow cocked? Gorgeous.)

8/10.

Oh, yes. The Midwich Cuckoos was used as the basis for the now-classic 1960 horror film Village of the Damned, as well as its deeply panned 1995 remake. Don’t let that put you off. The book is really jolly good.

 

 

 

 

Robinson by Muriel Spark ~ 1958. This edition: Penguin, 1987. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-002157-4. 175 pages.

I’m not sure who this is supposed to represent; none of the male characters in the novel struck me as even slightly resembling this melancholy fellow. One must assume it is supposed to be Robinson himself, and then gently avert the eyes.

I did wish to go home, but not that I had never come away. If I had stayed at home, there might have been a fire in the house, or I might have been run over, or murdered, or have committed a mortal sin. There is no absolute method of judging whether one course of action is less dangerous than another.

En route to the Azores, a small passenger airliner crashes on a tiny Atlantic island.

Twenty-six people perish; three are thrown free and survive, to be nursed back to health by the reclusive ex-priest Miles Mary Robinson and his young ward Miguel.

The island Robinson, named after its most recent owner, once was home to a thriving small community of productive farms and orchards, but all that now remains is a barely surviving pomegranate orchard, the crop of which is harvested by a crew of workers who visit once a year by ship, to take off the fruit and deliver Robinson his year’s supply of canned food.

The boat carrying the harvesters is due in three months, and as there is no way of contacting the outside world – Robinson has no radio set and disclaims any desire for such intrusive devices – the castaways settle down to wait out their ninety days.

Our narrator, January Marlow, is a young widow with a teenage son. She ran away from school to be clandestinely married; her much older husband died within six months of the wedding, leaving widow and as-yet-unborn child with a modest inheritance. She has created a satisfactory life for herself, working as a freelance writer; she was researching a book on islands, which accounts for her presence on the doomed airplane.

The two other survivors are men. Jimmie Waterford is the charming and seemingly vague cousin of Robinson, Tom Wells a smarmy publisher of a spiritualist magazine, with a suitcase full of good luck charms and a packet of secret papers.

At first the new society ticks along reasonably well. The men supplement Robinson’s fast-dwindling food supply by fishing and the odd wild bird or rabbit shot for the pot. There’s also a goat, who provides milk. January wonders why Robinson doesn’t grow any vegetables, as the climate of the island is perfect for a wide variety of crops. She inquires, and Robinson brushes off her hints.

As injuries heal, cigarettes are rationed, and boredom sets in, tensions among the four adults start to rise, the most serious of which are wound up by Robinson’s strict religious views. A Roman-Catholic of strong anti-Marian beliefs, Robinson scorns both January’s rosary and Tom’s collection of superstition-promoting good luck medals.

Young Miguel is fascinated by both, causing Robinson to take firm steps to remove such temptations from the reach of his young protegé, whom he is educating in his own ascetic beliefs.

Secret tunnels, shark infested surrounding waters, and a volcanic fissure in the rocks known as the Furnace add to the atmosphere of potential impending doom. Not to mention the presence of the wrecked plane, the twenty-six shallow graves, and the macabre collection of fire-scorched “salvage”.

Tempers are ever tighter; hasty words are spoken. And then one day a trail of blood and bloodied clothing is discovered by a hysterical Miguel. It leads to the edge of the Furnace.

Robinson is nowhere to be found.

Who killed Robinson? And why? The survivors eye each other with deep suspicion; speculation turns to open accusation. Will another act of violence occur?

Okay, this sounds all very melodramatic murder mystery, but that’s just the background stuff. For what Muriel Spark really wants to talk about here is Roman Catholic doctrine, and the development of one’s spiritual self. The mixture as seen in so many of her subsequent books, in fact. (Robinson is only her second novel, after The Comforters, 1957.)

After converting to Catholicism in 1954, religion was very much on Muriel Spark’s mind; she used her fictions as the backdrop to numerous theological discussions all the way through her writing career, something she had in common with her literary mentor Graham Greene.

A cover artist’s rendition of the charming Bluebell, cat of many sterling qualities and unexpected talents.

This is an utterly odd book in so many ways, as are so many of Spark’s novels. It’s also an extremely clever, strangely engaging, and darkly humorous one – a ping-pong-playing, water-loving cat adds charm and comic relief to some of the bleaker passages – and (to use an apt cliché) one can’t look away.

Our possibly murderous castaways are rescued at the 11th hour, after some startling developments, and the last we hear of Robinson-the-island, rumoured relic of Atlantis, it is sinking beneath the ocean waves.

Was it ever a real place, wonders January? Did all that really happen?

First edition dust jacket, one of the most pleasing examples of well thought out and aesthetically pleasing cover illustration I’ve come across in a very long time.

I liked Robinson quite a lot more than I thought I might from its spare back cover précis. (The cover illustration of my copy also might have had something to do with my hesitation to engage – that dude looks downright creepy!)

Posthumous cheers then to Dame Muriel, whose 100th anniversary of birth is coming up in just a few days, February 1, 2018.

The literary world is gently buzzing with tributes; Muriel Spark’s books are being dusted off and republished in new editions, and read and re-read by devotees new and old. Reviews are already showing up in enthusiastic profusion online; I add my own to the list, and I will doubtless be joining a host of other readers revisiting Muriel Spark in greater depth as the year progresses.

My own personal rating for Robinson: 7.5/10.

 

 

 

 

The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp ~ 1948. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1948. Hardcover. 330 pages.

One of my absolute favourite writers is, as many of you know by now, Margery Sharp, 1905-1991, and today, January 25, is (or was) her birthday.

Which calls for celebration in the way of reading one (or more) of her books, and sharing some thoughts on that reading with fellow like-minded readers. And those who we hope will become like-minded Margery Sharp aficionados, of course!

I didn’t think I would manage a post tonight, having just now finished reading the book in question, but my daughter has made me a restorative cup of tea and I have found a breath of a second wind, so let’s see what I can do. It may be a bit of a muddle, but I hope it communicates my high regard for the novel and its creator.

Isabel Brocken, a comfortably well-off widow of fifty-five, has something on her mind.

Blithe by nature – so blithe as to be thought of as something of a fool by her staunchly bachelor brother-in-law Simon, who manages her affairs – Isabel has been a cheerful sort of person no matter what life has brought her way. She has taken in stride the upsets of and volunteered as a VAD in two wars, has accepted quietly the disappointment of not having any children, and has gently mourned the death of her husband, not to mention the loss of her beloved marital home to a German bomb.

Luckily Isabel has held on to her own old family home all of these years, much against Simon’s advice, so she is perhaps the tiniest bit smug to be able to offer a bed to Simon after his own house is badly damaged in one of the last bombing raids of the war.

Also in residence are Isabel’s recently de-mobbed nephew Humphrey from New Zealand, and an ex-Seargent in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, Jacqueline Brown, who is acting as a housekeeper-companion to Isabel. A quiet mother and her devoted teenage daughter reside in a separate set of rooms and share cooking facilities with Isabel and her menage; hired as caretakers during the war, they are staying on to help with housework and such.

Everyone is getting along peacefully; the groove is well set; but, as I mentioned just now, Isabel has something on her mind, something which will disturb the peace of her home and everyone in it.

It seems that Isabel has, on one of her infrequent visits to church, caught a line of a sermon to the effect that it was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad. Now, this line had struck like an arrow straight to the tender heart of Isabel, and in doing so had triggered the memory of a very base act which she had performed against another young woman many years ago.

Almost forty years ago, orphaned Tilly Cuff had been invited into Isabel’s family home in the capacity of a low-key sort of companion. She is treated as one of the family, but all sorts of little tasks fall to her lot; she is expected to make herself useful in return for her room and board, as it were, and this she does in a subdued sort of way. Tilly is a thin, pale shadow of the much more vivacious Isabel and her sister Ruth, and they patronize her without really realizing it, keeping her well in her place, just a step back.

When a visiting young man falls in love with the unprepossessing Tilly, Isabel by a a random chance finds herself possessed of a letter proposing marriage to Tilly. Deeply piqued, for she thought the young man was falling in love with her, Isabel suppresses the letter, politely taunts Tilly with an accusation of being over-flirtatious to warn her away from her potential lover, and the budding love affair withers on the vine.

Soon after this Tilly accepts a paid position as a companion to an invalid heading to Switzerland, and she and Isabel part ways, never to meet again, though they correspond occasionally through the years.

Now, four decades later, Isabel is visited by an attack of conscience triggered by that sermon, and she proposes to make amends for Tilly’s lost chance at marital happiness by rescuing her from her dreary round of temporary homes and tedious duties by bringing Tilly into her home.

Not only that, Isabel resolves to make over to Tilly the majority of her fortune, keeping just enough to eke out a humble existence, to prevent herself from becoming a burden to friends and relations.

Needless to say Simon is appalled by the very thought of this proposal, as are Humphrey and Jacqueline, but Isabel is not to be dissuaded.

Tilly is invited, she accepts the invitation, and moves in bag and baggage, cherishing in her heart a deep suspicion of Isabel’s motives in inviting her, for Isabel has not yet divulged her intention of reparations for that long ago bad deed.

Tilly turns out to be a true viper in the nest; she is openly meddlesome and secretly vicious by nature, and she immediately stirs up trouble among every member of the household. Even the forgiving Isabel starts to have qualms as to carrying through with her intention to give over her assets to the bitter Tilly. While Isabel tries to retain her idea that Tilly is, deep inside, a truly good person, evidence is much to the contrary.

What should Isabel do, then? The right thing for the once-wronged Tilly, or the thing that is the best for the most people?

Isabel’s decision and the ramifications of it bring this richly charactered novel to an unexpected conclusion. No one escapes unaltered, though the changes are not as we might in some cases expect.

The Foolish Gentlewoman is satisfyingly good the first time round, but as with all of Margery Sharp’s books, it greatly rewards re-reading.

My rating: an easy 9/10.

I am scanning in two pages from early in the book, so you can have a sample of the tone and mood in this gently sardonic and rather moving novel.

 

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod ~ 1999. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-5567-6. 283 pages.

One of a long tradition of Canadian Family Saga Novels, set, as many of them are, in the ruggeder bits of Eastern Canada. In this case Cape Breton, with discursions into northern Ontario uranium mining country and the meaner streets of Toronto.

The particular (fictional) branch of the MacDonald family which this novel concerns came to Cape Breton from Scotland in 1779, and the tale of their journey is now legend with their descendents. There’s a lot of referencing Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rebellion of 1745 – the MacDonalds were “for” – and Culloden is discussed in the 1950s and 60s as if it happened just last week.

The title of the novel comes from a quote attributed to General Wolfe before the Battle of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, that the Highlanders (including those of the MacDonald clan) will be useful in the assault on the French because “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”

Yes, indeed. And fall MacLeod’s MacDonalds do, in various tragic ways.

Here’s the plot summary from the flyleaf of my 1999 edition:

That was a bit of a cheat, me using the scan versus condensing things myself. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to rehash things, and here’s the reason.

Deep breath.

This is it: No Great Mischief is, for me, something of a dud.

That said, let me back up and sugarcoat that statement by agreeing with its many fans that parts of it are excellent. The opening chapters are brilliant, as are large sections throughout. It’s deeply and lovingly evocative of a very unique place. Life affirming even though brim full of tragic, too-soon deaths. Gloriously funny here and there. And earnest and sincere and sincere and earnest and so blinking repetitive that I kept thinking I’d somehow gone back a chapter or two without noticing. Oops, sugar-coating cracked just there, didn’t it?

I guess my biggest problem with this novel is that the thing just doesn’t convince; the family legends have been told too often; they are approaching facile in how they trip off the tongue of each subsequent teller. It’s the storyteller Alistair MacLeod presenting the tale of the storyteller Alexander MacDonald who is in turn repeating the stories of every generation before him. The material is over-handled. Oh, and every few pages everyone breaks into song. Crooning away in Gaelic, in perfect harmony. How nice, but it lost its effect after the tenth time or so.

The best bits are the contemporary passages, and even those are repeated and repeated, dulling the impact of the perfectly captured moment. I wanted to shout “Stop! Right there! You have me in the palm of your hand! Leave it there!” Nope, wham wham wham, MacLeod keeps driving his point home.

And the ending was ridiculously contrived. A book toss was a near, near thing.

So there we have it.

I wanted to love this novel so much. I came to it open to loving it, eager to embrace it. And then, despite its fine qualities, it ended up repelling me by the time I made it to the end.

Your experience may differ. As might mine on a second reading, if that ever happens.

The rating for right now, then.

Despite my cruel words, I will give No Great Mischief its due. Let’s say 8/10, because it was a good novel much of the time, and came so close to winning me over.  I am truly sad that it was ultimately disappointing, because I had been looking forward to it as a treat-to-myself on the strength of its stellar “Great Can-Lit” reputation, and I thought it would be an easy 10.

 

 

Mother by Kathleen Norris ~ 1911. This edition: Tower Books, 1946. Introduction by Charles G. Norris. Hardcover. 188 pages.

Sometimes I look at the current book pile and think, “This is almost too darned eclectic. Woman, stick with one kind of thing!” But then I look again, and think, “No, this is much more interesting.”

From Paul Theroux’s hookers and existential angst Saint Jack to this sticky-sweet, heavily moralizing, ode to noble motherhood, all in a few hours. It’s a bit brain twisting, but there we have it. Read on, read on!

I have a slightly guilty fondness for early 20th century writer Kathleen Norris‘s entertaining but heavily messaged sagas of young girls being seduced by worldly pleasures and then finding their real purpose through prayer and good works, and I’m slowly amassing a selection of her titles. So when I was poking around in the dusty back room of a Quesnel junk shop yesterday, looking for old picture frames worthy of reuse, it thrilled me no end to notice Norris’s name on the faded spine of a hardcover book peeking out of a heaped box of Reader’s Digest condensed novels and the like.

“Heeeeyyyyy,” I said, keeping my voice deliberately calm, “How much for these tired old books?” The proprietor came over and poked at them a bit. He peered into my eyes. I smiled back, calmly. Don’t show them you’re keen, you know.

“I dunno. How’s about $4.00? Each!” he emphasized, no doubt catching the suddenly interested gleam in my eye.

Well, get out of my way, buddy.

Guess what I brought home?

This one, Mother, by Kathleen Norris, the 1946 reissue of the author’s breakout 1911 bestseller, in a tired but intact dust jacket.

Panther’s Moon, by Victor Canning, 1948. With a dust jacket later found folded up inside it, all there if rather disintegrated.

Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse, a 1917 edition – with colour-tinted illustrations! – of the 1916 issue.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene, first Canadian edition, 1948, no dust jacket but hey! – we can’t have everything, can we?

and

Coombe St. Mary’s, by Maud Diver, first edition, 1925.

I even found three decent picture frames. $2.00 each, what a deal. (No, really. They are quite nice.)

Life is good.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Mother.

Well, what can I say about the book? It’s absolutely as I expected, which was slightly disappointing, because I always have a tiny secret hope that Norris’s young ladies will prevail in their stubborn initial assertion that there is more to life than winsome but demanding babies and sticking by your husband no matter what awful things he does and so on. But nope, Mother sets the pattern for what is to follow, and it pounds the message home. Later Norris donned more velvety gloves, but here the preacher’s fist is iron, unpadded.

Here’s the story – such as it is – as described on the front flyleaf. I really don’t have anything to add.

Yes, our young protagonist, after wallowing in the fleshpots, finds true happiness in catching herself a worthy man. I’d say “young man”, but as her intended is ten years older than she is I guess that point is debatable. But he’s rich, and of “good family”, so she is to be congratulated. Bring on the babies! Mother approves.

Okay, the rating. Oh boy.

This is really not a very good book in the literary sense, vintage charm notwithstanding. If I wasn’t so weirdly enamoured of Kathleen Norris, it would likely get a dismissive 3/10 or something like that. But as it is her very first novel, and is interesting largely for that reason, I am going to fudge things a bit and push it up to 5/10.

Readers, beware. This is not in any way a recommendation for you to go out and hunt this thing down. Unless of course you’ve been bitten by the same bug, and want to enlarge your experience of the intriguing publishing phenomenon which was Kathleen Norris in her heyday.

I’ve written about several of her other books in the past. The American Flaggs, and An Apple for Eve. That last one starts with a reference to a past road trip, but if you scroll down you’ll find the book review.

I’m sure I’ll be sharing more about Kathleen Norris in the future; I find her strangely appealing, and her titles will no doubt fit in well with the Century of Books project, so I’ll leave you with these last few scans of Mother‘s dust jacket.

Saint Jack by Paul Theroux ~ 1973. This edition: Penguin, 1997. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-004157-5. 223 pages.

It [to be successful] was my yearning, though success is nasty and spoils you, the successful say, and only failures listen, who know nastiness without the winch of money. If the rich were correct, I reasoned, what choice had they made? Really, was disappointment virtue and comfort vice and poverty like a medicine that was good because it stung? The President of the United States, in a sense the king of the world, said he had the loneliest job on earth; where did that leave a feller like me?

The theatrically convulsed agony of the successful is the failure’s single comfort. ‘Look how similar we are,’ both will exclaim: ‘We’re each lonely!’ But one is rich, he can choose his poison. So strictly off my own bat I gave myself a chance to choose – I would take the tycoon’s agony and forgo the salesman’s. I said I wanted to be rich, famous if possible, drink myself silly and sleep till noon. I might have put it more tactfully: I wanted the wealth to make a free choice. I was not pleading to be irresponsible; if I was rich and vicious I would have to accept blame…

Jack Flowers, failed one-time hippy and now moderately successful ship chandler’s assistant and rather more successful supplier-of-the-six-sexual-desires to sailors, servicemen and tourists visiting Singapore, receives a chilling intimation of mortality when a chance acquaintance of the same age collapses and dies in the bar where Jack has been drinking (mostly but not always after working hours) for the last fifteen years.

Makes a feller think, you know.

And then inspires said feller to write down the story of his life-so-far.

Jack Flowers was born John Fiori, son of Italian immigrants in Boston, and how he ends up in Singapore, living his shadow life as handler of a bevy of willing (that’s the story and he’s sticking to it) Asian prostitutes, is the bare bones of this tale.

Well, Jack has had a lot of cash pass through his hands, but he’s never attained wealthy, though he’s being quite serious when he says he wants to be, and he’s not vicious either, which has a great deal to do with why riches have eluded him.

The self-portrait that emerges (always bearing in mind that the most unreliable narrator can often be the one focussed mainly on himself) is of a basically good man, doing the best he can in the situation he has found himself in. The pimp with a heart of gold, in fact, to turn the cliché upside down.

When Theroux is on his game he writes like a veritable angel. A fallen angel, perhaps, with sooty wings and smutty face, but nonetheless an angel. Saint Jack shows him to be very much on his game. (Pun fully intended.)

This early novel is a sardonically happy thing, and I found myself utterly on the narrator’s side throughout.

Did I say how funny I found this novel? It’s very funny. Especially the tale of the cursed tattoos. (Or maybe better described as tattooed curses.) Anyway, good stuff.

The writer being Paul Theroux, and Saint Jack being concerned with prostitution (though not just with prostitution) you would be correct in assuming that there is a lot about sex in this one. Don’t let that put you off.

10/10.

Oh, yes. An interesting bit of trivia for you. The novel was made into a movie in 1979,  surreptitiously shot on location despite the refusal of the Singaporean officials to give permission and permits. The movie was subsequently banned in Singapore between 1980 and 2006, because of its unflattering depiction of the “bad old days” underbelly of Singapore’s notorious street life, at a time when the civic image-scrubbers were trying to clean things up.

Kind of makes you want to find a copy and watch it, doesn’t it? Just because.

Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham ~ 1953. This North American edition: Ballantine, 1969. Originally published in Great Britain as The Kraken Wakes. Paperback. 182 pages.

Fellow British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss once sneered at John Wyndam for the lack of desperate drama in his plots – I believe “cozy catastrophes” was the term he used. And I have to say I get what he was saying, and that the snub has some basis.

Wyndham’s “What if?” sci-fi concoctions are disaster novels with the same relation to real life as, say, Agatha Christie’s decorous murder mysteries. Everybody is very, very civilized about everything, even when in situations of utter horror, and while in the throes of deepest emotion.

Restful, in a way, reading these. Subject matter having nothing to do with the overlying tone. Everything’s under control here, move along there, don’t panic.

At the start of this story, 1950-something, post-war England is getting back to its new normal. Social order is as peaceful as it can be, rationing is a thing of a not-so-distant past, conditions in general are not too dreadful on the home front. The Cold War is looming, of course, Russia and the United States are busy trading insults and placing spies and building up their arsenals, but England has her head down and things are plugging along.

In Wyndham’s slightly modified Great Britain, a new radio and television broadcaster has established itself, the E.B.C. – English Broadcasting Corporation – in direct well-behaving competition with the fusty B.B.C. – and Mike and Phyllis Watson, newly married – are both employed there as journalists and story researcher-writers.

They’ve had some interesting experiences working for the E.B.C., the most recent being their witnessing – along with a whole shipful of other people – the strange phenomenon of large red “fireballs” raining down from the sky and landing in the ocean.

Reports of these are coming in from all around the globe, and the odd fighter plane gets a shot off, but no one can identify what these objects are. Scientists get going and do their stuff. A deep-diving “bathyscope” (based on the real-life undersea-exploring Bathysphere manned by William Beebe in the 1920s and 30s) is sent down to the site where some of the fireballs were seen to enter the ocean. Transmission is cut off suddenly – the cable is pulled up melted off (!) – the bathyscope and its two crew members have vanished! (Mike and Phyllis are there for the whole thing.)

And then the fireballs stop coming. And things go quiet for a year or so.

Cue foreboding music…

One day people – and yes, by “people” I mean Mike and Phyllis, and a few percipient others – start noticing an unusual pattern in ships going down with very little notice in various parts of the world’s oceans. And always above the deepest marine trenches, in places where those fireballs were seen splashing down. Trans-oceanic cable-laying ships, fishing boats, a Japanese passenger liner, the Queen Anne, pride of Great Britain’s transatlantic fleet!…and a warship…an American luxury liner… What is going on!?!

Could it be The Russians?

Or something more sinister? Something from…drumroll…OUTER SPACE?

Cutting right through all the drama, I’ll be a big old plot spoiler and tell you that yes, yes it is.

Space Aliens.

Those fireballs were actually transport pods, from one of the gas giant planets, or so the theory goes, hence their attraction to the highest pressure bits of the world’s oceans. They’re absolutely not friendly. They spit back atomic bombs aimed in their general direction, they start sending up very icky “sea tanks” to harvest things (people!) living along the sea shores. But, when the humans figure out how to destroy these, things again go silent.

Another year or two passes. And then, one day someone notices…hey, isn’t that the sea level rising? And there are sure a lot of icebergs about. What is happening to the polar ice caps?!

Yup. The sub-marine aliens are melting the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, and things are about to get very rough for the land-dwellers of Earth.

But good old Mike and Phyllis rock right along taking everything in stride. Needless to say, they come through everything – a close call by sea tank attack, the inundation of much of Great Britain, the breakdown of civilization as they know it – with flying colours, thanks to their level-headed pre-planning-for-disaster and a few handy connections among the scientist community who slip them the occasional bit of insider info.

I won’t divulge the ending, but it’s looking sort of like humankind might survive after all, thanks to the work of Japanese scientists: “A very ingenious people, the Japs; and in their more sociable moments, a credit to science.”

Uh huh.

Sheer period piece science fiction, and despite my frivolous tone above, it’s actually pretty darned good for its time and genre. Wyndham can write, and though he slides over the trickier bits – no sense slowing down the story with pesky details – he spins a (sometimes) genuinely chilling tale.

Final score: 7/10 for Mike and Phyllis, and the plucky band of true-blue Brits who’ve kept the radio channels running all this time. Not to mention those science-minded “Japs”.

Here’s a little bonus I must share. The original British title of this book is The Kraken Wakes, taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1830 poem. Enjoy!

The Kraken Wakes

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.