Posts Tagged ‘John Wyndham’

Chocky by John Wyndham ~ 1968. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1968. Hardcover. 184 pages.

This was John Wyndham’s last novel published during his lifetime, though there have been several others pulled from the “not quite ready” pile, dusted off, tidied up and published posthumously.

I wish I could say that this book is brilliant; one of the best; a fitting end to Wyndham’s string of creative and very readable sci-fi almost-disasters.

But it isn’t.

I found it to be a bit of a dud, in fact.

Caveat: the following rantlet is stuffed with spoilers.

Young Matthew, 11, the adopted child of loving parents and the older brother of an exceedingly pert younger sister, Polly, starts exhibiting some unusual behaviour. He talks (apparently) to himself, pausing between comments as if listening to another side of the conversation. He starts asking precocious questions, such as why are there two separate sexes versus a much more efficient hermaphroditic, self-fertile single parent, and where is the earth exactly in relation to everything else in space. He starts to do his math homework in binary code, and makes telling comments regarding the inefficiencies of the internal combustion engine.

A psychiatrist is consulted, for his family is starting to fear that some sort of mental illness is developing – for who knows what his background is, after all? Maybe his biological parents were…you know…subnormal…

Turns out that Matthew isn’t exhibiting schizophrenia at all; the voice inside his head belongs to a being from another planet way out beyond the boundaries of known space, seeing as thoughts/mind communications aren’t bound by pesky restrictions such as speed of light or sound.

Chocky, as Matthew christens his alien mind-friend, turns out to be an advance scout of another civilization, a eco-missionary, in fact, questing mentally across the void of space to find other thinking creatures, and to share a vision of better living (nuclear energy! hydroplanes! solar power!) with them. Matthew has been chosen as a communicant because of his open young mind. Too bad he’s just a naïve child, as his unusual behaviour leads to all sorts of complicated situations.

The popular press gets turned on to something weird happening after Matthew, who can’t swim, miraculously rescues himself and Polly from drowning, Chocky having taken over Matthew’s movements at the critical time and turning him into a superhuman swimmer. A similar plot twist involving artistic skills is floated.

Eventually everyone gets tired of all the press attention; Chocky decides to end the relationship in order to de-complicate Matthew’s life – he/she (Chocky’s sex is vague) has been allowing himself/herself to get too emotionally involved with the subject, not at all scientific, you know.

And that is pretty well that.

Potentially creative premise, which went absolutely nowhere.

I kept waiting for things to get properly interesting; they never did. This might have made a better short story than a novel, and it turns out that that’s close to the actual background of Chocky. First published as a novella, it was padded out to novel size the following year, no doubt in order to take advantage of the well-selling Wyndham name.

Points off for lame plotline which drops the ball early on, and more points off for the sexism which is absolutely overt in this novel, with some very sketchy attempts by the author to explain the weaker-sex complications of the feminine psyche, with all of the female characters – wee sister Polly, Matthew’s adoptive mother, his aunts, his art teacher – being depicted as silly, meddlesome, frequently foolishly moody and/or hysterical, and definitely lower on the intelligence food chain than the Big Important Men who get all of the plum roles.

Oh, yeah, there’s also a pointless mysterious kidnapping, as some secret “officials” whisk the young lad away and subject him to a series of injections – truth serum? or? – before decanting him onto a street in a faraway city.

Yawn.

4/10. Generous, because despite its poorness (John Wyndham was capable of much better!) I did read it to the end. Luckily it is a shortish book.

Margaret Atwood has a slightly kinder take on Chocky, and Wyndham’s stuff in general, in this 2015 article from Slate.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham ~ 1960. This edition: Penguin, 1995-ish. Paperback. ISBN: 0-140-01986-3. 204 pages.

Okay, let me say this right up front, so you’ll know I’m coming from a place of love in the critique which follows.

  1. I am a John Wyndham fan.
  2. I like science fiction as a genre and at one time read an awful lot of it.
  3. I like science fiction because (a.) it can be a whole lot of fun because it allows for creative world building or alternate histories, and (b.) it has some reliable general rules, first and foremost being that the “science” must be logical in relation to whatever the fantastical world is it is taking place in.

This book drops the ball on that last one. So much so that I have to break down and call this a Very Silly Book, even taking into account its pro-feminist theme, which, as a female reader, I find is always a nice thing to bask in.

Trouble With Lichen begins with a funeral, one attended by vast crowds of mourning women, sobbing out their sorrow at the loss of one of their own. “Our beloved Diana…her unfinished work which she now can never finish…irony of fate…will of the Lord…” intones the presiding bishop, as the choir croons and the distaff masses nod and sigh.

Fourteen years earlier, young Diana Brackley is graduating from high school. Both beautiful and brilliant, she breaks the heart of her mother by deciding to go on to university, following the calling of the biochemistry lab rather than the domestic kitchen.

Newly employed at the prestigious research labs at Darr House, presided over by Francis Saxover, a personable middle-aged scientist with a terminally ill wife and two adolescent children, Diana flourishes in her chosen field.

One day, while working with samples of lichen collected in Manchuria, Diana stumbles upon an intriguing discovery, and divulges it to her boss. His interest takes a nosedive when his wife dies, and Diana continues her investigations after hours, as it were, not wanting to involve Francis in what might be pointless investigation when he is still in the throes of grief.

But Francis is not so devastated as all that. He is also tinkering with the lichen, and he and Diana independently come up with the same conclusion: they may have discovered a natural anti-aging compound – “antigerone”.

The implications are astounding, and require some serious consideration, in particular because the lichen in question exists only in a small geographical area, in a Chinese-held territory close to the Russian frontier. Which means that the production of the antigerone will always have to be extremely limited, unless someone can crack the biological code and replicate the active ingredients in the lichen. In the meantime, the antigerone remains a closely held secret, with only Diana and Francis privy to its effects.

Stuff happens. The years roll by. Diana inherits a small fortune, and quits her employment at Darr House in order to set herself up as the head of a an exclusive beauty salon catering to the female connections of wealthy and powerful British gentlemen.

“Nefertiti” is a posh salon indeed, and as the years go by, its longtime clients look better and better in comparison to their peers. Almost like they are, well, younger. Like time has slowed down for them. Very interesting.

Yup. Diana is dosing herself and her best customers with antigerone. But – get this – without their knowledge. Kind of like the way Francis Saxover has been dosing himself and – secretly, without their knowledge – his two children. But that story is about to break.

Francis confesses all to his now-adult children, who are not as shocked as you would think, merely insisting that their respective partners be given the potion as well. Which gives us one of the most delicious episodes of this goofy novel when Francis’s money-hungry daughter-in-law Jane, bitterly disappointed to find out that she may have to wait a very long time indeed for Francis to die and leave his son a lavish inheritance, pulls a very sneaky trick to gain the secret of the antigerone for her own nefarious and profitable purposes.

Diana then divulges her own plot, which is that she has intended her regiment of life-extended rich ladies to be the leading force of a new world for women, in which they will be able to either defer having children until after they have a career, or to have a full life after their offspring are safely raised. Yes, they can now do everything! Antigerone will buy them the one thing that has stood in the way of female empowerment all these centuries: TIME. (Okay, I can kind of buy into that myself. Wouldn’t it be loverly, to have a twice-as-long lifetime to get it all done in?!)

The sticky point for me was that these particular women are all under-employed already. They fritter their days away, la la la la. Diana insists that once the boredom of a century or so of this really sets in these ladies will set themselves afire with enthusiasm for doing world-changing stuff. Me, I don’t think so. Why aren’t they already hopping to it, seeing as their offspring are well off their hands with nannies and all? Negating that little theory about women wasting their best years in child rearing being what’s stopping them from taking part in real world-changing work.

We then proceed to have press conferences, a riot or two, kidnappings, torture, death threats, and, finally, an assassination of sorts. China finally wakes up and takes notice of the lichen situation and proceeds to slam the door shut for any further harvest. End of story? Well, not quite.

What an utter snob Wyndham comes across as with this concoction. Wives, daughters and mistresses of the elite are worthy of the antigerone; all others in the lower strata, so sorry, but you get to maintain the status quo. Because, well, just because. But that’s okay, because it would be wasted on you anyway, and your menfolk would never stand for it.

This tale is so ridiculously illogical. The science is never adequately explained; Wyndham takes the ring road round the core of that particular city. There are great gaps in the narrative. No one reacts as they would in real life. Everybody’s very, very restrained, so über-British stiff-upper-lip, refusing to get too excited, except for the odd well-behaved mob, easily controlled by a handful of stern bobbies. The men are all very cool with the women getting the good stuff; it takes chapters and chapters before someone says, “Hey! Men might benefit from this thing, too!” You think?! The Chinese caught on right away, once they twigged to what they had on their territory. The Brits – well – took them a while.

Whole thing is silly. Silly, silly, silly.

Points off for absolute failure to think the plot through in all of its potentially intriguing ways, and for failure to apply logic where most needed.

Points back on because it is pretty funny in places, and yeah, it is pretty cool to have the women getting all the perks, and because Diana offhandedly dismisses marriage as something she might do later when she gets around to it. (Though that might be up for debate; her anti-marriage stance might not be as absolutely disinterested as she makes out.)

Point in favour for letting our lady-scientist also be deeply interested in beautiful clothes and cosmetics.

Another point in favour, for a fairly decent “surprise” ending. Which I must say I saw coming with flags flying from quite some way away. (Wyndham likes to tidy things up.)

Still silly.

6/10.

 

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