Monday, March 30, 2015

John Wyndham

In high school my absolute favourite English text was The Day of the Triffids. Every couple of years I read it again and discover even more depths to it.

A new breed of plant, the triffid, which can walk, communicate, kill with a flying whip-like sting and feeds off rotting meat has been slowly colonising the world. When one night almost all humankind is struck blind by a dramatic comet fireworks display, Wyndham explores what would happen to mankind if a natural predator was on hand who now had the advantage.

It’s the story of Bill and Josella who through luck & circumstance remain sighted, and so both literally and figuratively see the decay of England around them. Who would you care for? Do you take responsibility for others in need or fend for yourself? Do you band together with others to survive or go it alone?

I have always found it a fascinating analysis of what man might do in such a situation and Wyndham’s assessment is quite possibly a frighteningly accurate one.

In all these years it never occurred to me to see if Wyndham had written other books. And, wonderfully – he did, quite a few in fact!*  There is no doubt he liked apocalyptic themes, and the question of how mankind would react to them.

In The Kraken Wakes, the threat to life on earth is something in the water; something that colonises deep water from outer space and moves calculatingly to threaten all life on earth. I won’t give all the details away, but similarly to The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham presents an alarming scenario of what might happen through the eyes of Mike & Phyllis Watson, a couple who see the events unfold from start to finish.

In The Day of the Triffids, you can sort of predict what’s going to happen and the interest lies in the telling of it and how it unfolds. By contrast in The Kraken Wakes, you have no idea what is happening, the reader discovers it alongside the characters when events take place, with explanation following later. As such the tension was markedly higher.

These are great books that make you think. Wyndham’s writing is very enjoyable to read: it’s highly intelligent and educated, with references you sometimes need to look up to understand. His prose is insightful, thought-provoking and very interesting. What a gift some writers have!

I started The Day of the Triffids with Mr almost 12, and he struggled a bit. Adult novels like this do not always have predictable happy outcomes and raise many moral challenges along the way. Interestingly what he struggled with was the tension of me reading it aloud – it took too long to find out the solutions to the problems raised. He went on and finished it himself. It seems he is on the cusp of being able to read adult fiction, yet with the caveat that he will not understand the full meaning. It made me realise that I could not possibly have understood it fully at high school either, but it whetted an appetite for good quality writing and interesting themes, which I am still enjoying feeding, over 20 years later.

* I also read The Chrysalids which explores the idea of genetic variation, and how people might decide which 'form' of humankind was the true one, in the image of God and which would be the work of the devil.  It's told through the eyes of children who gradually realise they are not in the 'acceptable form' of their society, and is an interesting analysis of religious fervour gone awry and how people are generally threatened by those who are different to themselves.  Wyndham chose interesting topics to explore!

No comments: