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||John Wyndham (1903-1969)|
English science-fiction writer, who gained fame with his catastrophe novels The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), and The Chrysalids (1955). The central theme in Wyndham's major works is the struggle for survival in extreme situations. His heroes are often ordinary people, who try to sustain civilized values, when the normal social system has collapsed. The famous American writer Stephen King has called Wyndham "perhaps the best writer of science fiction that England has ever produced".
"The way I came to miss the end of the world - well, the end of the world I had known for close on thirty years – was sheer accident: like a lot of survival, when you come to think of it. In the nature of things a good many somebodies are always in hospital, and the law of averages had picked on me to be one of them a week or so before. It might just as easily have been the week before that-in which case I´d not be writing now: I´d not be here at all." (from The Day of the Triffids, 1951)
John Wyndham was born John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris in the
village of Knowle, in Warwickshire. His father, George Beynon Harris,
was a barrister, from him he got a talent for writing and invention.
Gertrude Parkes, Wyndham's mother, came from a wealthy family. She was the daughter of
an ironmaster, who run a successful business.
His early years Wyndham lived in Edgbaston, Birmingham. When he
was eight, his parents separated. Wyndham and his brother,
Vivian Beynon Harris, who also became a writer, moved with their mother from place to
place. However, their childhood was not unhappy; Gertrude was a loving parent and they were as close as it is possible
for a family to be, Vivian said later. He also recalled that his brother's nose often bled and he walked in his sleep.
Reading H.G. Wells's The Time Machine
first aroused Wyndham's interest in science fiction. Moreover, in many
ways he could be called the natural successor to Wells. Wyndham
attended several private preparatory schools. He left in
1921 Bedales School in Petersfield, Hampshire, and then studied
farming. He also read for the Bar and tried advertising, before turning
to writing in 1925. Living mostly on a small allowance from his
parents, Wyndham poured out stories, but it was not until 1929,
when rejection slips stopped coming.
Inspired by the magazine Amazing Stories, he wrote from 1930 to 1939 almost exclusively for the American pulp magazines. Among his early works was 'Words to Barter', which appeared in Wonder Stories in 1931. His short fiction from this period, signed as John Beynon Harris, were assembled as Wanderers of Time (1973). The title story originally appeared in Wonder Stories and was reprinted as a separate pamphlet. 'The Lost Machine' (1932), one of Wyndham's most anthologized works, which was published first in Amazing Stories, is a predecessor to Isaac Asimov's robot tales. Its narrator is a machine from Mars, lost on the third planet, the earth. "I know what it is to be an intelligent machine in a world of madness," the visitor concludes before dissolving itself.
Wyndham's first novel, The Secret People (1935), came out in a serialized from in the English magazine Passing Show, and then as a book under the pseudonym John Beynon. Set in the Sahara, where part of the desert has been flooded, the story tells of hero and heroine, who find in subterranean caves a race of pigmies. The "submerged nation" theme was derived from Wells's famous novel The Time Machine (1895). Another Wells' novel which influenced Wyndham was War of the Worlds (1898). Planet Plane (1936), Wyndham's second serial, was a space opera about the first flight to Mars, where the Martians are a dying species. Foul Play Suspected (1935) differed from his other works – it was a detective story.
Before World War II, Wyndham wrote as John Beynon and John Beynon Harris – Wyndham used several differed pseudonyms, most of which he derived from his own name. Some of his science fiction adventures and juveniles appeared also in British magazines. The war interrupted Wyndham's career. He wrote poetry and translated some French plays, but the science fiction market collapsed, when both science-fiction fans and writers were called up. From 1940 to 1943 Wyndham worked in censorship, and in 1944 he participated in the Invasion of Normandy. Wyndham was a corporal cipher operator in the Royal Signal Corps.
The dropping of the atom bomb, the beginning of the Cold War, and fears of Communism and nuclear war brought new seriousness into science fiction. After the war Wyndham's career as a writer was for a few years in a dead end. At the exclusive Penn Club in Beford Place, Wyndham met the publisher (Sir) John Lusty, who advised him on his next novel. It was The Day of the Triffids, which was immediately hailed as the "most terrifying as well as the best-written science fiction novel of the year, or for several years." The book was translated into numerous languages, among others into Finnish, and adapted into screen in 1963. Before published in hard-cover form in England, the story appeared in serialized form in the American magazine Colliers Weekly.
The Day of the Triffids revised and updated the theme of disaster. In the story, a rain of meteors, mysterious "green flashes," have caused mass blindness on earth. Triffids, mobile carnivorous plants, on average 7 feet high, emerge from an agricultural experiment. Rapidly, taking advantage of a world struck blind, the plants rise to the top of the food chain in the chaos. A small group of people try to cope with the deadly vegetables. The chief protagonist is Bill Masen, a horticulturist and triffid expert. He still has his sight, because he was in a hospital and was blindfolded during a treatment. With his newly acquired family, he tires to avoid being enslaved by the blind. In the Isle of Wright, their haven, they hope to establish a new society. According to an anecdote, Wyndham overheard in a pub two gardeners discussing their weeds. One said: "There's one by my tool shed – a great monster. In reckon it's a triffid!" (Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss & David Wingrove, 2001.p. 279) After the publication of the book, the word "triffid" has come to mean almost any kind of imaginary hostile and dangerous plant. Wyndham's species refers to the three roots, on which the plants move – "trifidus" is Latin for "divided into three".
Steve Sekely's film version from 1963 was written by the blacklisted scenarist Bernard Gordon, who did not get screen credit. Gordon ended his script on a positive note of humanity. "For me," he recalled, "the problem of the book was that the story meanders through many episodes and never comes to a meaningful end." William Faulkner's speech to the Nobel Committee gave Gordon a clue how finish the picture with the idea that "mankind will have a way of triumphing over all odds, that at the end, when the sun has grown cold and its last rays are touching the peak of our highest mountain, even then, a human being will be there representing all mankind, representing the triumph of mankind." (Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist by Bernard Gordon, 1999, p. 111) In the screen adaptation the Triffids come to the Earth on the meteor shower that blinded humanity. And they have a weakness: the monstruous plant is vulnerable to the seawater.
Although Wyndham did not invent the English disaster novel, he
reestablished the genre and examined its themes and possibilities with
the fresness of a pioneer. Wyndham's down-to-earth attitude made his
stories so believable, that he was marketed in the UK as a mainstream
writer. Wyndham himself never loved the term "science fiction."
Starting from a fantastic premise, he logically developed situations,
in which the effects of his idea are set against a comfortable English
background. The tone of his stories is calm and practical. His style
led one reviewer to describe him as "the Trollope of science fiction.".
Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove have characterized him as the "master
of the cosy catastrophe."
As a number of other Cold War writers, Wyndham constantly contrasted individualism and collectivism and the breakdown of established social order. Thus the end of the civilization can come in the form colonies of telepathic children, who do not have individual spirits, or spiders start to cooperate, hunt in packs, or quasi-intelligent plants threaten the very existence of mankind.
It is generally regarded, that his most memorable novels Wyndham wrote in the 1950s. The Kraken Wakes (1953) repeated the formula of The Day of the Triffids, but this time the civilization is threatened by invaders from space, who melt down the polar ice caps. The aliens live at the bottom of the oceans. Eventually its is discovered, that they can be killed with the help of ultrasound probes. Wyndham's protagonist, who narraters the story with a kind of stoic humor, is more an observer than participant of the events. The word "kraken" comes from Norwegian; in Natural History of Norway (1752-54) the Dane Erik Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, said that the Kraken's back is a mile and a half wide and its tentacles are capable of encompassing the largest of ships. The title of Wyndham's book refers to a sonnet by Alfred Tennyson, which begins: "Below the thunders of the upper deep, / Far, far beneath the abysmal sea, / His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep / The Kraken sleepeth..." A new version of the theme was introduced in Frank Schätzing’s novel Der Schwarm (2004, The Swarm), in which an unknown intelligent creature, living in the ocean bed, defends itself against the destruction caused by mankind.
The Chrysalids (1955) was set in the future world, devastated by nuclear war. Survivors in puritanical communities kill all mutants, human and non-human. Through the fate of novel's young protagonist, David Storm, Wyndham exemplifies the conflict between official truths and personal, inner beliefs. David has a limited form of telepathy, which he tries to hide, but at home he is surrounded by a series of plagues: ONLY THE IMAGE OF GOD IS MAN; KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD; IN PURITY OUR SALVATION; BLESSED IS THE NORM, and WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!
The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) set the theme of disaster inside
families – world peace is not threatened by aliens but children.
Margaret Atwood, who read the novel at the age of 17, considers it
Wyndham's chef d'oeuvre: "a graphic metaphor for the fear of unwanted
pregnancies as experienced by the teenage girls of that
pre–birth-control era." ('Afterword' by Margaret Atwood, in Chocky, 2015) In a
small English village, some eight miles west-north-west of the town of Trayne, aliens mysterious impregnate the entire female
population. Their golden-eyed children, the "cuckoos" of the title, are
superior beings, and create a moral dilemma: on the other hand, the
authorities want to liquidate them because they will eventually
extinguish human culture, but on the other hand, "it is our culture
that gives us scruples about the ruthless liquidation of unarmed
The story was filmed in the 1960s twice. Wolf Rilla's Village of the Damned (1960) was faithful to Wyndham's work. Anton Leader's re-make Children of the Damned
(1963) transported the children to London. In 1995 the American
director John Carpenter made his own version, starring Christopher
Reeve, Kirstie Alley, and Linda Kozlowski. The settings of the purely
Hollywood production were far from the sleepy English village of
Midwich, with a green, some sixty cottages and a small church.
Throughout the years, railways, coaches and canals have seemed to
bypass the place; there is no economic or historical reason for its
Ralph Thomas's film Quest for Love (1971), starring Tom Bell, Joan Collins and Denholm Elliott, was based Wyndham's short story 'Random Quest' (1961), one of his weakest. Bell played a scientist, who is transported after a scientific experiment into a parallel world, where he falls in love with Joan Collins, the wife of his alter ego. When she dies, he tries to find her counterpart from our own world, hoping to save her. The story has been adapted to a television film in 1969 and 2006.
The Web (1979) depicted the beginning of a world take-over by spiders. In the characters of Walter Tirrie, "persistent setter-right of the world" and Lord Foxfield, a millionaire idealist, Wynham also mocked those who want to build an Utopian society, believing that mankind is the mightiest species in the creation. "Most of the conflict in the world reflects the conflict in our minds as we strive to move forward while the brakes of false doctrines, superstitions, obsolete standards, and misconceived ambitions are always at work on us. These checks are build-in, we cannot free ourselves from them, but we can loosen them for others. If we provide the right conditions, as free from contaminations as possible, there is hope that in a generation, or in two or more generations, they may cease to bind." Lord Foxfield's Enlightened State Project on the South Pacific island of Tanakuatua is stopped by spiders. And again, behind the disaster is human foolishness, a nuclear test and a mutation caused by the radioactive contamination. Wyndham's work owes much to H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), but its conservative arguments reflected the political change in the United Kingdom – The Web was published in the same year, when Margaret Thatcher was appointed prime minister.
Wyndham lived a quiet life in a country house near Petersfield. In 1963 he married Grace Wilson, a teacher and a member of the Penn Club, whom he had met already in the 1930s. They had no children. Wyndham disliked personal publicity, saying: "My life has been practically devoid of interest to anyone but myself – though I have quite enjoyed it, of course, in those moments when I did not seem to have been sent to occupy a largely lunatic world." ('"Wyndham, John" (pseudonym of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 1574) John Wyndham died on March 11, 1969, in Petersfield. Decades after his death, his books still appeared regularly on school syllabuses in the UK. Vivian Beynon Harris's memoirs of his brother (Jack and Me: Growing up with John Wyndham; My Brother John Wyndham 1903-1969) are in the University of Liverpool's Special Collections Archive.
For further reading: '"Wyndham, John" (pseudonym of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris),' in World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. by Peter Nicholls (1979); Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, ed. by Curtis C. Smith (1986); John Wyndham, Creator of the Cosy Catastrophe by Phil Stephensen-Payne (1989);'Wyndham, John' by JC [John Clute], in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (1993); ''A stiff upper lip and trembling lower one': John Wyndham on screen' by Andy Sawyer, in British Science Fiction Cinema, ed. by I.Q. Hunter (1999); '[My Brother] John Wyndham: A Memoir,' edited by David Ketterer, in Foundation 75, (Spring 1999); Trillion Year Spree: The History of Sciece Fiction by Brian Aldiss & David Wingrove (2001); 'Triffid,' in The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (2016); A Critical Study of John Wyndham's Major Works by Matthew Moore (2007); Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns (2019)