In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle dusts off the half-forgotten science-fiction stories of John Wyndham
A good many of the books that feature in this weekly Friday column are found in charity shops while I’m looking for something else. So it was with this week’s featured book, or rather pile of books, by John Wyndham, who has been called the most successful British science-fiction writer after H. G. Wells. In his lifetime, Wyndham was a bestselling novelist. How many people read his novels and short stories now, I wonder?
Like many people, I knew the titles before I picked up the books: The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids. A number of Wyndham’s novels have been successfully adapted for film, with The Midwich Cuckoos being made into a feature film titled Village of the Damned on not one but two occasions. ‘Triffid’ has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as follows: ‘In the science-fiction novel The Day of the Triffids … one of a race of menacing plants, possessed of locomotor ability and a poisonous sting, which threaten to overrun the world. Hence used allusively of vigorous plants, or transf. of anything invasive or rapid in development.’ The adjectives ‘triffidian’ and ‘triffid-like’ are also listed.
It was a chance encounter with a handful of Wyndham’s books, for sale for 99p each in my local Oxfam, which inspired me to see what all the fuss was about. There I found three of Wyndham’s less familiar titles – Trouble with Lichen, Chocky, and his collection of time-shift stories, The Seeds of Time – in gloriously bibliosmic old 1970s paperback reprints. I devoured them quickly, which is a good sign – after all, these aren’t even Wyndham’s most celebrated works. The verdict? The upshot of this binge-reading of a novelist who died nearly fifty years ago is that I’m convinced that Wyndham’s slide into relative obscurity is undeserved, if unsurprising. Although the late Brian Aldiss’s assessment of Wyndham as dealing in ‘cosy catastrophes’ was a little harsh, it’s easy to see how Wyndham’s more traditional style and mode of storytelling was forgotten next to the more daring, Burroughs-influenced New Wave science fiction of the 1960s, with writers such as Aldiss, of course, as well as Michael Moorcock, John Brunner, and, chief of all, the remarkable and unique J. G. Ballard. Wyndham is a 1950s writer: his novels are full of the feel of post-war Britain, ration books, and reserved professional gentlemen. But this is partly his appeal. He also possessed a fine imagination which is showcased well in The Seeds of Time, one of the volumes I was lucky enough to pick up in my charity-shop haul.
‘Chronoclasm’, the opening story in The Seeds of Time, shares something with Ray Bradbury’s better-known story ‘A Sound of Thunder’: the concept is similar, in any case. A woman travels back from the 22nd century to visit the narrator in the mid-twentieth century, marries him, beds him, and gets pregnant by him, before helping him to invent some futuristic devices which will see him get knighted for his services to science and industry. This mysterious female visitor explains that she is merely giving an inventor from the past a leg-up (as well as a leg-over, we might say), and that such ‘chronoclasms’, or messing about with time, have occurred in the past on numerous occasions. How else could Hero from ancient Alexandria invent the steam engine? Or how would Leonardo da Vinci know to draw a parachute when there was nothing for a parachutist to jump out of when Leonardo was alive?
The other stories in The Seeds of Time deal with various staples of science fiction: a meteor that crashes into the Earth; a voyage to Mars that goes terribly awry; a rather unpleasant man marries a Martian in a clever take on racist bigotry. What’s more, for all that he was writing his best work for a more reserved 1950s readership, for whom the Summer of Love and the counterculture were still some years away, John Wyndham does explore sex and relationships at a time when the work of Isaac Asimov and many other writers from the Golden Age of SF were struggling to include women in their fiction, let alone give them a sex life. In ‘Chronoclasm’, the young and self-confident female visitor from the future enters into a relationship with the male protagonist which results in her pregnancy; this happens within the context of the couple’s marriage, but one gets the distinct impression that this ‘marriage’ is there as a plot convenience, to mollify the more conservative members of Wyndham’s readership. Another of the stories, ‘Survival’, focuses on the sole woman on board a doomed flight to Mars, who turns out to be pregnant and who spins her (all-male) fellow passengers a media narrative that will be developing back on Earth: that if she perishes at their (cannibalistic) hands, they will be condemned. But this woman will turn out to be far more than just a brash mother-to-be looking out for her own survival…
Wyndham’s writing isn’t always as elegant as, say, Ballard’s (but whose is?), but these stories are often dark and unsettling, tapping into human fears and anxieties, tightly plotted and with the occasional twist in the tale (as in ‘Survival’). And The Seeds of Time is a diverting collection of the literary equivalent of 1950s B-Movies: perfect reading for a wet Saturday afternoon, perhaps.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.