Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #17: John Wyndham

John Wyndham was another English author who wrote excellent science fiction for a largely mainstream audience. Although his writing career spanned over three decades, he did his best writing in the 1950s. His writing doesn't lend itself to the tidy generalizations I prefer ("X wrote romances about left-handed redheads..."), so I'll settle for describing the books individually. I *will* generalize to the extent of saying that they were written to last: They were effective three or four decades ago and they still work:

"The Midwich Cuckoos" (***+). The cuckoo is best known for its habit of leaving eggs in the nests of other birds. Insufficiently selective instinct drives those birds to hatch and raise the young cuckoos, often at the expenseof their own offspring. It would take a somewhat more sophisticated version of that trick to take in a human.

On September 26th, 19__, *something* happens in the village of Midwich, as a result of which every woman of childbearing years becomes pregnant. The children who are born nine months later are 'obviously' human, though they have some unusual features -- most notably golden eyes and telepathy -- and they are raised as human babies, mostly by their 'parents'. The childrens' telepathic powers complicate the process: How does one raise a baby that can force its parents to do what it wants?

"Trouble With Lichen" (***+), my personal favorite, also raises important questions, at least in passing, but in a more whimsical manner. When biochemical researcher Diana Brackley discovers that the lichen she is investigating can slow ageing, her immediate reaction is to trumpet it as the discovery of the millenium. However, to quote from the book, "The closer the attention she gave the matter, the more dismayed she became by the number and variety of interests that were *not* going to welcome the lichen derivative." Even something so apparently desirable as a longevity drug requires a constituency -- especially since the lichen is in very short supply -- so Diana Brackley opens a very exclusive beauty salon.

"The Day of the Triffids" (**+) is the closest Wyndham comes to a horror novel. (My personal criterion for distinguishing between horror and sf/f is whether the horror is primarily visceral or intellectual. While many die in this book, Wyndham is more interested in the choices of the survivors than in dwelling upon death and danger. This approach does not lend itself to film nearly as well as typical horror, which is why books like Wyndham's tend to make uninspired movies.) The book begins by introducing two science-fictional elements which combine with disastrous results. First, there are the triffids -- a (bioengineered?) carnivorous plant with a difference. Make that three differences: They're ambulatory, they have a long 'whip' with a venomous sting, and they're economically important enough (oil) to be worth cultivating anyway. They're slow enough that reasonable precautions suffice...until the second element (another product of technology?) strikes most of the human race blind...and vulnerable.

"The Chrysalids" (***+), also published as "Re-Birth", is a post-holocaust novel. Years after the bombs fell, there are still only a few pockets of humanity left, and the radiation has left a legacy of mutated and damaged genes. Mutants are killed: If a calf is born with two heads, it is slaughtered. If a crop comes up wrong, the field is burned. And abnormal babies are killed. (Though mutants who live long enough before being discovered may simply be sterilized and exiled to the badlands, pretty much a death sentence in itself.) One gets the impression that the obsession with mutants may have started out as a matter of survival, but became entrenched in religion.

There's not much question as to what's normal and what isn't -- two arms, two legs, head in the usual place, the right number of fingers and toes, and so on at great length. There's nothing in the rules about a group of kids who happen to be able to communicate with each other telepathically, however, and a society that views mutation as literally demonic is not likely to take a measured view of an indetectible mutation. The kids do have the sense to keep their difference to themselves. But people notice things, neighbors talk, relatives compare notes...and one day the local inquisition shows up.

John Wyndham also wrote "The Kraken Wakes" (**), "Chocky" (**), "Consider Her Ways and Others" (*), "The Outward Urge" (with Lucas Parks), and "The Seeds of Time". (I haven't read the last two.)


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Dani Zweig