Monday, March 16, 2015

John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes

John Wyndham (1903-1969) had been writing professionally since 1925 and had a couple of science fiction novels published in the 1930s (including Stowaway to Mars) but it was not until  The Day of the Triffids was published in 1951 that he achieved real success. He followed The Day of the Triffids with another post-apocalyptic novel, The Kraken Wakes, in 1953.

In fact all four of Wyndham’s best known novels (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos) are either post-apocalyptic or at least deal with deadly threats to the survival of civilisation. All four approach these themes in slightly different ways. In The Kraken Wakes the menace comes from beneath the sea.

Or at least it might come from beneath the sea. And then again, it might come from the stars. This novel relies for its terror on the sheer alienness of the threat - an unseen enemy whose motivations remain horrifyingly inexplicable. Wyndham understands that it is best not to try to explain the nature of the threat. If the danger is comprehensible it can be faced but in this case the danger remains stubbornly beyond the powers of anyone to understand.

It starts in a very low-key way. Radio documentary broadcasters Michael and Phyllis Watson are on their honeymoon, on board the ocean liner Guinevere. A strange red light appears in the sky, followed by several more. It’s decidedly odd and rather mysterious but intriguing rather than frightening. They learn that these red lights have been seen a number of times in various places, but always at sea. It at least provides them with material for a radio spot.

Then ships start to disappear. They are steaming in calm seas and there are no explosions. They simply sink, and do so within a matter of a couple of minutes. It gradually becomes apparent that the sinkings only occur in very very deep water. There is no obvious connection between the strange red lights in the sky and these unexplained maritime disasters although it does vaguely occur to Michael Watson that two sets of odd unexplained incidents, one following not long after the other, might be too much of a coincidence.

There is worse to come. Much worse. It takes a long while for the public (and even longer for the government) to accept that humanity is at war. At war with mysterious forces from the depths of the deepest ocean, implacable and inscrutable. And it increasingly appears to be a war that humanity is likely to lose, with a very real danger of civilisational collapse.

Wyndham is usually regarded as being a writer very concerned with the likelihood of the disappearance of a traditional English way of life that he loved very much. Certainly his heroes tend to be rather ordinary Englishmen and the action is usually set in a rather idyllic part of the countryside (in The Kraken Wakes the hero and his wife spend most of their time living in a cottage in Cornwall). 

There are however a couple of things that stand out very clearly in this novel that are often overlooked in discussions of Wyndham’s writing. It’s extraordinary the extent to which Wyndham anticipated the survivalist movement. In both The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes those who survive the initial disasters form themselves into tight-knit self-sufficient communities and they must defend those communities from those less provident individuals who threaten to swamp them. And they defend those communities with guns. In the post-apocalyptic worlds of John Wyndham anyone not prepared to arm themselves with guns has no chance of long-term survival. In The Kraken Wakes Phyllis Watson even makes an impassioned speech on the rights of the people to have guns with which to defend themselves, and the wickedness of the government in trying to restrict gun ownership. It’s a point of view one doesn’t quite expect from an English author writing in 1953.

The novel is also absolutely scathing in its condemnation of the incompetence, short-sightedness, stupidity and outright malevolence of British government. It’s interesting to compare this novel to an earlier British post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, J. J. Connington’s 1923 best-seller Nordenholt’s MillionConnington sees the government as having the role of preserving civilisation in the face of disaster. Wyndham on the other hand portrays government as not merely useless in such a crisis, but as a positive hindrance. So it is quite possible to interpret The Kraken Wakes as a pro-gun libertarian novel. Perhaps it’s the fact that Wyndham’s style is so English and so cosy that has led people to overlook the novel’s more startling features.

In this novel Wyndham also displays an extraordinary cynicism towards democracy in general, another feature of his fiction that is generally overlooked.

The Kraken Wakes is a story in which the apocalypse creeps up on civilisation very slowly. At first, and for several years, there seems to be no real danger at all. Then the danger becomes more real, but still strictly limited, nothing to panic about. It goes from there to being a considerable menace but it still seems very unlikely that civilisation itself could be threatened in any way. Years pass before the threat becomes existential. This is an unusual approach for a post-apocalyptic novel but it’s highly effective.

Wyndham also, thankfully, avoids the dreary cliché of having humanity responsible for its own demise. 

The Kraken Wakes has been somewhat overshadowed by The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos and oddly enough (given Wyndham’s immense popularity as a science fiction writer) has never been adapted for either film or television. Its low-key slow-burn approach makes it an interestingly different kind of post-apocalyptic novel but it’s one that is well worth seeking out. Highly recommended.

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