The Day of the Triffids

Raw Feed (2006): The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951. 

Cover by Richard Powers

Brian Aldiss referred to the work of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”. I don’t think, in retrospect, he meant that the disasters of Wyndham’s works are improbably nice and clean. I think he was referring to the narrative strategy Wyndham used in this and The Kraken Awakes: first person narratives centering around one or two individuals who have limited knowledge and explanation of the disaster they face. For instance, the narrator here has no definite proof that the blindness which strikes most of humanity is the result of satellite weapons — an interesting idea for the beginning of the satellite age — or that the lethal plague which breaks out after the blindness is an engineered disease — and limited means of dealing with it. This stands in direct contrast to the best-seller idiom of later American works like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.  (I don’t know enough about styles of the time to know if something similar to Niven and Pournelle existed in disaster fiction prior to this book.) 

John Christopher, another English writer from the time, fits into this style, and a prior American work, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, does too. In fact, as the story progresses and we hear about how the houses and roads and bridges of England were being eroded away by nature, I was very much reminded of Stewart’s novel. Tonally and thematically, though, there is nothing cozy or comfortable about this novel.  There is something very visceral about the blinding of most of humanity, an unclean disaster that requires, for disaster fiction, an unusual amount of lifeboat ethics in that the narrator and some of his fellow survivors realize they are not doing the blind any good by temporarily saving them from death. 

Wyndham’s genius, of course, is combining the blindness with the “invasion” of genetically engineered, ambulatory, poisonous triffids. As with Wyndham’s Re-Birth and The Midwich Cuckoos, we are constantly reminded of the Darwinian struggle for life, of competing species and supplanters in our midst. As the narrator memorably remarks in a book of many memorable, philosophical lines, custom and tradition have been long mistaken for natural law. 

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Re-Birth

Raw Feed (2005): Re-Birth, John Wyndham, 1955. 

This isn’t one of Wyndham’s disaster novels. You could see it as sort of an amalgam of the species supplanting children of The Midwich Cuckoos (though here the supplanting is by nuclear war engendered mutations as opposed to alien-human hybridization) and Wyndham’s famous disaster novels. 

Here the nuclear war was centuries in the past, and the plot involves a group of telepathic children dealing with their oppressive society which is dedicated to maintaining genetic purity (or, at least, paying lip service to it — beneficial mutations like giant workhorses are allowed if they only deviate in size) at all costs.

Whereas The Midwich Cuckoos was a horror story of man’s replacement, this novel celebrates the telepathic mutants and the constant change and evolution that is life. It is well narrated by its telepathic hero who briefly glosses over the numerous brutalities inflicted on him and his fellow mutants. At story’s end, a high tech civilization of telepaths is found in New Zealand. 

The narration isn’t as slick or of the same tone as Wyndham’s Out of the Deeps since the narrator engages in a lot of description.

Out of the Deeps

Raw Feed (2005): Out of the Deeps, John Wyndham, 1953. 

Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Wyndham is often referred to as the founder of the “cosy catastrophe” sub-genre, a peculiarly British institution.  He is also said to epitomize post-World War II British fears. This is the first of his disaster novels I’ve read unless you wanted to stretch the point and call his The Midwich Cuckoos a disaster of alien invasion/hybridization. You could also see that novel as a metaphor for the unease of the World War II generation for their youngsters.

You can definitely call this a cosy catastrophe novel. Slickly narrated, this novel is presented as history being written by a radio reporter which allows him to present a personal encounter with the kraken and yet briefly summarive the invasion’s effect on the world and engage in lots of foreshadowing. The aliens who invade Earth, colonize the sea, and make incursions onto coastal areas are never referred to as krakens, but the novel’s original British title, The Kraken Wakes, suggests the word)

The cosiness comes in because, though the narrator and his wife narrowly escape being killed by the krakens in the Caribbean, we don’t get any closeup looks at famine victims, people battling for survival supplies, the triage of survivors, and the struggle for survival that makes the disaster and post-apocalypse sub-genres so compelling. (Wyndham — who wrote sf starting in the 1930s under a variety of names and quite successfully retooled his identity when he changed his pseudonym with The Day of the Triffids — paved the way for John Christopher whose disaster novels are far less cozy.)

We get those things, but the narrator and his wife survive in relative comfort compared to Britain’s woes.  It is those woes, Britain the naval power being denied (with virtually every other nation — though it is strongly hinted at novel’s end that the kraken will be defeated) the use of the sea, that could serve as a metaphor for Britain’s post-war dis-ease.  (Another unexpected sign of this is the complaint of the narrator and a citizen that the government — just like in World War II — doesn’t trust its citizens with weapons to defend themselves.)

Continue reading “Out of the Deeps”

The Midwich Cuckoos

While I get some more new reviews written up, it’s time to look at John Wyndham, another author Science Fiction Ruminations brought up recently.

Raw Feed (1988); The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham, 1957. 

Cover by Dean Ellis

To my knowledge, this is the first John Wyndham I’ve read. 

You could have fun finding a sort of feminist subtext in this novel which is to say it would be fun defending an essentially not quite valid premise., One of the central plot features is, of course, the sudden, unexplained, and unwanted pregnancies of most Midwich women, cosmic rape if you will. There are veiled references to abortion. Differences between men and women are discussed in passing. Zellaby talks of women’s arrogance in assuming their perpetual place on Earth. (This goes against feminist ideology, of course, but Zellaby discusses women as Mother.) Zellaby also bewails women not being more independent. 

The novel was surprisingly full of wry wit. The retired major (a minor character) was a bit like a Monty Python character. 

Surprisingly, the narrator was a bit character in the whole drama which gradually gains a sinister, foreboding air. In keeping with Wyndham’s reputation as a writer of “cozy disaster novels”,  there is little, if any, horror here, and I can’t see it rightly being marketed as a horror novel which, as I recall, when I first saw it on the rack many years ago as a child, it was. 

The theme of the story is simple:  to protect “civilization” it may mean compromising its values of peace and justice.  (Very reminiscent of arguments on how to fight terrorism.) Wyndham manages to bring up major questions in a skillful, naturalistic way. 

Continue reading “The Midwich Cuckoos”

Terraplane

Over at Science Fiction Ruminations, Joachim Boaz mentioned Womack’s Ambient. One thing led to another, and now you get this while I work on new reviews. Remember, Raw Feeds are basically my notes after reading a work.

Raw Feed (1990); Terraplane, Jack Womack, 1988. 

Cover by Nicholas Jainschigg

Given the strange argot this book is written in, it’s obvious Womack saw or read A Clockwork Orange one too many times. This book’s dialect is quite similar. 

It is interesting and good. However, at times, it was not detailed enough. (This may be unfair since I know there’s at least one other novel set in this universe and a forthcoming one as well I believe). 

Dryco, the (to use Bruce Sterling’s cover blurb) “sinister multinational cabal”, is not explained much at all. It seems to be amoral, apolitical and subordinates both Russian and the U.S. to its wishes via trade. Drasnaya seems to be its Russian equivalent; a corporation dedicated to ruthlessly enforcing the edicts of “sozializtkapitalism” (a rather silly term — at least so it seemed on first reading of the novel — that has actually started to be used in the last couple of months in the U.S.S.R.), a system of forced consumption in Russia — of Sov goods with the morbid touch of Stalin, the Big Boy, being the ultimate consumer icon. [In 2021, it doesn’t seem that silly a concept.] 

I’d like to know about the war fought between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (and its surrogates) all over the world including around New York City. It’s very important in the lives of the characters. 

Womack does throw in neat stuff: parallel universe travel via Telsa technology, Fortean events the results of travel between time tracks, an alternate universe where Lincoln was shot before he freed the slaves (Teddy Roosevelt did) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt dies before instituting the New Deal — a universe where time flows at a different rate than in ours. A cataclysm in ours (the Tunguska event and the first A-Bomb explosions) influence events there including the American Siberian Expeditionary bringing a plague back. Huey Long even makes an appearance as does a slave owning Coca-Cola Company which brands its human property. 

Womack brings us two worlds of grimness, sorrow, and despair. 

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We: Robot

Reading Tales of Yog-Sothoth and The Book of Yig, I was reminded there were a few holes in my book reading, both fiction and non-fiction, of David Hambling. I bought this one when it came out about three years ago.

Review: We: Robot: The Robots That Already Rule Our World, David Hambling, 2018.

Yes, this book is already three years old, but it hasn’t dated that much. Indeed, some of the robots Hambling talks about were out in the world for more than three years when he wrote this. As far as I know, some of these robots are still research beds and not mass-produced and out in the wild.

The range of robots is great and, unless you’ve been following this stuff closely (which, admittedly I don’t), surprising. There are, of course, the robot vacuum cleaners and Amazon warehouse robots which are fairly well known. But, in the “Robots at Work” section, we also hear about a robotic pipeline inspection system, the Swagbot that tends cattle herds, and a robot milking machine. In “Robots in Your Life”, we learn about robotic surgical systems, automated lawnmowers, and exoskeletons for the disabled. In “Robots Beyond”, we hear about more experimental designs – though one, the Curiosity Rover on Mars is certainly in operation. Here we learn about robotic dolphins and soft-bodied robots that can crawl through, say, collapsed buildings.

And, of course, we have Hambling’s journalistic specialty, “Robots at War”. We learn not only about flying drones that can kill you while leaving a fellow passenger in a car unscathed but also about robot sentries and pack animals, and covert infiltration robots.

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The Servile State

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed an econ book though this is as much about politics and history as economics.

Essay: The Servile State, Hilaire Belloc, 1912.

I first came across the idea of distributism on Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor blog. Distributism was one of those attempts at a “third way” between capitalism and socialism or communism. In England, it was put forth by two noted writers, both Catholic, G. K. Chesterton and Belloc. In America, it was associated with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement.

My only previous exposure to Belloc was his alternate history essay “If Drouet’s Cart Had Stuck”. I got the vague impression that, like Chesterton, he longed for a return to the Middle Ages with the Catholic Church the predominant institution.

I still don’t know that much about Belloc, a very prolific writer. (You very well know some of his nursery rhymes and epigraphs without knowing it.) This short book, more of a pamphlet, is one of his books still discussed.

Distributism, of course, never caught on under that label though its tenet of decentralized economic power is still very much discussed. And, in this book, Belloc predicted it wouldn’t prevail. It’s a gloomy, concise bit of economic history which, despite some factors Belloc couldn’t see like massive immigration into western societies in the 20th century and automation, managed to be rather predictive.

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R’lyeh: The Lost Realm

And my look at Byron Craft’s Mythos Project series concludes.

Cover by Eric Lofgren

Review: R’lyeh: The Lost Realm, Byron Craft, 2021. 

How to describe this book without sucking its vitality away with spoilers?

It’s a capstone, a wrapping up of threads, of all the Craft works I’ve reviewed.

It is, to borrow a phrase from drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, an “assemble the squad” story. It’s two years after Shoggoth 2, and Professor Ironwood puts out the call to some of the characters of the Shoggoth books to help rescue the grandchild of Faren and Janet Church. It seems that someone in R’lyeh wants a child with the blood of the Tanists in him.

Yes, Ironwood’s group dares – armed with some modern technology and weaponry – to go to R’lyeh though it is not, in this series, in the Pacific Ocean but in another dimension.

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“A Garden of Blackred Roses”

I’ll get back to Byron Craft’s Mythos Project in the next post.

Right now, though, it’s time to look at the weird fiction being discussed this week on LibraryThing.

Review: “A Garden of Blackred Roses”, Charles L. Grant, 1980.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one. It annoyed me greatly, an annoyance probably aggravated by recently finishing a couple of other anthologies with stories which also annoyed me.

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Shoggoth 2: The Rise of the Elders

Cover by Pahapasi

Review: Shoggoth 2: The Rise of the Elders, Byron Craft, 2018

Yep, it’s a sequel to Shoggoth, and, yes, the Elder Beings aka the Yith do play a prominent role.

It’s been a few months since the events of Shoggoth. Jason Riggs and Gwen Gilhooey have married and are expecting a child, and Jason’s nephew Noah has come to live with them. Computer genius Cac survived being shot up. Thomas Ironwood and his former housekeeper, Amy Murchison, have become lovers.

Besides Noah, there are two other major characters, a mysterious scarred man who proves his professional monster killing metal in some opening chapters, and Pemba, a psychic empath from England. (Recommended by Professor David Hambling, no less!). Ironwood wants help in investigating some strange dreams and visions the locals of Darwin are having. He thinks the vast underground complex of the Yith exerts some kind of psychic influence.

And Senator Neville Stream is still around, still determined to get his hands on Yith technology and weaponize shoggoths for political ends.

Continue reading “Shoggoth 2: The Rise of the Elders”