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. 

Continue reading “The Day of the Triffids”

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”

Turn Off Your Mind

I’ve longed liked Gary Lachman’s articles in the Fortean Times. I’m also an admirer of his work, under the name Gary Valentine, with the rock band Blondie, particularly his song “X Offender”.

So, it was only a matter of time before I decided to read one of his books.

Review: Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, Gary Lachman, 2001. 

Lachman’s basic thesis is that several elements of the mystic 1960s led not just to the Summer of Love but the murders of Charles Manson and that the strains of thought that produced both go back to the late 1890s.

It’s an interesting story, but most parts of it were familiar to me already, and I’m not going to talk much about them. I am also not sympathetic to mysticism, the Summer of Love, or the spirit of the 1960s.

What I am going to talk about is the surprising amount of material in the book about writers and works of fantastic fiction and how they were connected to the mystic Sixties.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s not only wrote the very popular The Morning of the Magicians, but Bergier also wrote a letter praising H. P. Lovecraft that appeared in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales. The Morning of the Magicians, published in 1960, had Fortean material and centered on mysticism, transcendence, mutation and the evolution of consciousness. It was a heady mix that drew from the zeitgeist.

Continue reading “Turn Off Your Mind”

Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950

Well, I’ve known about this book for years, but it was pricey on the second hand market, but I got it for Christmas.

A lot of science fiction crit books from the 1980s I’ve purchased recently seem to be deaccessioned from university libraries. This one came from the Columbus College Library in Columbus, Georgia.  It seems to have been checked out only once, in 1995. That matches Brian Stableford stating, in his essay “The Profession of Science Fiction” that he only sold “157 copies in the UK, not counting remainders”.

While several of the blogs I read are interested in this kind of thing, it’s definitely a niche interest.

Review: Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, Brian Stableford, 1985. 

Stableford makes a convincing case that the British scientific romance was not the same as American sf though the two merged around 1950. The two differed in many respects: publishing markets, tone, subject, and the types of authors that wrote it..

American sf could be published in many magazines. The authors of scientific romances had only the low-brow penny dreadfuls in England, and, until around 18890, novels were published in three-volume installments intended for the upper classes. It also was about that date that magazines aimed at the middle class were first published in the UK. I was also interested to learn that Britain had paperback books slightly earlier than America.  However, they had nothing like the American pulp magazines though you could buy bundles of them (so-called “Yank mags”) that were brought over, supposedly, as ship’s ballast.

The tone of the scientific romance, particularly after World War 1, was pessimistic. Its stories often dealt with civilizational collapse or decadence. American pulp sf was optimistic.

The latter was defined by stories of space travel and interplanetary adventure. British scientific romance produced more stories with evolution and mutation as themes. The scientific romance also frequently featured future war stories.

There was a big drop off in scientific romances in Britain from 1918 through 1931 though the presence of an almost entirely British form, the “speculative essay”, increased in popularity in those years. It was closely related to science fiction and first started at least as far back as Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and took off in 1923 with J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus; or, Science and the Future.

The extent writers involved themselves in sf and scientific romances also differed substantially on each side of the Atlantic. Some mainstream British writers wrote one or two works of scientific romance, most notably Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. It was not, however, considered respectable, just eccentricity. The American pulps had many writers who specialized in writing for them.

H. G. Wells, the most famous writer of scientific romance, disparaged his scientific romances when he finally got around to having an omnibus of them published in 1927. Stableford sees early Wells as just exploring ideas and looking at their implications whereas later Wells, the artistically unsuccessful Wells, offered solutions to problems and not very convincing ones either. 

Stableford sees the ideal mix of sf/scientific romance as playfulness with serious intent to look at problems in the world. For him, American sf was vigorous in its action plots and romantic settings but not very serious in looking at the real world. The British scientific romance, with its utopian works, examinations of supermen, and how to avoid another World War, was serious but in a dull way. He thinks the post 1950 amalgam of the two was a good thing. Stableford sees John Wyndham and John Christopher as the two writers who most successfully combined the two traditions.

The book is divided up into time periods with in-depth looks at important authors of the period and its general themes. Each discussed author and their works are indexed.

Stableford makes me want to re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when he notes Huxley’s succeeded where many other authors who dealt with similar issues are forgotten. Stableford credits Huxley’s lighter touch. He had more irony and didn’t, unlike Wells’, make a deliberate statement on the nature of his society. He left unanswered the question of why, exactly, the world After Ford was so bad. People are happy after all.

Interestingly, one of the many forgotten writers mentioned is Muriel Jaeger. Her The Question Mark, which may have inspired Huxley’s novel, has recently been reprinted.   

Stableford makes me now see Olaf Stapledon in a new light as a man seeking psychic communion and community. Interestingly, he was the reverse of so many of the writers Stableford discusses. He was raised by an atheist and became a sort of believer. Most of the authors covered took the opposite trajectory – sons of religious men who rebelled.

Naturally, if you are the type who would read this book, you’ll find new books and authors you want to read. The most prominent names in that regard for me are H. F. Heard, who later moved to California though, even after becoming acquainted with American sf, he still wrote in the tradition of the scientific romance. The other is John Gloag. Stableford actually got to interview Gloag before his death. Unlike many of the authors of scientific romances, Gloag (like S. Fowler Wright) was a man of the political right though Stableford puts this down to a general skepticism rather than loyalty to a particular political creed.

It’s a fascinating read with Stableford ably summarizing many a story and novel.

I would recommend this book to others interested in the history of science fiction, but, I suspect, it’s been superseded by Stableford’s four volume New Atlantis. Published in 2017, it pushes his survey back in time to some works of proto-scientific romance starting with Francis Bacon.

The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5

I strongly recommend James Gunn’s six volume The Road to Science Fiction anthology series as a good look at the history of Anglophone science fiction. In the sixth volume, foreign language science fiction is covered.

However, I only reviewed this volume.

A retro review from September 2, 2003.

Review: The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5: The British Way, ed. James Gunn, 1998.Road to Science Fiction

Several novels are excerpted here. And one prominent one isn’t: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which Gunn argues is a transition from the gothic but not yet fully in the camp of self-aware science fiction. Lt. Col. Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking is the first of those future war novels written by politicians and military men determined to influence public policy. Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, still in print, is a charming tale of life and culture in a two-dimensional world. That incomparable giant of science fiction, Olaf Stapledon, is represented by a selection from Star Maker, narrated by a “cosmical mind” who views the life of the universe. (Though oddly, in this volume, Gunn barely mentions his importance to the genre. For that, you must consult volume two.) The title for the section on Richard Jeffries After London; Or, Wild England is “The Craving for Catastrophe”. It is a pastoral tale of a simpler life after an unexplained disaster has befallen the country.

That craving shows up in several more tales. Killer smog hits the city in Robert Barr’s 1892 story “The Doom of London.” “The Great Fog” of H. F. Heard wipes out worldwide civilization. Life gets extinguished on an alien planet in Arthur C. Clarke’s much anthologized “The Star”. The Nature of the Catastrophe” in Michael Moorcock’s story of that name is never really explained. An amalgam of newspaper excerpts and fiction, this story unfortunately shares the oblique prose and loose setting of his Jerry Cornelius novels. Not readable in its own right, it still gives you some idea of Moorcock’s influence on the New Wave. Tanith Lee’s “Written in Water” is a last woman on Earth tale. The world that may be destroyed by an artist in J. D. Beresford “A Negligible Experiment” is our own. The disaster of John Wyndham’s “The Emptiness of Space” is a personal one. Its hero has survived a spell in cryonic suspension and fears his soul has left his body.

As you would expect, the anthology is full of several famous names. Continue reading “The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5”

Forgotten Science Fiction: Goslings by J. D. Beresford

James W. Harris over at his Auxiliary Memory blog (see below) started an interesting discussion on post-apocalyptic novels, a favorite subject of mine, so I’m doing something different and reblogging his post and adding a list of some of my own favorite post-apocalyptic novels.

A note on taxonomy: the science fiction subgenres of the disaster and post-apocalyptic novels often blur. I’m not going to mention novels where the old order is essentially reasserted after some convulsion be it via plague, war, asteroid impact, or nanotech disaster.

For purely sentimental reasons, I’ll start with Christopher Anvil’s The Day the Machines Stopped. This one has electrical technology grinding to a halt after some accident in the Soviet Union. To be honest, I don’t even remember how it ended, so I don’t know if qualifies as a true post-apocalyptic novel or not. I read it decades ago, in grade school, during the 1970s. I just remembered the gun battles around grocery stores, and my young brain thinking, “Why, yes, that’s how it would be if there was no more electricity.” A lifelong fascination was born.

Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer is long and goes the whole spectrum from pre-disaster, through cometary impact, and the new world after. Some issues raised: Are accountants really useful after civilization ends? How do you store books in a hoard? If you’re a feudal lord who used to be a U.S. Senator, do you really owe anything to that one time campaign contributor?

One of the characters in Lucifer’s Hammer was a postman still making his rounds because communicating with other survivors is still useful after life as we know it ends. I suspect he inspired David Brin’s The Postman. Its titular character not only helps bind communities together, but he becomes the accidental and reluctant nucleus for a revival of civilization. Yes, the novel ends with silly super-survivalists, but I still liked it.

Perhaps not a truly post-apocalyptic novel but still good and a fascinating look at the possible effects of even a limited nuclear war was Whitley Strieber (yes, the Communion guy) and James Kunetka’s War Day. Using the John Dos Passos mosaic style, it’s a trip through an America that survived in a shaken and rattled state.

Something a little different but along the same line are the first two installments of Dean Ing’s Ted Quantrill trilogy: Systemic Shock and Single Combat. Set in a “streamlined America” after a limited nuclear war (specifically Ing used, as his starting point, the events of Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War there’s a recent look at it here), it has America under the thumb of a Mormon theocracy with its young hero, Quantrill, as a government assassin. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the plot. (Ing wrote a straight up survivalist novel called Pulling Through which featured an appendix on how to build an improvised fallout shelter in a hurry.)

John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass  aka The Death of Grass is a very good novel, another work that starts in the world before it falls apart, covers the unfraying of civilization due to the death of all grain crops, and covers the beginning of the new order.  There’s Pierre the gun store owner who is one of those memorable characters who comes into his own during the disaster. But he’s not the protagonist. The hero becomes the de facto leader of a group of survivors, and the novel ends memorably with a tragic incident that shows the loyalties and relationships of the old world now count for nothing.

For reason’s Jim covers ably in his reviews, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids are rightly regarded as classics. (I take an extended look at the tter here.)

Wyndham’s Out of the Depths is also worth a read. It’s a combination post-apocalypse and alien invasion novel. Wyndam’s interest in the practical skills needed to maintain life and society probably owe something to his unusual education at England’s Bedales School, an education which emphasized gardening and crafts besides traditional academics.

 

 

Auxiliary Memory

Goslings

by

J. D. Beresford

, is a 1913 post-apocalyptic novel about a plague that sweeps across the world and kills mainly men.  If you follow the link from the book title you can read a 23-part serialization from HiLobrow Books, which is illustrated with period photographs.  HiLobrow also has

reprinted the novel

as a paperback and ebook as part of their

Radium Age Science Fiction Series

.  I listened to the

Dreamscape edition

from Audible.com that was elegantly read by Matthew Brenher who did a bang-up job narrating the British dialect – just look at this

reproduction of the English edition

to see how hard it would be for a modern American to read.  The book was called

A World of Women

when first published in America.

goslings-500

Beresford was an admirer of H. G. Wells, and combined fiction with scientific philosophy in Goslings, that is part satire, part…

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After the End

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The well-done post-apocalypse story is a literary post-mortem on civilization. At its best, it looks at the wreckage of society to examine not only the workings of its physical infrastructure but the architecture of the human mind and soul.

Once upon a time, I read a fair number of these, but I sort of drifted away from it. In the last couple of years, by accident, I’ve read more than usual in the sub-genre.

Oh there’s still a lot of these stories published. But zombies have taken over the genre. Many self-published works seem to be survivalist manuals — not that anything is wrong with that.  Some of Dean Ing’s works fit in that category as does, to some extant, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. However, who knows how many of these are badly written political screeds or how to manuals?

And I have little interest in YA novels. Even when I was the target age, I usually didn’t care for teenaged protagonists.

So, hoping to see what had been going on with the theme recently, I requested Paula Guran’s After the End: Recent Apocalypses. Continue reading “After the End”