[June 22, 1961] HOME COUNTIES SF (a report from the UK)

By Ashley R. Pollard

Let me explain my title to you.  The British Home Counties surround London, where I live, and consists of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex.  I mention this apropos of probably the most well known of Britain’s science fiction novels: the apocalyptic War of the Worlds by Herbert George Wells.

The story is a veritable march through the Britain’s heartland, describing how the Martian tripods march from Woking in Surrey to Essex, wrecking all that’s nearest and dearest to the heart of the British people.  Though I should point out that this was a very English-centred story (Scotland, Wales and Ireland are left out), and regarding the rest of the world or our former colonies, Wells has little to say.

War, arguably, was where British science fiction was born.  I say “arguably” because Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein can probably lay claim to being the first British SF story; however, its roots seem to me to be more firmly in Gothic Horror.  I believe that Wells set the scene for British SF in a way that Shelley’s story has so far not.  Though perhaps now that we are in the swinging sixties, her influence will be felt more as women’s emancipation moves forward.

What is the point of all this?  Why, to set the stage for the introduction of one of our latest SF writers: John Wyndham, pen name of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, also known as John Beynon and a host of other pseudonyms made through different combinations of his name.

Wyndham became widely known to British readers after his disaster tale, The Day of the Triffids, was published in 1951.  The story centres on the survivors of the passing of a comet, most of whom were blinded by the show (perhaps caused by coincident nuclear explosions of satellites in orbit around the Earth).  The plot doubles the calamity by featuring the deadly eponymous plants, piling agony on top of misery.  The Triffids are genetically modified constructs that are being farmed for their oil, and which have to be kept fenced in because they can walk.  They also come equipped with stingers to blind their prey.  You can see where this is going?  Like Wells’ tripods, the Triffids rampage across England blinding people and generally being unpleasant weeds that thrive on the dead.  Also like War, it is a disaster story for British readers, set in the familiar setting of England’s green and pleasant land.  If any of these topics appeal to you, you’ll enjoy the book.

Wyndham’s second novel was The Kraken Wakes, a story of aliens who invade our oceans.  A pointless war breaks out that ends with the melting of our Polar regions.  Much of the Earth is flooded — most importantly, London!  The debt Wyndham owes to Wells for creating the genre is explicitly made by Kraken‘s protagonist, who contrasts the course his aliens’ invasion takes compared to the one described by Wells.  Serendipitously, the book came out in the same year as George Pal’s film adaptation of War of the Worlds, which may have added to Kraken’s success, the public being primed for invasion stories.  Though one could argue that what sold the story was the resonance between the state of Britain at the end of World War Two and the situation the protagonists find themselves in at the end of the novel.

With these two books John Wyndham cemented his position as a writer of very British science fictional tales.  But it should be said that Wyndham liked to refer to his novels as logical fantasies rather than SF.

Following on from his two breakout novels came my favourite novel, The Chrysalids.  It’s a different story because even though it’s set in a post-apocalyptic future, after a nuclear holocaust that has devastated the Earth, the focus has moved from middle-class English people to a xenophobic community that enforces purity laws to prevent the spread of mutations.

On reflection, perhaps its not that far removed from the culture of the British Isles after all and the anti-German rhetoric that colours films and comics.

The Chrysalids tells the story of children born with telepathic powers who must hide their abilities because their society abhors all mutations.  The plot unfolds as the children flee after one of the children is discovered to have six toes.  Wyndham leaves it up to the reader to imagine what happens after the ending.

Wyndham’s third book was The Midwich Cuckoos.  Aliens choose a number of villages around the world, render the inhabitants unconscious, and afterwards it’s discovered all the women are pregnant.  The alien hybrid children have strange powers and things do not bode well for the rest of humanity.

The book was made into a film called The Village of the Damned, which was filmed, funnily enough, in Hertfordshire — one of the Home Counties.  At the film premiere, there were queues all around Leicester Square to get in.  And for those who like memorabilia, Penguin released the book with a still from the film on the cover.

His next book is a novel made from short stories called The Outward Urge (what I believe is called a fix-up in America).  Those who know me know that I like hard SF and The Outward Urge delivers in spades, telling the tale of one family’s expansion into space.  It is told as a future history spanning 1994 to 2194.  The future indeed, one where Britain has a space station in 1994, for which we are going to have to pull our socks up if that’s going to happen: given what I know and told you last month about the British space programme so far.  Still, The Outward Urge is an exciting read, and I found it quite gripping.

His latest novel is the Trouble With Lichen.  This book treads a different path from his earlier works, not being a tale of alien lichen taking over the world that the title might first suggest.  The story’s central character is a woman biologist who discovers that a rare lichen has life-extending properties.  From it, she produces the drug, Antigerone, that can extend peoples’ lives two to three hundred years.  Wyndham uses the story to explore the effects this will have on society, for instance, the liberation of women by extending their fertility, and thereby allowing them the time for a career before choosing to bear children.

I’m not totally convinced by his extrapolations of the effect a life prolonging drug would have on women’s reproductive cycle — or the societal effects thereof; we’ll know more once the Enavid (Enovid 10mg) oral contraceptive becomes widely accepted.  But, I will give John Wyndham credit for at least trying to put himself into women’s shoes and presenting a strong female character, even if I find his treatment at times a tad clumsy because he describes woman from a particularly male perspective that irks me.

That being said, if you haven’t yet come across John Wyndham’s work, and you want to have a taste of a British sensibilities towards the future I can’t recommend his work too highly.

5 thoughts on “[June 22, 1961] HOME COUNTIES SF (a report from the UK)”

  1. Thank you for a fascinating report.  I’ve read a few of Wyndham’s novels, and he does indeed seem to be the heir to the scientific romances of Wells.

    “Village of the Damned” is a fine film, too.

  2. Good review of the Wyndham ouevre.  One warning: some, including me, consider THE OUTWARD URGE to be a considerable regression in quality from the novels that preceded it, causing me to suspect that it was assembled from trunk stories written much earlier.  This was confirmed in part by SF bibliographer Phil Stephensen-Payne, who reports that the book that was eventually issued as THE OUTWARD URGE was actually announced for publication by UK publisher Michael Joseph in 1954, but did not appear.  My own view is that the stories are actually older than that, since they generally seem less sophisticated and more cliched than any of the novels from THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS on–though they are likely an improvement on most of the earlier pulp writing that appeared while the author was still styling himself John Beynon or John Beynon Harris, before he reinvented himself as John Wyndham.

    It is also worth mentioning that TROUBLE WITH LICHEN was not Wyndham’s first approach to what I hope no one refers to any longer as the Woman Question.  His novella “Consider Her Ways,” initially published in an anonymously edited 1956 anthology titled SOMETIME, NEVER, and now reprinted in Wyndham’s new collections CONSIDER HER WAYS (UK) and THE INFINITE MOMENT (US), concerns a contemporary woman who wakes up in a far future in which men are extinct, reproduction is parthenogenetic, and human society and biology have come to resemble the ants’.  The protagonist’s horror is effectively counterposed by a contemporary historian’s suggestions that women didn’t have it so great in our time either.  This one is definitely in Wyndham’s most Wellsian vein and well worth seeking out.

    John Boston

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.