Tag Archives: john wyndham

[February 12, 1963] HOPE SPRINGS (the March 1963 Amazing)

[If you live in Southern California, you can see the Journey LIVE at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego, 2 p.m. on February 17!]


by John Boston

Well, hope springs eternal, and a good thing for certain SF magazines that it does.  The March Amazing has a rather distinguished table of contents: a novelet by John Wyndham and short stories by veterans Edmond Hamilton, H.B. Fyfe, and Robert F. Young and up-and-comers like J.G. Ballard, rising star Roger Zelazny, and variable star Keith Laumer. 

But we must temper optimism with realism: since Amazing is about the lowest-paying of the SF magazines, top-market names are probably here with things they couldn’t sell elsewhere.  So, prepared for all eventualities . . .

Edmond Hamilton’s Babylon in the Sky is a simple morality tale for SF fans.  Young Hobie lives in the sticks, where there are no jobs and people survive on doles and make-work, seldom make it past the eighth grade, and resent eggheads and know-it-alls—especially the decadent ones in the orbiting cities that Hobie’s preacher father rails against.  So Hobie runs away to the spaceport and stows away to one of these satellites, planning to sabotage the power plant and blow it up.  He doesn’t get far, and the sane and reasonable people there explain to him that they are not living sybaritic lives but working hard at research to benefit everyone.  We didn’t rob you, Hobie, the home folks did.  So they’re just sending him back, but Hobie, you’re a smart kid, if you go to the Educational Foundation near the spaceport, they’ll take care of you, and then maybe you can join up and come back here.  Hobie buys it.  Well, yeah, that’s more or less my life plan too if I can swing it, but I don’t read SF for homilies even if I agree with them.  It’s slickly enough done, but two stars for unearned propagandizing.

Speaking of slick, here’s Robert F. Young again.  When last he appeared, I said he “knows so many ways of being entirely too cute,” and boy howdy was I right.  In Jupiter Found, the protagonist’s brain, after an auto accident did for the rest of him, is installed in a giant mining and construction machine on Jupiter—a M.A.N. (Mining, Adapting Neo-Processor), model 8M.  He is shortly joined by model EV, who is of course a W.O.M.A.N. (Weld Operating, Mining, Adapting Neo-Processor).  They work for Gorman and Oder Developments, which has strictly forbidden them to process an ore called edenite, and they’ve also been warned to beware of a guy who has been cast out of a high place in the company and is now in business for himself, who will be sending down a mining unit called a Boa 9.  By this point in Young’s arch and labored rendition of the Old Testament I was thinking longingly of some of the more bloodthirsty passages in Leviticus.  One star.  What kind of rubes does this guy think he’s writing for?  Even Hobie wouldn’t go for this.

John Wyndham is best known for his chilly novels of the 1950s, from The Day of the Triffids to The Midwich Cuckoos, less so for Trouble with Lichen (1960), intelligent and readable but much less incisive than its predecessors.  His novelet Chocky is unfortunately in the latter vein.  The protagonist’s kid seems to be having conversations with an imaginary friend, except anybody who’s read a lick of SF will know immediately that he’s communicating with an extraterrestrial intelligence.  So we get the worried parent routine, and the marital tension, and the visit from the child psychologist friend, the rather subdued climax, and then . . . some explanation and it all goes away.  The whole 38 pages worth is so low-key as to be near-comatose.  One wonders if Wyndham is taking some of the new tranquilizers that psychiatrists hand out these days.  It’s benignly readable but there’s not much to it.  Two stars.

Roger Zelazny’s short The Borgia Hand is livelier but insubstantial, about a young man with a withered hand in generic fairy-tale country who chases down a pedlar (sic) reputed to traffic in body parts.  Yeah, he’s got a hand in stock, and here’s a quick gimmick and it’s over.  Two stars.  Snappy writing is nice, but as one noted critic put it, where’s the bloody horse?

But relief is in sight.  There’s nothing especially original about Keith Laumer’s The Walls: future overpopulated Earth with people living regimented lives stuffed into tiny spaces in big apartment complexes; protagonist’s husband is on the make and brings home a Wall, i.e. a TV screen that covers one wall.  You can turn it off but then you’ve got a wall-sized mirror.  Next, another Wall; then another; then . . . .  The story is the wife’s psychological disintegration stuck all day with a choice of all-directions TV-land or a hall of mirrors, but—as with It Could Be Anything from a couple of issues ago—Laumer’s knack for concrete visual detail brings it off and keeps it from being a print version of one of those lame Twilight Zone episodes which end with somebody going crazy.  Four stars.

J.G. Ballard is back with The Sherrington Theory, his most minor effort yet in the US magazines.  Protagonist and wife are at a beach cafeteria terrace, watching the remarkably dense beach crowd (no sand visible), and intermittently discussing the theory of Dr. Sherrington that the imminent launch of a new communications satellite will trigger certain “innate releasing mechanisms” in humans, which of course it does.  This one frankly reads a bit like a self-parody; in fact, the idea is a sort of domesticated knock-off of the one he developed much more effectively in The Drowned World.  Of course it’s written with Ballard’s usual flair (or mannerisms, as you prefer), e.g.: “. . . this mass of articulated albino flesh sprawled on the beach resembled the diseased anatomical fantasy of a surrealist painter.” The situation is more skillfully developed and built up than in Zelazny’s story, bringing it up, barely, to three stars.

The stars hide their faces as we come to H.B. Fyfe’s Star Chamber, a shameless Bat Durston in which a parody of a despicable criminal has crash-landed on an uninhabited planet and a lone lawman has come after him.  It reads like something Fyfe couldn’t sell to Planet Stories until the mildly clever end, which reads like something he couldn’t sell to Analog because they were overstocked on Christopher Anvil.  Two stars, barely.

And here is earnest Ben Bova with Intelligent Life in Space.  Haven’t we seen this already?  Not quite—this time he’s going on about the definition of intelligence, touching base at ants, dolphins, and chimpanzees, and suggesting that we’re not likely to find it in the Solar System but likely will do so farther away.  This one is a more pedestrian rehash of familiar material than most of his earlier articles.  Two stars.

So: one very good story, one amusing one, and downhill—pretty far downhill—from there.  Hope may spring eternal, but one takes what one can get.

[P.S. If you registered for WorldCon this year, please consider nominating Galactic Journey for the “Best Fanzine” Hugo.  Your ballot should have arrived by now…]




[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.

Feb. 15, 1961] Variable Stars (March 1961 Fantasy and Science Fiction

I want to tell you about this month’s “All Star” issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I’m too busy tapping my heels to a groovy new song I was just turned on to.  Last year, I thought the instrumental group, The Ventures, were The End, but after hearing the new disc from The Shadows, Apache, I may have to change my vote.  Is it too late to rejoin with England?

Back to our show.  Every year or so, Fantasy and Science Fiction releases an “All Star” issue in which only Big Names get published.  It’s a sort of guarantee of quality (and, presumably, sales).  I’ll tell you right now that, with the notable exception of the lead novelette, it’s largely an “All Three Star” issue.  Perhaps it’s better to leave things to the luck of the draw.  That said, it’s hardly an unworthy read, and Zenna Henderson, as always, makes the issue a must buy.

Ms. Henderson is best known for her stories of The People, now spanning a decade of publication, and to be released on March 17 of this year as a compilation anthology!  The People are humans from another world, with the ability to do all manner of psychic tricks that look to us Outsiders as akin to magic.  Henderson’s stories are generally bittersweet tales of misfit refugees from the stars attempting to make do on a primitive, often unfriendly, but nevertheless beautiful world.

Last time we saw The People, in F&SF two years ago, the Earthbound had finally been rediscovered by their star-dwelling brethren, and many had elected to return to more familiar surroundings.  But many also chose to stay in their adoptive home.  In Return, one of the People who left, Debbie, yearns to go back to Earth.  Her homesickness becomes a palpable thing, and weeks before her baby is to be born, she convinces her new husband, Thann, to make the journey back to Earth to live with her kind there.

Things don’t go as planned.  There is now a lake in the valley where the People had made their home.  Debbie and Thann crash land, the latter dying soon after.  What follows is a beautiful story of a lost, lonely, somewhat selfish woman on the eve of motherhood, and the old human couple that offers her shelter.  It’s a lovely complete story arc of a woman’s maturation impelled by crisis–the kind of story only a woman (a remarkable one like Ms. Henderson) could give us.  Five stars.

The rest of the magazine, while never bad, never lives up to the standard of that first story.

Jay Williams, writer of the Danny Dunn franchise (which I quite enjoy) has a slight, if evocatively bitter piece, about a murderous man who gets his comeuppance after doing away with a romantic rival.  It’s called The Beetle, and it’s strong but not novel.  Two stars.

Saturn Rising is a pleasant nuts-and-bolts piece from one of the fathers of modern science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke.  A teen builds his own telescope, espies Saturn in all its ringed glory, and then his father cruelly breaks the instrument.  The youth grows up to become a wealthy hotel magnate, but that first-hand glimpse of a celestial body remains the seed for an undying dream–to build a resort in full view of the sixth planet.  I visited a telescope store today, and the story made a fitting tale with which to regale my daughter as she perused the reflectors and refractors.  Three stars.

John Wyndham offers up a time travel tale in A Stitch in Time wherein an old woman, spending her last years in the same home in which she was raised, is at last reunited with her high school beaux–some 50 years late for a date.  It’s nicely written, and who doesn’t have a space where time seems to have stood still for decades, in which, at any time, some memory might resurrect itself?  And yet, it’s a thin idea despite the fine characterization.  Three stars.

I quite enjoyed Dr. Asimov’s The Imaginary that Wasn’t, all about “imaginary numbers”, i.e. multiples of the square root of negative one.  Not only is a cogent description of their origin and utility (though he never mentions electric circuits, in which they are invaluable), but the anecdote in the beginning is priceless: Some 20 years ago, Isaac showed up a smug philosophy teacher with his mathematical knowledge, earning the latter’s rancor forever.  Said teacher asserted that mathematicians were mystics for they believed in imaginary numbers, which have “no reality.”

Asimov contended that imaginary numbers were just as real as any other.  The teacher pounced.  “Show me a piece of chalk that has the length of the square root of negative one.”  Asimov replied that he would–provided the teacher gave him a one-half piece of chalk.  The professor promptly broke a piece in half and handed it to Asimov in triumph.  What ensues, Asimov describes thusly:

“Ah, but wait,” I said: “you haven’t fulfilled your end. This is one piece of chalk you’ve handed me, not a one-half piece.”  I held it up for the others to see.  “Wouldn’t you all say this was one piece of chalk?  It certainly isn’t two or three.”

Now the professor was smiling.  “Hold it. One piece of chalk is a piece of regulation length. You have one that’s half the regulation length.”  I said, “Now you’re springing an arbitrary definition on me.  But even if I accept it, are you willing to maintain that this is a one-half piece of chalk and not a 0.48 piece or a 0.52 piece?  And can you really consider yourself qualified to discuss the square root of minus one, when you’re a little hazy on the meaning of one-half?”  But by now the professor had lost his equanimity altogether and his final argument was unanswerable. He said, “Get the hell out of here!”

This parallels my experience, also some 20 years ago, when I showed up a smug anthropology professor.  He, trying to shock his students with an amoral argument, asserted that cannibalism was abandoned simply because it was economically inefficient, not for any cultural reasons.  I decided to call his bet and pointed out that raising any meat is inefficient–if we really liked the taste of people, we’d still be eating them.  The teacher made it clear that I was not welcome in his class.  Why do instructors never recognize the genius of their students?

Four stars, from one smart-mouth to another.

Philip J. Farmer’s Prometheus takes up most of the rest of the issue.  This is the sequel to A Father to the Stars starring the corrigible Father Carmody, an ex-con cum hapless priest…with an alien egg symbiotically stuck to his chest.  In this new story, Carmody goes to the planet of the horowitzes, a sentient but uncultured race, one member of which expregnated the monk.  A much more serious story, it depicts Carmody’s attempts to enlighten the horowitzes by bringing them language, technology, science, and ultimately, religion.  Three stars because, while it was fun reading, I never got the impression that the putatively alien horowitzes were anything other than feathered people.  Moreover, the profundity of the final revelation was insufficiently profound.

Against my better judgment, I am distributing the Ferdinand Feghoot pun of the month.  Perhaps I’ll make it “a thing.” 

Wrapping up the issue is John Berry’s very short The One Who Returns, a subtle story about a priest who is educated in the true faith by an Indian lama, and the measures another member of the flock goes to so as to avoid seduction by the compelling heresy.  Four stars.

Three and a half stars overall.  Respectable, but not what I’d expect from an “All Star” issue.