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John Wyndham (1903-1969)

 

English science-fiction writer, who gained fame with his catastrophe novels The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), and The Chrysalids (1955). The central theme in Wyndham's major works is the struggle for survival in extreme situations. His heroes are often ordinary people, who try to sustain civilized values, when the normal social system has collapsed. The famous American writer Stephen King has called Wyndham "perhaps the best writer of science fiction that England has ever produced".

"The way I came to miss the end of the world - well, the end of the world I had known for close on thirty years – was sheer accident: like a lot of survival, when you come to think of it. In the nature of things a good many somebodies are always in hospital, and the law of averages had picked on me to be one of them a week or so before. It might just as easily have been the week before that-in which case I´d not be writing now: I´d not be here at all." (from The Day of the Triffids, 1951)

John Wyndham was born John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris in the village of Knowle, in Warwickshire. His father, George Beynon Harris, was a barrister. Gertrude Parkes, Wyndham's mother, was the daughter of an ironmaster. Untill 1911, he lived in Edgbaston, Birmingham. When Wyndham was eight, his parents separated. Wyndham and his brother, Vivian Beynon Harris, who also became a writer, moved with their mother from place to place. However, their childhood was not unhappy; "we loved our mother and each other and we were as close as it is possible for a family to be," recalled Vivian Beynon Harris later. Reading H.G. Wells's The Time Machine first aroused his interest in science fiction. Moreover, in many ways Wyndham could be called the natural successor to Wells.

Wyndham attended several private preparatory schools. He left in 1921 Bedales School in Petersfield, Hampshire, and then studied farming. He also read for the Bar and tried advertising, before turning to writing in 1925. Living mostly on a small allowance from his parents, Wyndham poured out stories. However, it was not until 1929, when rejection slips stopped coming.

Inspired by the magazine Amazing Stories, he wrote from 1930 to 1939 almost exclusively for the American pulp magazines. Among his early works was 'Words to Barter', which appeared in Wonder Stories in 1931. His short stories from this period, signed as John Beynon Harris, were assembled as Wanderers of Time (1973). The title story originally appeared in Wonder Stories and was reprinted as a separate pamphlet. 'The Lost Machine' (1932), one of Wyndham's most anthologized works, which was published first in Amazing Stories, is a predecessor to Isaac Asimov's robot tales. Its narrator is a machine from Mars, lost on the third planet, the earth. "I know what it is to be an intelligent machine in a world of madness," the visitor concludes before dissolving itself.

Wyndham's first novel, The Secret People (1935), came out in a serialized from in the English magazine Passing Show, and then as a book under the pseudonym John Beynon. Set in the Sahara, where part of the desert has been flooded, the story tells of hero and heroine, who find in subterranean caves a race of pigmies. The "submerged nation" theme was derived from Wells's famous novel The Time Machine (1895). Another Wells' novel which influenced Wyndham was War of the Worlds (1898). Planet Plane (1936), Wyndham's second serial, was a space opera about the first flight to Mars, where the Martians are a dying species. Foul Play Suspected (1935) differed from his other works – it was a detective story.

Before World War II, Wyndham wrote as John Beynon and John Beynon Harris – Wyndham used several differed pseudonyms, most of which he derived from his own name. Some of his science fiction adventures and juveniles appeared also in British magazines. The war interrupted Wyndham's career. He wrote poetry and translated some French plays, but the science fiction market collapsed, when both science-fiction fans and writers were called up. From 1940 to 1943 Wyndham worked in censorship, and in 1944 he participated in the Invasion of Normandy. Wyndham was a corporal cipher operator in the Royal Signal Corps.

The dropping of the atom bomb, the beginning of the Cold War, and fears of Communism and nuclear war brought new seriousness into science fiction. After the war Wyndham's career as a writer was for a few years in a dead end. At the exclusive Penn Club in Beford Place, Wyndham met the publisher (Sir) John Lusty, who advised him on his next novel. It was The Day of the Triffids, which was immediately hailed as the "most terrifying as well as the best-written science fiction novel of the year, or for several years." The book was translated into numerous languages, among others into Finnish, and adapted into screen in 1963. Before published in hard-cover form in England, the story appeared in serialized form in the American magazine Colliers Weekly.

The Day of the Triffids revised and updated the theme of disaster. In the story, a rain of meteors, mysterious "green flashes," have caused mass blindness on earth. Triffids, mobile carnivorous plants, on average 7 feet high, emerge from an agricultural experiment, and take advantage of a world struck blind. A small group of people try to cope with the deadly vegetables. The chief protagonist is Bill Masen, a horticulturist and triffid expert. He still has his sight, because he was in a hospital and was blindfolded during a treatment. With his newly acquired family, he tires to avoid being enslaved by the blind. In the Isle of Wright, their haven, they hope to establish a new society. According to an anecdote, Wyndham overheard in a pub two gardeners discussing their weeds. One said: "There's one by my tool shed – a great monster. In reckon it's a triffid!" After the publication of the book, the word "triffid" has come to mean almost any kind of imaginary hostile and dangerous plant. Wyndham's species refers to the three roots, on which the plants move.

Steve Sekely's film version from 1963 was written by the blacklisted scenarist Bernard Gordon, who did not get screen credit. Gordon ended his script on a positive note of humanity. "For me," he said in an interview, "the problem of the book... was that the story meandered through many episodes and never came to a meaningful end." William Faulkner's speech to the Nobel Committee gave Gordon a clue how finish the picture with the saying, "since life on earth arose from the sea, it would be that same broth of seawater that saves life on earth as we know it. And with the help of a bit of seawater, man would eventually triumph even over the triffids." (from Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklistby Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, 1999)

Although Wyndham did not invent the English disaster novel, he reestablished the genre and examined its themes and possibilities with the fresness of a pioneer. Wyndham's down-to-earth attitude made his stories so believable, that he was marketed in the UK as a mainstream writer. Wyndham himself never loved the term 'science fiction.' Starting from a fantastic premise, he logically developed situations, in which the effects of his idea are set against a comfortable English background. The tone of his stories is calm and practical. His style led one reviewer to describe him as "the Trollope of science fiction.". Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove have characterized him as the "master of the cosy catastrophe." As a number of other Cold War writers, Wyndham constantly contrasted individualism and collectivism and the breakdown of established social order. Thus the end of the civilization can come in the form colonies of telepathic children, who do not have individual spirits, or spiders start to cooperate, hunt in packs, or quasi-intelligent plants threaten the very existence of mankind.

Wyndham wrote his most memorable novels in the 1950s. The Kraken Wakes (1953) repeated the formula of The Day of the Triffids, but this time the civilization is threatened by invaders from space, who melt down the polar ice caps. The aliens live at the bottom of the oceans. Eventually its is discovered, that they can be killed with the help of ultrasound probes. Wyndham's protagonist, who narraters the story with a kind of stoic humor, is more an observer than participant of the events. The word "kraken" comes from Norwegian; in Natural History of Norway (1752-54) the Dane Erik Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, said that the Kraken's back is a mile and a half wide and its tentacles are capable of encompassing the largest of ships. The title of Wyndham's book refers to a sonnet by Alfred Tennyson, which begins: "Below the thunders of the upper deep, / Far, far beneath the abysmal sea, / His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep / The Kraken sleepeth..." A new version of the theme was introduced in Frank Schätzing’s novel Der Schwarm (2004, The Swarm), in which an unknown intelligent creature, living in the ocean bed, defends itself against the destruction caused by mankind.

The Chrysalids (1955) was set in the future world, devastated by nuclear war. Survivors in puritanical communities kill all mutants, human and non-human. Through the fate of novel's young protagonist, David Storm, Wyndham exemplifies the conflict between official truths and personal, inner beliefs. David has a limited form of telepathy, which he tries to hide, but at home he is surrounded by a series of plagues: ONLY THE IMAGE OF GOD IS MAN; KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD; IN PURITY OUR SALVATION; BLESSED IS THE NORM, and WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!

The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) set the theme of disaster inside families – world peace is not threatened by aliens but children. In a small English village, some eight miles west-north-west of the town of Trayne, aliens mysterious impregnate the entire female population. Their golden-eyed children, the "cuckoos" of the title, are superior beings, and create a moral dilemma: on the other hand, the authorities want to liquidate them because they will eventually extinguish human culture, but on the other hand, "it is our culture that gives us scruples about the ruthless liquidation of unarmed minorities". This story was filmed in the 1960s twice. Wolf Rilla's Village of the Damned (1960) was faithful to Wyndham's work. Anton Leader's re-make Children of the Damned (1963) transported the children to London. In 1995 the American director John Carpenter made his own version, starring Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, and Linda Kozlowski. The settings of the purely Hollywood production were far from the sleepy English village of Midwich, with a green, some sixty cottages and a small church. Throughout the years, railways, coaches and canals have seemed to bypass the place; there is no economic or historical reason for its existence.

Ralph Thomas's film Quest for Love (1971), starring Tom Bell, Joan Collins and Denholm Elliott, was based Wyndham's short story 'Random Quest' (1961), one of his weakest. Bell played a scientist, who is transported after a scientific experiment into a parallel world, where he falls in love with Joan Collins, the wife of his alter ego. When she dies, he tries to find her counterpart from our own world, hoping to save her. The story has been adapted to a television film in 1969 and 2006.

The Web (1979) depicted the beginning of a world take-over by spiders. In the characters of Walter Tirrie, "persistent setter-right of the world" and Lord Foxfield, a millionaire idealist, Wynham also mocked those who want to build an Utopian society, believing that mankind is the mightiest species in the creation. "Most of the conflict in the world reflects the conflict in our minds as we strive to move forward while the brakes of false doctrines, superstitions, obsolete standards, and misconceived ambitions are always at work on us. These checks are build-in, we cannot free ourselves from them, but we can loosen them for others. If we provide the right conditions, as free from contaminations as possible, there is hope that in a generation, or in two or more generations, they may cease to bind." Lord Foxfield's Enlightened State Project on the South Pacific island of Tanakuatua is stopped by spiders. And again, behind the disaster is human foolishness, a nuclear test and a mutation caused by the radioactive contamination. Wyndham's work owes much to H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), but its conservative arguments reflected the political change in the United Kingdom – The Web appeared in the same year, when Margaret Thatcher was appointed prime minister.

Wyndham lived a quiet life in a country house near Petersfield. In 1963 he married Grace Wilson, a teacher and a member of the Penn Club, whom he had met already in the 1930s. They had no children. Wyndham disliked personal publicity, saying: "My life has been practically devoid of interest to anyone but myself – though I have quite enjoyed it, of course, in those moments when I did not seem to have been sent to occupy a largely lunatic world." John Wyndham died on March 11, 1969, in Petersfield. Decades after his death, his books still appeared regularly on school syllabuses in the UK.

For further reading: World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. by Peter Nicholls (1979); Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, ed. by Curtis C. Smith (1986); John Wyndham, Creator of the Cosy Catastrophe by Phil Stephensen-Payne (1989); The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (1993); ''A stiff upper lip and trembling lower one': John Wyndham on screen' by Andy Sawyer, in British Science Fiction Cinema, ed. by I.Q. Hunter (1999); Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss & David Wingrove (2001); Literary Lives, ed. by John Sutherland (2002); A Critical Study of John Wyndham's Major Works by Matthew Moore (2007)

Selected works:

  • The Secret People, 1935 (as John Beynon)
  • Foul Play Suspected, 1935 (as John Beynon)
  • Planer Plane, 1936 (as John Beynon, revised as Stowaway to Mars)
  • Love in Time, 1946 (as Johnson Harris)
  • The Day of the Triffids, 1951 (US title: Revolt of the Triffids, 1952)
    - Triffidien kapina (suom. Risto Kalliomaa, 1962)
    - Films: 1962, dir. by Steve Sekely, screenplay by Bernard Gordon, starring Howard Keel, Nicole Maurey, Janette Scott, Kieron Moore; television miniseries in 1981, dir. by Ken Hannam, starring John Duttine, Emma Relph; TV mini-series 2009, prod. Power, Prodigy Pictures, BBC Wales, starring Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson and Eddie Izzard
  • The Kraken Wakes, 1953 (US title: Out of the Deep, 1953)
    - Uhka syvyydestä (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1978)
  • Jizzle, 1954
  • The Chrysalids, 1955 (US title: Re-Birth, 1955)
  • The Seeds of Time, 1956
  • Tales of Gooseflesh and Laughter, 1956
  • The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957 (US title: Village of the Damned, 1960)
    - Käenpojat (suom. Veikko Rekunen, 1989)
    - Films: 1960, Village of the Damned, dir. by Wolf Rilla, starring George Sanders, Barnara Shelley, Michael Gwynne; 1963, Children of the Damned, dir. by Anton M. Leader, starring Ian Hendry, Alan Badel, Barbara Ferris, Bessie Love; 1995, John Carpenter's Village of the Damned, dir. by John Carpenter, starring Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Allen, Linda Kozlowski, Michael Paré, Mark Hamill
  • The Outward Urge, 1959 (as John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes)
  • Trouble with Lichen, 1960
  • Consider Her Ways: And Others, 1961
    - The Alfred Hitchcock Hour 1964: Consider Her Ways, teleplay Oscar Millard, dir. Robert Stevens, with, Barbara Barrie and Gladys Cooper, Robert H. Harris
  • The Infinite Moment, 1961
  • The John Wyndham Omnibus, 1964
  • Chocky, 1968
    - TV series 1984, prod. Thames Television, starring Glynis Brooks (as Chocky), James Hazeldine, Carol Drinkwater, Andrew Ellams; Chocky's Children, TV Series 1985, with Andrew Ellams, Angela Galbraith, Michael Crompton, and Glynis Brooks (as Chocky); Chocky's Challenge, TV Series 1986, with Glynis Brooks (as Chocky), Annabel Worrell, Prentis Hancock
  • The Best of John Wyndham, 1973 (also: The Man from Beyond and Other Stories, 1975)
  • Sleepers of Mars, 1973 (as John Beynon)
  • Wanderers of Time, 1973 (as John Beynon)
  • The Best of John Wyndham, 1976 (2 vols.)
  • Exiles on Asperus, 1979 (as John Beynon)
  • Web, 1979
  • No Place Like Earth, 2003 (introduction by John Pelan)
  • Plan for Chaos: The Prequel to The Day of the Triffids, 2009 (edited by David Ketterer and Andy Sawyer; with an introduction by David Ketterer)
  • The Day of the Triffids; The Midwich Cuckoos; The Chrysalids, 2010  (introduced by Adam Roberts; illustrations by Patrick Leger)


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