John Wyndham's The Chrysalids was among the first books to grab my attention in high school and help me feel books could be unique, fascinating and meaningful. I could relate to his young, misfit characters trying to find their way; it was only decades later - and after reading most of his books - that I came to see Wyndham as one of those writers who produced books informed by a wider perception of the world.
Life often has surprising ways of sorting out events - British philosopher Bertrand Russell believed nuclear holocaust was the only way the Cold War could end, and in fact few people predicted the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Wyndham understood that the future - or at least, some of the defining factors - often arrives from out of left field. Most of his fiction has everyday life bumped into a new and surprising direction: a child has a remarkably convincing imaginary friend in Chocky; aggressive life comes out of the sea in The Kraken Wakes; near-immortality is invented in Trouble With Lichen; and while The Chrysalids has humanity on a new evolutionary path, The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos must be among the most unique alien invasion stories ever written. And all this is served up with convincing dialogue and characters that ground the stories in reality and allow them extra weight.
It's an imperfect fit, and not quite fair to say Wyndham predicted climate change and global warming, but he wrote from the point of view that mankind is subject to forces beyond our control, and as we finally wake up to ideas like sustainable living and renewable energy, we begin to recognize we're connected to the world in innumerable ways, not simply sitting on top of the food chain, running the show.
His books take a stab at our confidence about our place in the world
The Kraken Wakes concerns a largely unseen underwater menace that begins - after a slow buildup full of convincing detail - to finally send weird, organic versions of tanks onto various shores to go "shrimping" for humans in what must be one of the most gripping chapters of a novel I've read in years. When governments are finally organized enough to start beating them back wherever they appear, they vanish, but scientists warn they'll come up with something else. As it turns out, ice in polar regions starts to melt and, while scientists know it's happening, governments and the public are both slower to catch on:
"If some means, or some several means, of melting the Arctic ice were put into operation, a little time would have to pass before its effects became measurable. Moreover, the effects would be progressive; first a trickle, then a gush, then a torrent. I have seen 'estimates' which suggest that if the polar ice were melted the sea-level would rise by one hundred feet. To call that an 'estimate' is a shocking imposition. It is no more than a round-figure guess. It may be a good guess, or it may be widely wrong, on either side. The only certainty is that the sea-level would indeed rise."
He takes less time to develop the events of the second half of the novel, but it's still alarming stuff and includes the same scientist speculating about a government that will have to decide who to save:
"Certain eminent intellectuals are likely to be tolerated, too, on the strength of honours earned in the days when they had fresh ideas. How many will be among the elite because they still have ideas, remains to be seen. As for the ordinary man, much his wisest course would be to enlist in a regiment with a famous name. There'll be a use for him."
There's a glimmer of hope at the end, but not before tremendous losses, and not before scenes like this:
"Close to our feet, the edge of the flood was fringed with scum and a fascinatingly varied collection of flotsam. Further away, fountains, lamp-posts, traffic-lights and statues thrust up here and there. On the far side, and down as much as we could see of Whitehall, the surface was as smooth as a canal. A few trees still stood, and in them sparrows chattered. Starlings had not yet deserted St. Martin's church, but the pigeons were all gone, and on many of their customary perches gulls stood, instead. We surveyed the scene and listened to the slip-slop of the water in the silence for some minutes."
Wyndham writes characters that come up with statements like this one, about Americans: "Business is their national sport, and, like most national sports, semi-sacred." I recall a descriptive scene from The Day of the Triffids that has an aerial view of the man-eating plants as they pile up in the hundreds, forming a deep, perfect square around the fence that protects a home, as though fate itself could be temporarily kept at bay.
And that's what I admire most about Wyndham as a writer - beyond even the smooth style and absolute clarity to his writing, I like that his books take a stab at our confidence about our place in the world. His only fault as a writer is a series of awkward titles that sound a little like B-movies and have an unfortunate tendency to allow the reader to dismiss the book before they begin. It's a shame, because Wyndham wrote the kind of speculative-fiction that allows us to stand outside our world looking in at how we were a moment ago, and how we are a moment after that. And he knew that it's when we forget to be humble, or decline any kind of greater awareness, that we're even more susceptible to danger.
Alex Boyd is a Toronto writer. His blog is BOYDblog.