How will the world end? It’s a question that has occupied the minds of many SF writers over the years, but few have become as closely associated with it as John Wyndham.
Born John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, the man who would become better known as John Wyndham came to fame relatively late in life. While he had published stories as far back as the 1930s, he finally broke through with his novel The Day of the Triffids, published in 1951 when he was 48 years old. Set in a world where a mass outbreak of blindness leaves humans at the mercy of deadly, walking plants, the book established Wyndham as a kind of prophet of doom. He would return to the theme of catastrophic events and societal collapse several times before he died in 1969.
While they were heavily influenced by emerging events at the time he was writing, the best of Wyndham’s novels have an uncomfortable power even now. First published in 1953 and named for a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Kraken Wakes is one of those books. It is a story, in part, about social and political systems lapsing into a lethal paralysis just when they are needed most. In a world ravaged by a pandemic, economic shocks and climate breakdown, this is a novel which may be more relevant now than ever before.
In his classic 1897 novel The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells depicted the planet Earth coming under a devastating attack by malevolent and inscrutable aliens from Mars. In many ways, The Kraken Wakes is John Wyndham’s own version of the same story. The difference is that in this version, the alien menace is even more cunning and mysterious. In the novel, the world experiences an attack which occurs so gradually, and is so little understood, that by the time the world powers realise what is happening the war is already over.
The book takes the form of a recollection written by a British journalist, Mike Watson, who divides the alien invasion into three numbered phases. Together with his wife and colleague Phyllis, Mike experiences many crucial events first-hand, as they are sent by their employers to cover the emerging situation. This structure allows Wyndham to gradually increase the tension of the story, and to present his central idea: that governments are prone to being fatally short-sighted and unable to set aside their differences in order to combat a threat to humanity. Clearly, this continues to have relevance today.
Phase one of the invasion doesn’t look much like an invasion at all; numerous strange red lights are seen in the sky. Mike and Phyllis witness this themselves while on a cruise ship celebrating their honeymoon. In time, it becomes clear that objects are landing only in the deepest parts of the ocean. Even when numerous ships are sunk in strange circumstances while trying to cross these areas, the world’s governments seem incapable of action. All that the major powers seem able to do is to blame each other - in the West, many people believe that the sinkings are an insidious plot by the Soviet Union. This plot element of course reflects the novel’s origin in the early years of the Cold War.
During phase two, things take a much more obviously sinister and alien turn. Bizarre, biological constructions quickly nicknamed “sea-tanks” begin emerging from the ocean and attacking coastal towns and cities. These contraptions are a clear equivalent to the Martian tripods in The War of the Worlds, and they abduct people and drag them into the sea. Again, Mike and Phyllis witness this first-hand. Finally, after the sea-tank threat appears to have subsided, the aliens begin their endgame in phase three. By unknown means, they rapidly melt the polar ice caps, causing a gradual but ultimately catastrophic rise in sea levels.
The British SF writer Brian Aldiss coined a phrase which has clung to Wyndham’s work like a bad smell. He described novels like The Kraken Wakes as “cosy catastrophes”. He suggested that while Wyndham’s books depicted the collapse of society, they centred on comfortably middle-class characters. These characters, Aldiss claimed, lived comfortably while other people suffered or died in the ravaged world outside.
In fairness, there is a degree of truth to the term. For a time, Mike and Phyllis do have a better standard of life than most people, because of their status as journalists. However, the “cosy catastrophe” phrase simplifies Wyndham’s work. Firstly, the book’s protagonists do suffer personally; Phyllis is almost seized by a sea-tank during one memorable sequence, and has a large patch of skin torn from her arm. Hardly a “cosy” experience! Secondly, Wyndham’s books - including The Kraken Wakes - are more about what happens to a society during a catastrophe, than they are about what happens to individuals.
The book still has power because of its observations about how fragile societies are, and how little power individuals have to influence them. In one crucial example, a scientist’s repeated warnings are ignored by the British government, which arrogantly behaves as if “it couldn’t happen here”, with dire results. It’s easy to make a comparison with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when warnings were ignored in a very similar way.
There is no doubt that The Kraken Wakes is very much a product of its time. It reads very much as you might expect of a novel written in 1953, including in its political context and social attitudes. At times, the novel feels slow and it can seem as if its protagonists are frustratingly far away from the real events. However, Wyndham was definitely on to something. Numerous passages of alien attack and social disorder are unsettling, and Phyllis is a surprisingly well-written female character for the time. Most importantly, Wyndham’s message about humankind’s tenuous grasp on control of the Earth’s systems, and the vulnerability of our societies, remains persuasive in our very different but equally troubled times.
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