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The Kraken Wakes June 10, 2011

Posted by futurewired in John Wyndham, Post-Apocalyptic/Disaster Fiction, Reviews.

John Wyndham has often been depicted as the prime purveyor of so called ‘cosy catastrophe’ fiction, in which following an apocalyptic disaster a small group of usually middle class survivors rebuild civilisation according to their values. His most famous book, the Day of the Triffids is perhaps closest to this formula, in which different groups of survivors formulate different responses to the issues of power, sex and resource allocation that arise following the twin catastrophes of widespread blindness and aggressive flora. The Kraken Wakes is a slightly different beast in many ways, depicting the response of nations and governments to an unknown alien threat over the course of ten years or so, as it impinges on the lives of two individuals. It’s an intriguing book, satirical, with flashes of horror and violence that in my opinion, like a lot of Wyndham’s work, resists the limitations of the formulaic constraints it’s usually consigned to.


Much like H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a series of apparent meteor strikes herald the arrival of an alien ‘invasion’, this time of the deepest parts of the ocean. This is witnessed initially by the protagonists, Mike and Phyllis, a married couple who work for the English Broadcasting Service (EBC – a fictitious commercial organisation, the confusion between it and the BBC forms a running gag.) Almost no one realises the significance of this at the time, however as events proceed, ships are lost, there are indications of large scale engineering beneath the waves, governments start to feel threatened. The first strike from our end comes after the loss of an exploratory bathysphere, with the testing of an atomic bomb over the same area. Other countries soon follow suit.


The book is written as an after the fact account by Mike, describing the events that led to their current situation as they impacted on their lives. This is done extremely well and I think really shows off a side of Wyndham’s writing in terms of structure that can often be overlooked. It allows for the protagonist to group together disparate events into distinct phases of the ‘war’, even as they explicitly are shown to be overlooked or dismissed at the time. It also avoids one of the pitfalls of personal accounts of disasters/crises, particularly those set over a period of time – what you might call the ‘when does Jack Bauer go to the bathroom’ problem. Mike makes numerous references to the fact that in addition to the events he describes, their lives went on in the usual way, their marriage went through its ups and downs, Phyllis continues to write her novel, there are occasional references to the loss of a child earlier in their lives. This adds a real sense of realism to the narrative and balances out those occasions upon which they are perhaps too conveniently placed for key events. A brilliantly subtle touch is evident in the final section, the real ‘disaster fiction’ portion of the book, which only comes about in the last 90 or so pages. Much of this is described sparsely, with only passing references to elements that in other hands might be central – gang warfare in a drowned London, the overthrow of the government in exile. All we are left with a sense of the cold, the privation and despair even as the protagonists struggle to maintain a façade of resolve ; Phyllis at one point describes the flooded city as being like living in a cemetery. The overwhelming sense is that this period in their lives is simply too close to the time of writing to dwell on, the memories are too recent unlike the beginning of the story.


The book balances sometimes clumsy satire – the cold war forms the backdrop for the action and the propaganda by both sides verges on the ridiculous, some characters maintaining their belief in the Russian’s culpability, right to the end – with some truly unnerving moments. The early portions in which submerged observation bathyspheres connected to science ships by metal cables are neatly snipped away, disappearing into the dark of the deeps are surprisingly potent. A real element of horror comes about with the appearance of the ‘sea tanks’ – grey spheres with sticky tentacles that lash out and drag back any living thing they come into contact with. Mike for a long time is haunted by dreams of a friend being dragged along the street by her hair. He notes that her partner being dragged alongside had ‘mercifully’ broken his neck in the fall. Neither are seen again.


The book is a product of its time; published in 1953 its characterisation and politics reflect the period of its authorship. Wyndham has often been accused of having a less than enlightened attitude to his female characters and there is a degree of this present here; Phyllis has the odd hysterical reaction, is flirtatious to secure advantage and has elements of the 1950’s sci fi woman in her. She is nonetheless a strong independent character, while close to her husband she is not as dependent as is sometimes argued – she has her own career, interests, she takes independent action, their lives are saved by something she does without telling Mike, and her emotional responses to trauma it turns out are actually healthier than his. Other female characters do not bear up as well under scrutiny however.


There are a few slightly off-putting moments in terms of politics; Dr Bocker, the books recurring scientist who seemingly correctly identifies the true nature of events at every turn, expresses contempt for democracy, for the common people and the popular opinion as expressed in the press, and events are depicted as proving him right. There’s a right wing strain running through the book in a sense, in which the educated, anti-populist, self-sufficient landowner is best placed to meet the challenges of the time. The real target of the book’s satirical content is of course the political divisions of the time, between left and right and between the USSR and the West; various factions appear, including the jingoistic the ‘Bomb the Bathy’s’ tendency, as well as various pacifists and conspiracy theorists.


The book ends with what some have seen as an example of deus ex machina; I read somewhere that a previous draft ended a few pages before on a far bleaker note. This version is hopeful, if uncertain and closer to the Day of the Triffids in tone.


The Kraken Wakes has been seen as second-rate Wyndham, but I would count it among my favourites, above both Day of the Triffids and the Chrysalids. There are issues with it, the charge of sexism can’t be easily dismissed and it is very much a product of its time – the way in which Wyndham describes the production of news borders on the quaint. For me though, the plot, the unfathomability of the alien menace, the mixture of humour and horror in a way that is peculiarly British, these make up for its shortcomings.

Instead of online fiction, here’s a link to a blog posting with a bunch of different covers for John Wyndham books, worth a look






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