Book of the Month :: Understanding Wyndham

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John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris spent a lot of his life trying to decide which of his many monikers he felt most comfortable writing under. We will this month be looking at works only under the first two: however at some point every one was used to sell fiction. The desire to switch identities may well have had a lot to do with his turbulent early years: born in 1903, there is some speculation as to the actual date, which could have something to do with him being born out of wedlock. George Beynon Harris worked as a barrister and Gertrude Parkes was the daughter of a furnace operator from Birmingham: when John was eight, the couple separated.

This then resulted in him and his brother Vivian being sent from Edgbaston near Birmingham to a series of preparatory and public schools where they were to remain during the entirety of the First World War. It was finally in Hampshire, between 1918 and 1921, that Wyndham began to find himself and gain confidence to write. His first efforts were sent to American Science Fiction magazines (under the pen names John Beynon and John Beynon Harris) and in the early 1930’s he was to have three books published under these pseudonyms. Foul Play Suspected was a detective novel, but The Secret People and Planet Plane were very much indicative of the future he would pursue. The latter would eventually be renamed as Stowaway to Mars and be published under the most well-known nom de guerre.

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With the outbreak of World War Two, Wyndham began as a Ministry of Information censor, before beginning a military career as a Corporal in the British Army. 1944 saw him working as a cipher operator in the Royal Corps of Signals, involved in operations post Normandy landings. After the war, encouraged by the success of his brother as a writer, John returned to science fiction. In 1951 he published the novel that was to mark the beginning of a prolific period of written output, and the title which is probably his best known piece of science fiction.

That novel tells of a deadly plant, capable of locomotion and rudimentary communication, and a meteor shower which subsequently renders almost the entire UK population blind overnight, allowing the carnivorous organisms opportunity to wreak terrible vengeance for being used as fuel. The Day of the Triffids was, by Wyndham’s own admission, heavily influenced by H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds. Despite having the initial film rights bought by one Albert R. Broccoli (who went on to become the producer of the classic James Bond 007 series) the better adaptations ended up on the small screen, first in 1981 and again in 2009. It was the novel that established Wyndham as a significant force in English Sci-Fi, in a period where the genre was flourishing almost as prolifically as the authors’ deadly carnivorous flora.

The majority of his output was published between Triffids in 1951 and 1960: in 1963 he married his friend of twenty years, Grace Isobel Wilson and returned to live the remainder of his life in the grounds of the public school in Hampshire he’d loved so much in his youth. A year after the publication of the brilliant novelette Chocky he suddenly passed away, and a number of items were then posthumously released under his name. Liverpool University now holds the remaining archive of original works, with a back street in Hampstead mentioned in that first novel renamed ‘Triffid Alley’ as a memorial.

If one is to categorise Wyndham’s works, they are very much a product of the age in which the man existed. However, the author is not afraid to expand his remit when the subject matter dictates. In the case of The Chrysalids, for instance, both setting and content are a world away from the minutiae of 1950’s England, making for a tense and often genuinely frightening experience. Described as ‘cosy catastrophes’ (by sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss) that is also a biased generalisation of the skill Wyndham possessed with both storytelling and language. As we will see next week with Consider her Ways, this was a man who was not hampered or uncomfortable when writing as a woman, and did so with more than a measure of believability.

When looking for works that would link past and present together for the Internet of Words, it was not just the female-centric nature of that one story that stood out for further appraisal. Of the six narratives in the anthology, all have resonance with later bodies of work by other authors, but also with contemporary subjects and ideas. Wyndham’s obsession with time travel and science ‘gone bad’ rings even more alarm bells when placed alongside the current issue we are experiencing in the early 21st Century. These are a very obvious perception of how future events could play out, grounded in modern English sensibilities.

There is a great debt owed by modern science fiction writers to the early pioneers such as Wyndham: stories read for the first time as an impressionable pre-teen echo through decades even now. The Chrysalids remains one of the most unsettling and frightening novels about how being ‘different’ and not adhering to what someone else considers as normal or acceptable could end up becoming deadly. The Trouble with Lichen addresses the still very current obsession in extending longevity and beauty beyond normal life expectancy. The Midwich Cuckoos has been imitated by countless other writers in different formats but never bettered: images from the now iconic 1960 cinema adaptation have become as recognisable as Wells’ Fighting Machines from War of the Worlds.

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More importantly, Wyndham’s stories remind us that science has come a long way since the end of the Second World War and what might have seemed fantastical in the early 1950’s is anything but in the 21st Century. The man’s obsession with Mars, as was the case for many writers during that period, was conceived whilst the dream of men on the Moon was still just that. The rapid expansion of mankind into the Universe may not be moving as fast as many would like, but that momentum is inevitable: in timelines that authors have already imagined and made real in the minds of children like myself, who devoured these works with enthusiasm.

Therefore the significance of fiction making actual what is not yet possible should never be underestimated, especially in the means by which it will influence future generations. As manufacturers and artists are now understanding how diversity matters in terms of demonstrating ideas and concepts to the next generation, so we see how writers made science fiction the ideal my generation desired as their future. I may still be waiting for the personal jet-pack, silver suit and flying car, but being able to access the Internet from a telephone’s still a concept that isn’t getting old any time soon.

Here is where deconstructing the literature of the past becomes as significant as being able to understand what we’re being shown right now, whether what we hear is real or not. Understanding how thoughts and ideas have been developed, and in the case of science fiction extrapolated into a ‘what if..?’ situation, it is easier to consider the ethical consequences of actions, through the minds and bodies of characters. Role playing remains a vital part of helping trauma victims come to terms with their issues, because pretending to be someone else is often easier than living as yourself. Knowing what is possible is all well and good, but how does one consider the consequences before real mistakes are made?

Literature has not ever simply been produced as entertainment: as is the case with theatre (and all the other forms of entertainment that have sprung forth from the dramatic arts) it serves an important function as both entertainment and teacher. Helping people learn using literature as a basis for deeper awareness should never be underestimated, and the ability to inspire remains potent: one needs only to look at modern phenomena such as the Harry Potter books to understand how a sweeping narrative can affect and dictate millions of separate, disparate lives.

As a writer, he remains by far my favourite ‘classic’ science fiction author, despite having read countless others across the years. A lot of that has to do with the ease with which he can write as either sex and make that process believable, but it is the depth and vitality of storytelling that means his work was a logical first choice for our second month’s worth of programming. The six short stories in the anthology can be completed in a couple of evenings and represent the best selection of short stories that Wyndham ever wrote.

This body of work, because of the dated nature of many of the backdrops, is far too often overlooked as a source of rich creativity. I hope I can, in the next few weeks, persuade you not simply to revisit some of his most famous works, but come to a greater appreciation of how even the most mundane of situations allows the reader to think outside of their normal experiences and ideas.

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