Jul 05

Expectations: John Wyndham

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 301 views

(I had the idea a while ago of using blogs to talk about my expectations of something before I read/heard/etceteraed it. This would, I thought, be an interesting reference point once I had, uh, consummated my whatevers with it. It might also be awfully boring to read. Hope not, eh?)

My mother read John Wyndham books – Triffids, Krakens, Lichens et al. – and no other science fiction. When I asked her about this she said that John Wyndham books weren’t science fiction. Which reminded me of a bit of doggerel Brian Aldiss quoted –

“SFs no good, they howl until we’re deaf
But this looks good! Well then, it’s not SF”

But Aldiss also didn’t seem to think of Wyndham as ‘real’ sci-fi. In his Billion Year Spree, BA describes JW as a “cosy catastrophe” writer. A sub-genre which seems to bear the same kind of relationship to proper meaty speculative fic as the much-derided ‘English murder’ story does to the crime novel.

What happens in cosy catastrophes is this: a Bad Thing happens to destroy or otherwise upset civil society, specifically middle-class English society. The protagonists then have to struggle for survival, a process which generally involves other middle-class English people and at least one inevitable military lunatic. The book ends with some promise of normality.

There are two basic things you can do with a catastrophe novel. You can use it to demonstrate the fragility of society, or you can use it to show the resilience of man in extreme circumstances. An ur-text for catastrophic fiction is The War Of The Worlds, of course, which takes the pessimistic approach. Cosy catastrophe, I’m led to expect, is more optimistic. So I wonder about the extent to which Wyndham fits this template – how far away from normal are we at the end of things?

(Catastrophe fiction can also be Dire Warnings – vague jeremiads about the greed of meddling man experimenting with what he oughtn’t. I am not sure Wyndham falls into this category – though in the Day of the Triffids at least, he convincingly demonstrates that society is vulnerable to cultivating man-eating plants and then being collectively blinded by meteors).

So what are my expectations? Well-observed character pieces with a smattering of the fantastic for plot motion and titillation, I guess. Time to go down the bookshop and find out…

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