John Wyndham and The Catastrophe of Cosiness

John WyndhamReading through John Wyndham’s novels in order, I’ve been surprised to discover how a minor theme that emerges in The Day of the Triffids quickly takes over as the dominant note in all his subsequent novels. This is the way that people resist, suppress, or even attack change, difference and new ideas. In Kraken, it’s in the way the media, and its readership, are unwilling to accept they’re in the midst of an alien invasion, and simply disbelieve it, or at best blame it on the Russians. In Trouble with Lichen, it’s the way society turns completely antagonistic, even murderous, to protect its various self-interests in the face of what ought to be a widely-welcomed discovery that lengthens the span of human life. In the more emotive and compelling of his novels, Wyndham ties the forces of change/difference directly to children and childhood, so that both the “cuckoos” of The Midwich Cuckoos and the telepathic children of The Chrysalids are actual embodiments of this force of change, with the added vulnerability of being children, thus making the horror of victimisation by their own societies all the more vivid. What I feel is Wyndham’s most personal novel (and the last published in his lifetime), Chocky, is about a young boy who enters into telepathic contact with a highly advanced being from another planet. But Chocky’s attempts to prompt the boy towards a new understanding of humankind’s future does nothing but attract unwanted, uncomprehending, and sometimes even antagonistic and controlling, attention.

1963 Penguin edition of Day of the Triffds, from The Art of Penguin Science

1963 Penguin edition of Day of the Triffds, from The Art of Penguin Science

As I said when writing about The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, Wyndham is often dismissed as being a writer of “Cosy Catastrophes”, with the implication that there’s nothing genuinely challenging or meaningful in his books beyond their value as fantasies of self-indulgence in a depopulated world (or “a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking” as Brian Aldiss put it). But, to me, it’s obvious there’s something more going on. All artists, at their most successful, I think, are dealing with a clash of unresolvable forces within themselves, and it’s undoubtedly true that Wyndham’s novels contain such a conflict. He has an evident longing for the cosiness offered by the society he lived and wrote in — 1950s and early-1960s Britain, on the recovery from the second of two World Wars, and riding a wave of steadily growing prosperity — but it’s also true that he had a deep conviction that this cosiness was bought at the expense of ignoring very real, and potentially overwhelming, dangers. The cosiness of Wyndham’s age was perhaps a left-over from the Victorian era’s confidence that humankind was the pinnacle of God’s created world, but the mid-twentieth century was suffering the intellectual and spiritual fallout of the Nazi death camps and the use of the atom bomb, shorn of divine protection and exposed to a greater and greater knowledge of what Lovecraft called the “black seas of infinity” — the cold, un-cosy realities of a world of “sheer accident”, “blind chance” (Triffids), a world where “Life in all its forms is strife” (The Kraken Wakes) and where “Nature is ruthless, hideous, and cruel beyond belief” (The Midwich Cuckoos). In Chocky, we have “a vast, adventitious cosmos… the horrid wastes of space”. The longing for the cosiness is there, yes, but so is the knowledge that it’s by no means a guaranteed, but in fact a highly parlous, state. As someone says in Triffids:

“…how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.”

And this, I think, is what Wyndham’s writing is really about. Not “Cosy Catastrophes” merely, but the Catastrophe of Cosiness: how living ensconced in a superficially successful society can blind you to the fact that civilisation is hard-won, and needs to be constantly guarded, regenerated and re-made, lest it should be lost altogether. And not just civilisation, but something deeper and more fundamentally meaningful:

“But intelligent life is rare… very rare indeed… the rarest thing in creation… But the most precious… For intelligent life is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. It is a holy thing, to be fostered and treasured. Without it nothing begins, nothing ends, there can be nothing through all eternity but the mindless babblings of chaos…”

Chocky coverAnd it’s not just man-eating plants, invaders from Neptune, satellite weapons and post-nuclear wastelands that contribute to the danger Wyndham is warning of. It’s what we do to each other, day-to-day, within the confines of our supposedly cosy society. Particularly, it matters to Wyndham what we do to our children. Granted, in The Midwich Cuckoos, he goes out of his way to make those children something to fear, but in Chocky — Wyndham’s most positive novel, in that for once the fantastic element isn’t a monster, invader, or cold-minded evolutionary successor but an advanced intelligent being, wanting to help — there’s nothing to fear, but everything to exploit. Chocky’s gift to mankind (the possibility of a new and infinite source of energy) is withdrawn, or at least delayed, because of how the forces in control of our society, the people who sit atop the status quo, grasp at it so greedily. Cosy to the point of stagnation, society becomes a danger to itself, with the most innocent — children, the natural agents of change — also the most vulnerable to repression, to enforcement of “conformity with peoples’ expectations, the desire to prove that one is normal, the belief that it will establish status… the obligation of holding one’s own in competition with the neighbours.”

I can’t help but feeling Chocky is Wyndham’s most heartfelt statement about his own life. In the chapter on him in Seekers of Tomorrow (written after correspondence with Wyndham himself), Sam Moskowitz says:

“By the time he was 11, John learned that the easiest way to get along with other children… was to pretend enthusiasm for majority interests.”

Chocky (cover)Wyndham was obviously a highly-imaginative child, but being moved around to a lot of different schools in his early years meant he had to learn to fit in quickly, and the easiest way to do this was to fake it. Faking it becomes a dangerous habit of self-repression. (In contrast, his repeated fantasy of telepathic contact with other, similar beings, seems to point to a desire for a deeper sympathy with his fellow human beings than the mores of his time allowed.) I can’t help wondering how much his own childhood’s lowest points can be glimpsed in the few sentences in Chocky where the narrator’s usually laid-back and mellow tone is punctured by a sudden bitterness:

“I have been astonished before, and doubtless shall be again, how the kindliest and most sympathetic of women can pettify and downgrade the searing anguishes of childhood.”

(Of Wyndham’s relationship with his mother (his father was absent), Moskowitz says: “He saw his mother primarily during school holidays and attended seven schools in all as she impulsively changed her places of residence.” Which seems to imply a certain indifference to her child’s emotional needs.)


“I felt a poignant memory of those desolate patches of disillusion which are the shocks of growing up.”

Chocky can also be read as a story of the birth of the artistic impulse, with Chocky a sort of science-fictional muse, teaching young Matthew new ways of seeing things. The most affecting moment in the novel, for me, is the point at which Chocky, realising the danger she’s placing both her mission and her human contact in, withdraws. “It’s like losing part of me…” Matthew says.

‘It’s going to be a bit dull,’ he said. ‘She sort of made me notice things more.’

‘Can’t you go on noticing things? The world’s quite an interesting place. There’s lots to notice.’

‘Oh, I do. More than I did, I mean. Only it’s kind of lonely, just noticing by yourself…’

‘If you could get what you see down on paper you’d be able to share your noticing with other people…’ I suggested.

And thus, perhaps, a writer is born.


The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

Just as The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes make a neat pairing as a couple of catastrophe novels, Wyndham’s next two books, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos, are both about an evolutionary leap in the younger generation that threatens to usurp “normal” humankind. A lot of people say The Chrysalids is Wyndham’s best novel, but I prefer Midwich. In it, Wyndham’s writerly craft has progressed along several lines to a point of mild perfection. Those who accuse him of merely writing “Cosy Catastrophes” may feel justified in damning him for his “analgesic” style, but it’s precisely his urbane, mildly comic tone that allows him to smuggle in a very dark tale addressing some uncomfortable issues.

The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos are almost shadow images of one another. The Chrysalids, set in a post-nuclear-holocaust future, is about a human society struggling to re-establish itself in the remnants of a radiation-scarred world. A rigid religious dogma protects it from all mutations whether plant, animal or human: anything which doesn’t conform to its scripture of normality is destroyed. Into this world comes an invisible mutation, a handful of children who are telepathically linked. But if these children let their new ability be known, their own parents will banish them to the Badlands, if not hunt them down and kill them. The Midwich Cuckoos, on the other hand, is set in the author’s own era, when the (literally) sleepy English village of Midwich finds itself visited by a plague of pregnancies, resulting in the birth of about sixty alien children, all (again) telepathically linked, but this time able to coerce “normal” humans into doing whatever they will them to do — and therefore, though a minority in numbers, this time the mutations/aliens are in the position of power. Also — and again in contrast to The Chrysalids, which is narrated by one of the telepathic children — from the point of view of Midwich’s narrator, it is the mutations/aliens who are the “others”, the enemy.

The Midwich CuckoosMidwich works, for me, in large part because of its style. Throughout his previous books, Wyndham used a first-person narrator to present his tales of “logical fantasy”, allowing him to humanise his essentially idea-led tales, while distancing his narrator from the wilder implications of those ideas (intelligent plants, invaders from another planet). The disadvantage of having a narrator, though, is that world-changing catastrophes require the relation of a lot of world-wide events, so Wyndham’s narrator gets stuck reporting a lot of things outside his immediate experience, with the result that things get told of rather than shown. This isn’t a problem in Triffids, which is mostly immediate action, but it makes Kraken a very un-involving novel, for me. In The Midwich Cuckoos, though, Wyndham strikes on two ideas that allow him to describe his incipient, worldwide catastrophe entirely in immediate terms: he first of all shrinks “the world” to the bounds of an English village, with only suggestions of similar things going on in other countries, and secondly, he gives his narrator licence to describe all the scenes at which he isn’t actually present as though he were, rather than the stricter approach of Kraken, where everything not witnessed by the narrator is reported secondhand.

Another Wyndham strand that achieves a sort of culmination in Midwich is the prophet/theoretician character he employs in all his novels (Coker in Triffids, Bocker in Kraken, Uncle Axel in The Chrysalids). This is the person who gets to speculate (always accurately) on the exact nature of the menace — the triffids’ intelligence, the fact that there is an alien invasion going on in Kraken — and also to indulge in a little thematic lecturing about the precariousness of man’s position atop a Godless evolutionary tree. In Midwich, Wyndham finds his perfect prophet/theoretician in Gordon Zellaby, a rather dufferish, doddery old writer, whose genial air of absent-minded reasonableness puts the reader off their guard, giving him complete licence to lecture at will:

“But, my dear fellow, if one is not blinded by a sense of indispensability, one must take it that we, like the other lords of creation before us, will one day be replaced. There are two ways in which it can happen: either through ourselves, by our self-destruction, or by the incursion of some species which we lack the equipment to subdue. Well, here we are now, face to face with a superior will and mind. And what are we able to bring against it?”

(Zellaby seems to be a sort of idealised version of Wyndham himself. Zellaby says he was “Too young for one war, tethered to a desk in the Ministry of Information in the next.” Wyndham grew up during WWI, and as a result thought of that as “his” war, meaning he felt oddly dislocated when he found himself serving in WWII (not his war), as a temporary Civil Servant in Censorship, and later with the Royal Corps of Signals in a cipher office.)

For most of the novel, The Midwich Cuckoos reads like a light, and very English, comedy about a rather awkward social problem — an entire village’s worth of women finding themselves unaccountably and simultaneously pregnant, with the result that certain types (a pair of live-together spinsters, a wife rumoured to be carrying on with another man, an engaged but not-yet-married couple) have some serious explaining to do. But as the novel progresses, though it keeps the same civilised, faintly amused & bemused tone, the story becomes steadily darker. The children hit out at those who threaten or accidentally hurt them. Early on, a woman is found repeatedly, and helplessly, sticking herself with a safety pin because she unintentionally pricked her golden-eyed baby; later, a man is forced to drive his car into a wall because he knocked into one of the children; later still, the village men are forced to fight each other, and everyone is telepathically forbidden from leaving the village.

By this point, Wyndham’s “comforting” narrative tone is totally at odds with the story he’s telling. It all reads so urbane and cosy, but this is a very nasty sort of war, between parents and children — and therefore a war that hits at the most fundamental note of what binds a society together. But as the children explain, there is a “biological obligation” at the heart of it:

“This is not a civilised matter… it is a primitive matter. If we exist, we shall dominate you — that is clear and inevitable. Will you agree to be superseded, and start on the way to extinction without a struggle?”

It’s a case of kill or be killed, a sort of Cold War from within, with one generation set against the next, a war of “social rules” versus “elemental struggle”. The narrative, though, keeps to the tone of “social rules” and mild social comedy, meaning the reader has to, at some point, detach from the narrator’s tone and realise for themselves just how dark a story The Midwich Cuckoos is. If you don’t question that tone — if you read it merely as a “Cosy Catastrophe” — you’re not getting the full impact.


The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

Brian Aldiss famously dubbed John Wyndham “the master of the cosy catastrophe”, and so damned him with an adjective. John Wyndham, by MJENow, whenever anyone writes about Wyndham, they dig that one up. “The essence of the cosy catastrophe,” Aldiss says in Trillion Year Spree, “is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.” I can’t help feeling Aldiss’s scorn for Wyndham extended just as much to his readers — his many readers, I should say. This is what he says about The Day of the Triffids and Wyndham’s next novel, The Kraken Wakes:

“Both novels were totally devoid of ideas but read smoothly, and thus reached a maximum audience, who enjoyed cosy disasters. Either it was something to do with the collapse of the British Empire, or the back-to-nature movement, or a general feeling that industrialisation had gone too far, or all three.”

(There’s always an explanation for other people’s reading tastes.)

In Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, John Clute takes the same view:

“And in 1951 came The Day of the Triffids, a tale that captured the insecurities of the middle-class English reader in the austerity years perfectly, and envisioned to a nicety the kinds of self-protective communities that would comfort that readership… The comforting implausibility of this outcome, along with the calm, analgesic style of the Wyndham persona, contribute to what Brian Aldiss called the Cosy Catastrophe.”

“Middle-class”, here, is used with as much a sense of derision, or at least belittlement, as “cosy” and “comforting”, which is, let’s face it, a very middle-class thing to do (trying to distance oneself from middle-class guilt through being tough on the middle classes). Day of the Triffids (Penguin)Perhaps it was Wyndham’s success — and the fact that his readership inevitably would have been larger than a dedicated SF readership (far less of a sin nowadays) — or perhaps it was that Wyndham’s revolt against the way things were didn’t go far enough for Aldiss, who was of the next literary generation, SF’s New Wave, that wanted the far more extreme revolutions of the 1960s. (For me, the best New Wave response to Wyndham’s novels is Ballard’s: he rewrote them, as The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, The Burning World, and the surreal The Crystal World, thus developing them, rather than merely critiquing them. Aldiss himself wrote a catastrophe or two. Greybeard was one I remember reading, but Hothouse (not a catastrophe), a far-future jungle Earth where pretty much every other plant is a triffid of some sort, is the novel of his I most enjoyed.)

I’ve never subscribed to the idea that reading should be a sort of mental & moral cold bath. I like reading for pleasure. I like things that “read smoothly” (which, to me, is evidence of craft), and don’t see why I shouldn’t. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like my reading “cosy” and “comforting”, but I certainly wouldn’t go to a book for the purposes of self-torture.

The main “cosy” aspect of the “cosy catastrophe” is, I suppose, the fact that the catastrophe doesn’t completely destroy the world, but offers a chance to start again. As someone says in Triffids:

“The Earth is intact, unscarred, still fruitful. It can provide us with food and raw materials. We have repositories of knowledge… And we have the means, the health, and the strength to begin again.”

But this doesn’t mean there’s nothing but cosiness, comfort and having it your own way. The Day of the Triffids has an inviting air of adventure, of working out what you’d do in the hero’s place, of treating the world you know as a sort of imaginative playground for looting, shooting and uprooting; but it also has moments of real poignance, as when a young woman, blinded and now dying from disease, says:

“So futile — and it might all have been so different.”

Which perfectly captures, I think, the sense of a young life ending too early. And the beginning of chapter 13 strikes such a heartfelt note of loneliness, it’s impossible to believe Wyndham’s hero was simply having a good time in this de-populated England:

“Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative — an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary… That day I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind. Something which looked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and straining them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care.”

John Wyndham, The Day Of The TriffidsDay of the Triffids is, I think, a truly good read. The opening two chapters have an almost classical perfection as openings go: the first, so tightly focused on the narrator’s immediate predicament (in a hospital bed waiting for someone to remove his eye-bandages, he starts to be aware from the sounds alone that something is deeply wrong), while the second chapter is almost pure exposition, as the appearance of the triffids is described alongside a potted biography of the narrator. After that, we’re set up and onto the adventure.

Triffids wasn’t Wyndham’s first book — he’d been published before the Second World War in the US pulps, under different names, and had had two detective novels published in the UK — but it was the first of his new approach, something he called “logical fantasy”, which downplayed the pulpier SF elements (all the wilder speculations about the triffids’ possible intelligence, for instance, are placed in the mouths of characters other than the narrator, allowing him to sound skeptical, and so reassure the reader they aren’t in the hands of a whacko).

John Wyndham, The Kraken WakesThe Kraken Wakes is a more disappointing book. Whereas the emphasis in Triffids is on the immediate survival of the characters and, later, the far-range survival of the human race, Kraken is mostly about the slow unfolding of the initial catastrophe (a lot of which is by secondhand report, distancing the reader from the action). As a result, it’s far more about something that’s only a minor note in Triffids: how reluctant people are to believe in anything outside their daily experience. In Triffids this comes out in the way most people belittle Bill Masen’s warnings about how dangerous the triffids are going to be in this newly-depopulated England. Kraken, on the other hand, is so much more about the media, and the way it, and its readership, mocks any suggestion they may be experiencing the opening stages of an alien invasion until it’s too late (and even then they still want to blame it on the Russians). So Kraken reads more like a satire on modern civilisation than Triffids’ straightforward adventure, and I don’t think Wyndham has the bite for satire. Also, in contrast to Triffids, Kraken is set in a still-socialised world, and feels bogged down in the highly straightjacketed manners of its time. So, in Kraken we get the rather dated spectacle of the protagonist’s wife having a sudden rant (about the need for the government to arm the people, of all things), then apologising for the display and taking herself off for a lie-down. Then a doctor is called, as though any sign of emotion were cause for medication.

What’s most surprising about Kraken is that, though it was published in 1953, it reads so much like a reaction to the 1956 Suez crisis, and the final end of the British Empire:

“We, a maritime people who rose to power upon shipping which plied to the furthest corners of the earth, have lost the freedom of the seas. We have been kicked out of an element that we had made our own.”

Triffids is the better book: yes, “smoothly written”, but not merely cosy. And the 1981 BBC adaptation had one of the spookiest TV theme tunes of all time (if you can call that eerie choral drone a tune).