Tuesday, January 11, 2022

On John Wyndham's "cosy catastrophe" novels (from 2008)

I wrote this in late 2008 on spec for a publication, but it was never published. My notes remind me that after writing it I came across a post on the Penguin blog drawing this same connection. I don't think I unwittingly lifted the concept from them, but the link I had to their post is dead (link rot is the bane of the web), and it seems worth at least noting that up top in case I'm wrong and they deserve full credit. 

Thirteen years later, it turns out to have unpleasant resonances with our moment, all the way down to my mention of the possibility of a pandemic. 

For those of us fortunate enough not to have lost our jobs, and to still have our possessions in our houses rather than scattered about the lawn by sheriff’s deputies, the deepening financial crisis has been a bit hard to fully digest. Its causes are complicated and poorly understood, its effects (so long as we don’t look at our 401(k)s) still a bit distant. We know there’s a serious problem—such ordinarily staid figures as Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson wouldn’t be looking so stricken were there not—and we extend real sympathy to those who’ve already felt its effects, but for the most part we’re left to go about our daily lives much as usual, the only change a slowly growing cloud of dread hovering just outside our peripheral vision. 

It’s a situation that would, I think, have piqued the imagination of British science fiction novelist John Wyndham (1903–69), and the half-dozen suspenseful, well-crafted novels he published between 1951 and 1968 seem the perfect literary accompaniment to today’s slowly growing disaster. Wyndham’s approach to science fiction, harking back to H. G. Wells, is rooted in the classic “What if?”, but his specialty was teasing out the ramifications of changes—often seemingly minor—to the basic ground rules governing human society. What if nearly everyone went blind, as happens in his best-known novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951)? What if science discovered a way to dramatically extend the human lifespan, as in the surprisingly feminist Trouble with Lichen (1960)? What if the children of a small village were to display unexpected—and unsettling—powers, as in The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)? What if the sub-prime mortgage market were suddenly to melt down . . . ? 

In The Day of the Triffids, the result of the mass blindness is an almost instant collapse of society (abetted, one must point out, by a particularly well-imagined species of ambulatory killer plant). The Day of the Triffids is dramatic and frightening, but it’s nonetheless a fairly straightforward apocalypse novel, if one of the best of the genre. But it’s in his other novels that Wyndham displays his particular genius. They’re less spectacular, but far more insidious—and much harder to shake once they’ve been returned to the shelf. For in them, nothing falls apart instantly; rather, the situation deteriorates slowly, and all the while the characters are forced to continue, more or less unchanged, their daily routines, shadowed by worry and never quite believing the widespread assurances that everything is going to be fine. 

The Kraken Wakes (1953) offers the best example of this approach. Mike and Phyllis Watson, journalists who write radio scripts (and whose banter and resourcefulness makes them seem like nothing so much as Nick and Nora Charles transplanted to an episode of “Lights Out!”), witness something inexplicable when they’re on a honeymoon cruise: a group of glowing red objects, somewhat like meteors, blazing through the sky and crashing into the ocean, where they disappear in a cloud of steam. Though the couple reports on the sighting, little is made of it, and even when accounts of similar events begin trickling in from around the globe, the prevailing public mood is one of curiosity rather than worry. Years later, Mike Watson reflects on that failure to understand the gravity of the sightings:
It began so unrecognizably. Had it been more obvious—and yet it is difficult to see what could have been done effectively even if we had recognised the danger. Recognition and prevention don’t necessarily go hand in hand. We recognized the potential dangers of atomic fission quickly enough—yet we could do little about them.
Over time, though most governments prefer to pretend otherwise, it becomes increasingly clear that the unidentified flying objects were an invasion fleet, and that some alien race has begun colonizing the ocean floor. Eventually, the problem becomes acute, as the aliens begin destroying naval vessels and disrupting shipping lanes, wreaking havoc on the global economy and leaving political and military leaders at a loss for effective responses. 

Yet even these earth-shaking events do relatively little to change the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Living on land and unable even to see the miles-deep alien incursion, they are left to merely consume the limited available news and wonder what steps their government should take. As events slowly unfold over a number of years, the prevailing mood is one of dread and uncertainty rather than panic, and even when the aliens begin attacking coastal towns, and it becomes impossible to deny that humanity is in a struggle for its very survival, people’s panic has almost no outlet in action. Even Mike and Phyllis, who are attentive to the dangers from the start, and who have far better sources of information than the average citizen, aren’t sure what they can do: they attempt to take precautionary measures, like laying in stores of food, but the very uncertainty of the threat leaves them, for the most part, in a maddening state of abeyance. 

That is what Wyndham is best at: portraying the fundamental—and for the most part unacknowledged—uncertainty of life, and the essential futility of our attempts to control for it. Because we have little choice, we tell ourselves that tomorrow will be like today, but in reality we can never be sure. Wyndham’s work is shadowed by the Bomb and the disinformation of the cold war, but his lessons are no less applicable today; the immediate threat of nuclear holocaust may have receded, but the increasing interconnectedness of our world has opened us up to new dangers, from global pandemics to rippling financial crises. Human society perpetually teeters on a knife’s edge, and the smallest of changes to such a complex system could have entirely unforeseeable effects. Last time the global economy melted down on this scale, the result was the New Deal—but also the rise of fascism; who’s to say what will follow this time? 

Though Wyndham was always well-regarded in the United Kingdom, and nearly all of his novels remain in print there, in the United States his work has been largely ignored, aside from The Day of the Triffids. But the New York Review of Books has recently republished what may be his most perfectly realized novel, The Chrysalids (1955), a tale of post-apocalyptic fundamentalism, and apparently Steven Spielberg is planning a movie of his final novel, Chocky (1968), so maybe we are on the verge of a Wyndham revival. Would it be too much to hope that it might be accompanied by a financial revival as well?