Monday, 26 November 2012

The Kraken Wakes

John Wyndham The Kraken Wakes (1953)

It seems somehow fitting that I should finally pop my John Wyndham novel cherry whilst staying at my mother's house with her copy of The Kraken Wakes, the same copy I began reading when I was ten, giving up after about twelve pages for fear of shitting myself. Wyndham's description of ominous objects observed falling into the sea remains psychologically potent, but thankfully I'm made of sterner stuff these days; and continuing the theme of coincidences  which seem like they should mean something but probably don't, I've just learned that Wyndham was born in Knowle, a village at about forty minutes from here by bicycle.


Anyway, Wyndham's novels were famously termed cosy catastrophes by Brian Aldiss, an accusation breaking down to what Aldiss viewed as middle class characters experiencing disaster as a bit of a wheeze in stories totally devoid of ideas, as were his exact words. Whilst it's true that Wyndham's characters tend to middle-class habits and the sort of witty observations one posthumously associates with Ealing comedies of the 1950s, the rest is bollocks; so Brian Aldiss can respectfully piss off, or better still, rewrite some of those shittier short stories about space wizards and special types of atoms thus preventing further incidents of pot driven kettle pigment designation.

Considering how many fictitious alien invasions I must have read over the years, its impressive to find one that retains such originality even half a century after it was written. These creatures, so it is reckoned, originate from a gas giant and, thus accustomed to life at immense atmospheric pressure, come to colonise the deepest reaches of our world's oceans. Once settled, they begin destroying ships, emerging briefly onto land to harvest biomass just as we send trawling vessels out across the water, before eventually melting the ice caps. They remain mysterious, pretty much invincible, and genuinely alien throughout. The novel, however, really isn't about an invasion, but rather represents a critique of human society, politics and the media all measured out by means of their reactions to the  xenobaths - ignoring the issue, finding scapegoats, infighting, assuming the problem will go away - and given current concerns about the environment and those agencies all busily devising ways by which we can get more cars out onto the roads, The Kraken Wakes remains as relevant today as it was in 1953. That something so genuinely grim can say so much and still retain its sense of humour suggests the work of a rare talent.

Cosy catastrophe, my arse.

1 comment:

  1. Completely agree the label of 'cosy catastrophe' is a bit unfair although it is of course a beautifully crafted little insult. The comparison with Ealing films is a good one too. Like Ealing films, his books are very noticeably 1950s, (improving but still limited communication technologies, the Cold War and a sense that when push came to shove the US wouldn't support us and we'd be on our own) while at the same time working as timeless parables about the way society works and the ties that bind. The Day of the Triffids is even better/scarier and, I suspect, left an indelible mark on a young George Romero. And also on Alex Garland who completely stole the start of the book in his screenplay for 28 days later