Wednesday, 20 July 2016


John Wyndham Web (1979)
Here's one which went unpublished during Wyndham's life, emerging a decade after he went to live in the ground. It's hard to tell whether this was something he was working on just as Mictlantecuhtli came calling, or an older draft of something he couldn't be bothered to finish, and the internet isn't much help in this one instance.

The story is a thematic variation on Wyndham's characteristic ecological or environmental catastrophe, with a few related ideas thrown in for good measure. It begins with moves made towards the formation of a rational Utopian society on a remote Pacific island, an enterprise which ends in death and disaster due to the presence of an emergent species of social spider which has taken over the island. It's the same basic dynamic as Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, and probably a few others - not to mention a heapin' helping of Michael Crichton's career - which sort of suggests a reason as to why Wyndham might not have bothered getting the thing
published, I suppose. That said,  Web is hardly a straight retread, and feels very much like a novel in its own right. The opening chapters concerned with the drive to begin anew seem timely given the novel presumably having been written in the wake of the second world war with the rebuilding of England and Harold Wilson's white heat of technology speech, not to mention all those science-fiction authors forever banging on about futurist supermen. Wyndham uses his characters here to voice a certain distrust of the politically left, which might ordinarily bother me, although it's possibly nothing stronger than scepticism concerning the vocally progressive Labour party of the time, and certainly he seems particularly sceptical of the Utopian ideal which leads the main protagonists to the island of Tanakuatua. Given the settlers receiving a thorough kicking from the forces of nature - entailing some fairly engaging debate about evolution and natural selection - the moral would seem to be concerned mainly with human vanity - nothing terribly original, but nicely illustrated nevertheless.

All the same, Web feels like a long short story, or possibly an unfinished draft. The prose is wonderful, but the framework to which it is bolted feels rickety in places. Tanakuatua, as we learn, was initially abandoned following irradiation by nuclear tests conducted elsewhere in the Pacific, a point which is left unexplored - unless it's simply that I've been primed to expect more in that direction by all those Godzilla films. Yet it seems as though the spiders have developed organisational skills due to radioactive mutation - or at least this was how I read it - otherwise, why not just ants, termites, or wasps, or any other invertebrate which is already capable of what the spiders do in this book and which actually exists?; unless spiders were chosen principally as a tried and tested horror trope. Also, the duration of the chapter detailing the history of the island seemed disproportionally large in the context of the rest of the book, suggesting it was written for what should have ultimately been a lengthier text.

Still, I'm not complaining. It's not his best but is still a decent book, and as Wyndham catastrophes go, it's one fuck of a long way from cosy.

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