Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The Secret People

John Wyndham The Secret People (1935)
This was John Wyndham's first novel, originally serialised under a pen name in something called the Passing Show - which I hadn't even heard of until I looked it up in relation to this book; and I've just read a 1973 reprint with a painting of Shrek on the cover, despite that Shrek makes no appearance in the novel, and although the story prominently features fungus, none of it is growing out of anyone's forehead. This doesn't quite beat the spacecraft on the cover of  Simak's Time is the Simplest Thing - a novel in which vehicular space travel is very specifically treated as an impossibility - but it's the same ballpark.

The Secret People are a race of albino pygmies found to inhabit labyrinthine caverns beneath the Sahara desert, as discovered when the first ever jet plane is sucked down into a whirlpool in a sea newly formed by flooding the Sahara towards some sort of vaguely economic end, and the whirlpool strands our guy, actually the inventor of the first jet plane, in the aforementioned caverns beneath this newly formed seabed.

So it's basically Hugo Gernsback's scientifiction in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs but slightly better written with more of a stiff upper lip and less casual racism. Our man has invented the jet plane, and he has his woman, and he spends his time roaming his futuristic world and explaining all of its exciting developments for the benefit of both that lucky, lucky gal and whoever was paying attention back in the thirties. It's readable, but never quite achieves the escape velocity necessary to propel it beyond the limitations of being a first novel written to a formula. Wyndham made a better, and significantly more interesting job of infodumping than Gernsback ever did, and The Secret People is additionally curious as a document of when it was written, with references to Queen Elizabeth II made a couple of decades prior to her coronation, and Italy innocuously noted as having an interest in reviving the Roman empire in North Africa.

As underground societies go, Wyndham's is more coherent and, I suppose, marginally more plausible than those proposed by either Bulwer-Lytton or Richard Shaver, but once he gets his people down there, he doesn't seem quite sure what to do with them, and so the narrative just ambles on for another hundred or so pages of approximately Burroughsian scrapes and perils until someone finds a tunnel leading back to the surface. Being Wyndham, there's a lot of pleasing attention to detail, so The Secret People is better than I've probably made it sound, but unfortunately not by much.

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