I really must stop reading old science fiction novels just because they’re considered “canonical”. A few weeks ago I read Ringworld by Larry Niven, partly to brush up on the historical side of the genre, partly to contextualize a lot of the stuff I encounter about megastructures in science fiction, but mostly because it has a reputation for being a space opera masterpiece (after all, it won both the Hugo AND Locus awards back in 1971). Unfortunately, rather than the shining star of historical Science Fiction that I’d hoped for, what I actually discovered was a deeply misogynistic piece of badly-written trash.
I mean, it’s really bad. Paper-thin characters, poor pacing, and horrible, stilted sentences are just the start of its problems. One of the principle characters is a tiger in a spacesuit, like something from a bad 1930s pulp magazine cover. Nothing happens in the first half of the novel, and the second half reads like a lame Sword and Sorcery adventure, but with “space bikes” instead of horses. The story also grinds to a halt every 30 pages to allow the protagonist to wander off and have sex with something, the only narrative function of which, presumably, is to titillate the book’s audience of adolescent boys (at one point the crew encounter a beautiful alien sex expert living in a disused police station (go figure…), whose singular desire is to bed the narrator, which must be the most cringey piece of author self-insertion fantasy (pun intended) that I’ve ever encountered). As for the ending, urgh, don’t get me started.
How is it that something so obviously awful has come to hold such a prestigious place in the Science Fiction canon? (My edition was printed as part of the Gollancz “SF Masterworks” series). The unfortunate answer is that the “canon”, such that it is, was established by boring old men more interested in Science Fiction as an extrapolation of scientific ideas than as a literature. And sure, if that kind of technological determinism is all you look for in SF, then knock yourself out, the ‘Ringworld’ is undoubtedly a cool – though flawed – piece of engineering (*chants* “The Ringworld is unstable”, etc.). But at the risk of sounding pretentious, those of us looking for such tenets of literariness as interiority, subtext, argument, emotion, experimentation, aesthetics, or hell, just not-sexist writing, are likely to feel alienated by this approach to the genre.
I’m torn between, on the one hand, feeling like I *should* read lots of historical-canonical SF if I’m ever going to be a knowledgeable or effective reviewer, and, on the other, feeling like I’m justified ignoring most of the genre’s Big Names because I just don’t like their work. Give me Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney or Ursula Le Guin over Asmiov/Heinlein/Niven/Bradbury/Herbert any day.
Last week I read three never-been-out-of-print novels by John Wyndham, again hoping to broaden my genre horizons; and while all three of them have their moments, I was mostly left baffled as to why they’re held in such high regard.
Here are some reviews…
The Kids Aren’t Alright
Like Ringworld, Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) has an excellent premise that’s badly let down in the execution. You probably know the basic idea (it’s been filmed twice, both times as Village of the Damned, and famously parodied in The Simpsons), but I’ll crib it just in case. One day, the entire population of the fictional English village of Midwich falls unconscious. They wake up the following morning to discover that every woman of child-bearing age is pregnant: the married women, the singles, the widows. Everyone. Nine months later lots of creepy same-looking babies are born, and it soon becomes apparent that the kids have psychic powers, able to influence and control the actions of the people around them.
The novel throws around several theories as to the origins of the Midwich children, from parthenogenesis, to vaguer ideas about a “government plot”, to new-agey stuff about the next step in human evolution, and, by the end, the more traditionally SF-nal idea of parasitic alien gestation. (Notably there are no gothic or supernatural explanations put forward to explain what’s going on, which is a shame, given that the isolated, rural setting seems so ripe for it).
It’s a brilliant, brilliant idea; eerie in its manipulation of the uncanny, and telling in the way it articulates contemporary Cold War paranoia about the enemy who lives among us. But this is the limit of the book’s success. Most of The Midwich Cuckoos is dull and ponderous. The majority of the novel consists of long, dry discussions between the narrator, Richard, and a local academic called Gordon Zellaby. Their out-of-place debates about Cartesian dualism and Hegel stifle the book’s pacing, and had me wondering why these two characters even feature. Like in The Kraken Wakes, the narrator is a passive chronicler of events whose personal experience at Midwich has no bearing whatsoever on anything that happens in the book. His narration is also confusing, frequently switching from a limited first person register to a God-like first; how is our narrator able to relate, word-for-word, conversations and events to which he wasn’t privy? It seems that, if it’s convenient to the plot, then Wyndham will let his character know something, whether or not his knowing is at all congruous with what’s being described.
This difficulty with the pointless and contradictory male narrator speaks to a wider problem with the book’s gender politics. It’s deeply frustrating that there are no significant female characters or female points of view in a book that’s so focused on pregnancy, maternal love, and, subtextually, parental guilt and issues of nature vs. nurture. If you were feeling particularly sardonic, I suppose you could argue that the structure of The Midwich Cuckoos perfectly encapsulates certain aspects of Science Fiction’s history: stuffy men sitting around discussing what’s to be done with the (invisible) women and children.
In fact, the invisibility of women in The Midwich Cuckoos is just one of many problems the book has with handling narrative realism (I know, I know, it’s a Science Fiction novel, but there’s realism in the sense of something being literally possible, and then there’s realism in the sense of a narrative being immersive, logical, and consistent with human experience and behaviour). And herein we find one of the book’s major flaws: the inhabitants of Midwich don’t seem at all phased by what’s going on. After the initial shock of every woman falling mysteriously pregnant, the villagers decide to carry on their lives as normal, raising the children as their own with a kind of collective shrug as to how it all came about.
What. The. Fuck?
I was tempted, in light of this indifference, to imagine The Midwich Cuckoos as a sort of satire on British reserve: “Keep Calm and Carry On” in the face of even the most extreme and disturbing events. It’s ludicrous, and the government’s decision to passively “keep an eye on things” is equally laughable. I understand that Wyndham wanted to generate horror in a specifically relatable and familiar domestic circumstance, but sheesh, things are just too unchanged by the arrival of the children. Defenders of the book might argue that, eventually, the villagers’ reaction to the Midwich children becomes more emotionally appropriate, but the ending occurs nine years after the initial impregnations. Nine years.
So suffice it to say that I didn’t really enjoy The Midwich Cuckoos. Much like Ringworld, it’s another example of something I’m encountering more and more with old Science Fiction, which is that the idea of a text is held to be of greater import than the quality of its writing. This is, of course, a perfectly valid way of approaching a literature, but it’s really not for me.
I had to look up what a “Chrysalid” was
(Turns out it’s just another word for chrysalis. Duh.)
The next Wyndham novel I read was The Chrysalids, which I thought was vastly, vastly better than both The Midwich Cuckoos and The Kraken Wakes. It’s not without its flaws, some of them major, but in light of these other two books it’s a damn near masterpiece. The Chrysalids is atypical for Wyndham in that the prose flows beautifully, the protagonists are complex (with moving and believable motivations and back stories), and (brace yourselves…) there are strong female characters. Most thankfully, the book doesn’t consist entirely of English scholars sitting around and abstractly discussing the implications of its central problem.
The Chrysalids is set thousands of years after some world-shattering apocalypse (most likely nuclear war), where society has regressed to a sort of agrarian or Amish level of technology. Initially the setting appears to be a bucolic farming paradise, but we soon learn that the inhabitants of his idyll practise a form of fundamentalist Christianity which harbours an obsession with genetic purity. To this end, anybody born with even the mildest mutation (a sixth toe, a misshapen ear, etc) is either banished or euthanized.
The narrator is a teenager, David, who begins the novel as a somewhat ingénue figure guiding the reader through the idiosyncrasies of the book’s world and society. I say “ingénue” because, although David himself has a mutation that he is hiding from his family and the authorities, he doesn’t realise the extent of the brutal danger he faces until a friend of his, also a mutant, is discovered and has to flee into exile to save her life. This becomes a sort of volta moment for David, and sets him on the typical bildungsroman path of turning against the conservative society that has brought him up, and into his own, independently free-thinking self.
David’s own mutation is telepathic: he can psychically communicate with other similarly-gifted mutants throughout the valley. From a world-building point of view this is more than a little eyebrow raising, as David and his friends’ psychic powers are pretty out-of-sync with the other mutations in the book, which are never more extreme than additional digits, longer limbs or big birthmarks. But whatever, I let this pass in service to the story.
David and co. spend much of their time trying to avoid detection by the rest of society: if babies born with extra fingers are killed, God knows what would happen to kids with psychic powers. There’s a nice sense of tension as David has to navigate through ever closer near-misses with the fundamentalist authorities. The telepathic conversations between him and his friends are well-rendered by Wyndham; strange and othering, but never confusing or muddled. The very thing that makes them targets (their psychic power) also brings them together, and there’s a beautiful sense of community, even family, shared between the mutated kids.
This conflict (“us vs. them”,” mutants vs. norms” etc), establishes the book’s moral identity. David and his mutant friends long for acceptance and tolerance; they are painted as compassionate individuals who shouldn’t be shunned for not resembling everybody else. The authorities, by comparison, are portrayed very much as bad guys: violent, intolerant, quick-to-judge, and unthinking in their universal application of exclusionary religious dogma. The fanatical and violent state of society is echoed in the book’s landscapes, frequently described with such double-meaning language as “the country was more broken now”.
Seemingly, then, The Chrysalids puts forward a positive moral message about diversity and tolerance, right? WRONG! By the end of the novel, Wyndham has pulled a complete U-turn on his earlier appeals for open-mindedness, concluding that, inevitably, there has to be war, and the “new” humans will exterminate the “old” ones (“For ours is a superior variant”).
This abrupt change in moral direction undermines everything the novel has done to build a reasoned argument. Wyndham’s ultimate message seems to be that intolerance and violence are bad if they come from a place of religious hysteria and fear, but perfectly acceptable if the argument for intolerance has a scientific basis. It’s baffling. After 200 pages of preaching that “these people are bad, they would kill us because we’re different”, the novel concludes with “those people are bad, we must kill them because they’re different”.
A bleak interpretation of The Chrysalids might be that violence and bigotry are intrinsic elements of the human condition, and that no matter how enlightened we think we are, we inevitable fear and despise the other. This, however, is very much not the tone I picked up from the book’s ending, which just seems ignorant of the hypocrisy it preaches. The moral position that David and his friends eventually reach is no different from the one they’ve been struggling against the whole time, it’s just coming from the other side of the fence.
I’d still recommend The Chrysalids, if only for its world building, characterisation, and the uplifting sense of community shared by its core protagonists. The ending, however, is total bullshit, and completely undermines the book’s own moral concerns.
Apocalypse as Paradise
Finally I read The Day of the Triffids, which is probably best known today for its opening scene (borrowed by both 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead), in which the protagonist wakes up in a hospital bed to find that, during his extended unconsciousness, the world has gone to shit, and it’s only by dint of his being hospitalised that he’s alive at all.
Like The Chrysalids, this is a post-apocalypse novel, albeit set during and immediately after the disaster, rather than thousands of years later. Unlike The Chrysalids, however, The Day of the Triffids isn’t very good; I’m sad to report that the awkward prose, info-dumpy exposition, and abysmal characterisation of The Midwich Cuckooks returns, and then some.
The first problem is that The Day of the Triffids tries to simultaneously juggle three different catastrophes, any one of which would have provided substantive material for an entire apocalypse. As a result, everything sort of feels muddled and too busy. The first apocalyptic event occurs when a weird, green-tinged meteor shower causes almost everybody on Earth to go blind. Pretty bad, right? Well there’s more; the survivors also have to contend with genetically engineered walking murder plants (the Triffids of the title) that have escaped confinement and are roaming the English countryside killing at random. And as if that wasn’t apocalypse enough, there’s also a flu-like pandemic to contend with.
The first event, the green meteor shower, is never given a satisfactory explanation, and is pretty much forgotten after the first few pages (except, that is, for when Wyndham tries (and fails) to explain how 99.9% of the world’s population was out of doors watching it). The plague is totally unnecessary. Presumably its there to expand upon why post-crisis Britain is so devoid of people, but surely the after-effects of mass blindness combined with the roaming Triffids should be enough to explain the high death count?
Three such crises should make the world a pretty terrifying place; this is the very stuff of Science Fiction horror. But, to be honest, the collapse of society doesn’t seem all that bad. Most people are pretty chill, and there are certain descriptive passages that make empty Britain sound downright idyllic, even fun. Scavenging (read: looting), farming, not having to work or pay taxes; The Day of the Triffids falls into that too-common trap of making an apocalyptic world seem like an Alpha male survivalist paradise, rather than the fear-ridden, stinking, dying-of-thirst hell it would probably be in reality. It’s more than just a problem with the events of the book: this is tonal. Everything from the exposition, to the dialogue to the hard-to-define “feel” of the novel is so lackadaisical; it feels more like a philosophical thought experiment than a disaster, despite the fact that the narration is in the first person, supposedly the most personal register.
In fact, the apocalypse as male paradise is something you’ll run into again and again in this novel. Huge swathes of text are given over to lasciviously explaining how, in order to re-populate the earth, men will have to sleep with as many women as possible (whether they like it or not – it’s all for genetic diversity reasons, you see). Using the apocalypse as an excuse to basically legitimise rape, or, at best, polyamory, is all kinds of messed up. There are whole chapters that read like a pervy manifesto or teenage sex fantasy (“they’ll HAVE to have sex with me now”). But it’s stupid in a structural sense too: there are long passages of dialogue explaining why all this would be necessary, but such discussions are taking place only days after the arrival of the blindness/Triffids/plague, when surely the more immediate concerns of finding clean water, shelter and other survivors should be taking precedent over long-term plans for coupling and repopulation?
This is further problematised by the fact that, ultimately, a different map for humanity’s future comes into play (cue naff Deus ex Machina ending). Bearing in mind that these sex plans have no implications for anything that either happens in the novel or anything that’s projected to occur after its end… why is so much of the book given over to it?
John Wyndham obviously had a wonderful imagination (especially for Science Fiction horror), but there’s a huge gulf in his books between the concepts themselves, and their realisation. And how frustrating is it that The Chrysalids, his best book by far, was such a blip in a body of work that’s otherwise characterised by clunky, exposition-heavy prose, contradictory moral ideas, and a dismissive, even sometimes sexist, approach to women?
The value in reading his books, for me, has been merely in adding to my knowledge of the history of science fiction. But the question I kept asking myself as I read them was: is that reason enough?