Wyndham, John (1903–1969)

John Wyndham Lucas Parkes Beynon Harris wrote
under various combinations of his names, although
almost everything after 1945 was as John Wyndham. He began writing science fiction in the
1930s, mostly traditional space adventures and
tales of superscience.
The Secret People (1935) is a
mildly interesting lost race novel. Efforts to irrigate
the Sahara cause trouble when they stir up the residents of a subterranean race that has been hiding
from the surface world for thousands of years.
Stowaway to Mars (1935, also published as Planet
and as The Space Machine) is a routine story
of the political and commercial rivalries involved
in the race to be the first to reach the planet Mars.
The story is primarily of interest because Wyndham included a female character who was not relegated to the category of helpless female or
presented as merely a foil to whom the protagonist
explains everything. Strong female characters
would recur with some frequency in Wyndham’s
later work. Most of his short stories from this period can be found in
Love in Time (1946, as by
Johnson Harris),
The Seeds of Time (1956), Sleepers
of Mars
(1973), Wanderers of Time (1973), and Exiles on Asperus (1979), the last three as by John
Beynon. The short story “Sleepers of Mars” (1938)
is a loose sequel to
Stowaway to Mars.
After World War II Wyndham largely abandoned outer space as a setting for his work. Short
stories such as “Jizzle” (1949), “Close Behind Him”
(1953), and “Chronoclasm” (1953) were more
thoughtful and sophisticated, and tended to present
their fantastic content in a form that would be
palatable to mainstream readers. His next novel
The DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1951, also published
Revolt of the Triffids), which was faithfully transformed into a BBC miniseries but in 1963 was
turned into yet another shambling monster movie.
Ambulatory plants with a poisonous sting become a
major threat when an anomalous meteor shower
causes near universal blindness.
Out of the Deeps
(1953, also published as The Kraken Wakes) followed. This was an alien invasion story somewhat
in the vein of
The WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898) by
H. G. W
ELLS, in that the aliens are almost entirely
offscreen during the novel. Wyndham acknowledged Wells as the author who most influenced his
own work. Wyndham’s alien invaders have settled
underneath the world’s oceans and use their
advanced technology to melt the icecaps and
flood the coastal regions, wreaking havoc on the
surface world. Concerted action against them is
constrained by international tensions and by

humanity’s inability to see beyond its parochial
concerns. The result is a story more concerned with
life in the midst of a major environmental disaster
than in a confrontation with monstrous aliens, all
told in an understated, unmelodramatic narrative
style that was extraordinarily effective.
RE-BIRTH (1955, also published as The
) is one of the best stories of life generations after a nuclear holocaust, ranking with DAVY
by Edgar PANGBORN and The Long Tomorrow
(1955) by Leigh BRACKETT. The Midwich Cuckoos
(1957, also published as Village of the Damned after
the 1960 film version) posed an interesting situation. A small English village is cut off from the outside world by a force field for a short period, during
which time everyone inside the perimeter remains
unconscious. The zone of interdiction is subsequently lifted, with no explanation of its cause,
and no obvious effects within the affected area, but
months later every female in the village of child
bearing age finds herself pregnant. The children
who are born all bear a strange similarity to one
another, and as they mature they begin to display
extraordinary psi powers, abilities so potent and
dangerous that the authorities realize the children
have to be destroyed because they menace the
human race. Wyndham’s matter-of-fact style was
particularly effective, although the plot does not
entirely make sense.
During the late 1950s Wyndham wrote a sequence of five stories that made up a brief future
history. Following an atomic war, Brazil and India
emerge as the two major world powers. As they develop their own space programs, the members of
the Troon family emerge as pivotal figures. Four of
the stories were published in book form as
Outward Urge
(1959), as by John Wyndham and
Lucas Parkes, although Parkes is another of his
pseudonyms. A revised edition added the remaining story in 1961.
The last of Wyndham’s major novels was
Trouble with Lichen (1960), in which the discovery of a
method by which the human lifespan can be significantly extended has an ever widening effect on
various aspects of human society. All of Wyndham’s previous novels showed minor variations in
text between the American and British editions,
but the disparities for
Trouble with Lichen were
much more substantial, with U.S. publishers removing much of the author’s commentary on international politics. His remaining two novels were
comparatively minor. In
Chocky (1968), a young
boy’s imaginary friend turns out to be a visiting
alien. It was filmed for television.
Web (1979), published posthumously, describes the consequences
when a group attempts to turn a remote island into
a utopian community, only to discover that the
local insect population has a unique society and
defense mechanism of its own.
Wyndham’s later stories have been assembled
Jizzle (1954), Tales of Gooseflesh and Laughter
(1956), Consider Her Ways and Others (1961),
The Infinite Moment (1961). Time travel was
a common theme in the last of these. His single
best short story is “C
a visit to a future feminist utopia of sorts, and
surprisingly advanced for its time. Although technology is sometimes important to the plot of his
stories, it is always subordinated to the characters.
Wyndham achieved verisimilitude by populating
his fiction with ordinary people with whom his
readers could readily identify.