Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

The things that scared us as children tend to stick with us all our lives; just ask the good people at Kindertrauma. Many adults retain a fascination for things such as the Daleks and Pennywise the clown, to name two common examples.

But there are other, more subtle terrors. I read The Kraken Wakes when I was about 12 (in a lovely 1950’s penguin edition, too), and didn’t think it was too scary. Aliens, end of the world- I’d heard it all many times before. In this case, the unseen creatures cause mankind trouble on a scale that is simply geographic- they melt the ice-caps and flood the world.

But shortly after reading it I fell into a strong flu, during which I experienced intense, Kraken Wakes- influenced fever dreams. To anyone who’s never had a fever dream, it’s something like having dreams when you’re awake, and also something like an unpredictable bad-trip. My dreams revolved around floods and earthquakes, and they were horribly real. So, even though I thought the book was none too scary, it obviously resonated with me subconsciously on some level. Ever since, I’ve associated that terrible time with Wyndham’s book, perhaps affording it a gravitas far above its actual content.

Returning to the book many years later, how does it hold up?

Let’s have a little background on Wyndham first. He’s kind of like a very 1950’s version of H. G. Wells: an Englishman, he wrote some great high-concept science-fiction, and he wasn’t shy about the kind of destruction he wreaked on the world in his stories. Like Wells, Wyndham’s novels feel like big-budget summer blockbusters. His most famous novel, Day of the Triffids, is a classic that’s right up there with anything Wells wrote.

Even though Wells was writing fifty years earlier, during the prudish Victorian era, today it’s Wyndham who comes across as more of a stereotypical stiff-upper-lipped Englishman. Wells was originally working class, and had lots of politically radical ideas (he was a thumping great socialist, and was in favour of a world government). Wynhdam, on the other hand, never lets us forget his middle-class origins in his books, and is frequently criticized for this.

The most common dismissal of Wyndham is that his plots are ‘cozy catastrophes’. As far as I can see, this accusation results largely from two (broadly similar) books- Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes. In both books, terrible circumstances cause London (read: society) to break down, and though death, destruction and horror are all around (and Wyndham is not stingy with these themes), a decidedly middle-class hero will survive the catastrophe without much physical or emotional trauma. He will pick up a pretty girl somewhere along the way, and they will eventually make a new life for themselves in some quiet part of the country- a sort of simple-life pastoral paradise.

While this is broadly accurate for both books, and while they may be read as a kind of simplistic middle-class wish-fulfillment fantasy, this view really ignores many of the novels’ unsavoury elements.

In Triffids, suicide and depression surround the hero. He genuinely needs to find the strength within himself to survive this nightmare world. He learns constantly that in this new world, the morals and scruples of the old one are the first casualty. Is it right to smash a shop window to steal food? He does it. Is it right to help a blind person to commit suicide? He does it. Is it right to live in a society where everyone gets to impregnate your girlfriend for the continuation of the human race? Now wait just a minute…

Triffids was published in 1951, and was a huge hit. Wyndham decided that he was onto a good thing, so as early as 1953 he released the broadly similar Kraken Wakes.

Kraken begins as the narrator and his wife are among the first humans to notice the falling of unexplained ‘fireballs’ into the sea. It’s treated as a kind of anomalous phenomenon, similar to the then-current flying saucer craze. Later, characters theorize that it’s in fact the beginning of an invasion by some intelligence from a high-pressure world (Neptune and Jupiter are posited, but we never find out for sure). Over the course of several months and years, it becomes clear that something has taken up residence in the deeps of the world’s oceans. First deep-sea scientific expeditions, and then commercial ships become targeted by these intelligences. Worldwide sea travel ceases (in a move eerily similar to the Europe-wide lack of air travel that’s happening now as a result of that Iceland volcano business). And after that, things really get strange…

When Kraken works, it’s really creepy. I think that part of the reason I’ve always been fascinated by it is that we never find out a damn thing about those underwater critters. They might not even be aliens, they might just be Earth intelligences that have lain dormant until the 1950s. All we do know about them is that they like to screw with us. Some of the violence of the sea-disasters in the first half of the book is quite astonishing- hundreds and hundreds of people perish horribly (and off-screen, too). The horror is rarely in the protagonists’ faces the way it is in Triffids- it’s more of a paranoia thing: the thought that mankind has lost his method of long-term travel is oddly creepy.

And when the creatures do begin to show up on our beaches, they do so in a manner that answers no questions about their nature.

There are problems with the book, mostly linked to the ‘humour’. There’s loads of running jokes about how the narrator’s wife wears the trousers in the marriage, and they feel even more out of place than the bizarre joke about Josella’s book in Triffids. There’s also a joke about people confusing the narrator’s company, the fictional EBC, with the real-life BBC. In case you’re wondering, EBC stands for ‘English Broadcasting Company’.

There are tonnes of 1950s artifacts in the book- aside from the obligatory Red Scare scenes, both Britain and the US seem to lob nuclear bombs about quite cheerfully in an attempt to wipe out the undersea menace. And of course, it wouldn’t be Wyndham without his trademark 1950s British-ness; it’s almost impossible to read his prose without hearing someone with the received pronunciation speak it- and you know that’s worth something.


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