In the 1961 Penguin Books version I have of The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham, there is an odd sentence in the author blurb, which has since been removed. After explaining Wyndham’s back story for 12 lines, they start off his authorial career section (lasting only 6 lines) with: “In 1946 he returned to the U.S.A. and decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as ‘science fiction’.”
This intrigued me. By 1961, Wyndham had already written The Kraken Wakes and the seminal The Day of Triffids which must have made ‘science fiction’ a term with a lot less stigma. This novel, too, coming 15 years after Orson Welles reportedly made Sunday evening radio listeners in to quivering doomy masses after the broadcast of War of the Worlds, and 24 years after Huxley’s Brave New World. Science fiction’s power was evident, but it still was viewed as pulp.
This view is still prevalent – hence ‘the unbeliever’ section of Holdfast – but if someone gave me this book and said “This is science fiction”, I’d be a fully paid up member of the ‘unhappy medium’.
The Kraken Wakes is separated in to four sections: one rationale and three phases, each phase seemingly starting a new deadly turn in the story, which is as follows. Fireballs from outer space crash into the Earth’s oceans. A journalist husband and wife are on a cruise ship and watch it all happen. As they try to find out more about them, they uncover that the fireballs were carrying extra-terrestrial life. Earth starts to become a more dangerous place.
But as the world flips between being terrified and bored of stories of fireballs, our diligent journalists – Mike and Phyllis – continue to question naval captains, researchers and scientists about the changes in water level, the slow rise of the sea temperature and the mysterious silt that keeps appearing on shore. They keep giving a digestible shape to the unknown in the form of radio broadcasts, so people can choose to tune in to their eventual demise or not. It’s only when freight ships and military boats get blown out of the sea from electrical currents, and the mysterious alien ‘sea tanks’ start arriving on shore that people start to become panicked.
The novel ends with a world whose population is severely decreased, where people form violent factions in buildings high enough to be safe from the rising sea level. However, there is hope that civilisation can be brought back from the oceanic wasteland.
What do we know about the ocean’s deep? The vast watery volcanos, darkness, angler fish and, as The Kraken Wakes exemplifies, the breeding ground of terrifying fiction. We never fully comprehend, let alone see, what exactly it is that is causing all this apocalyptic disruption; the sound of people scrabbling at research and theories is the white noise throughout the story. This book, published amongst the McCarthy era politics of anti-Communism, mirror a similar apprehension – that our doom is dormant in the depths of our own planet. What is interesting about this novel – perhaps symptomatic of this era – is people’s reflex to blame everything on the Russians. This is understandable for blowing out Western ships in the oceans, but when one of Mike and Phyllis’s friends say that it “is obvious” that the Russian’s are behind the polar ice caps melting, it tips in to a hysteria that is very bitter sweet.
Confusion and disbelief gives the novel a pace. Some of the most exciting moments in the book are when teams of scientists are slowly journeying in to the deep and come across strange readings on their machines and disturbing, blurry images. But whereas the characters are mostly limited by even the most advanced technology – never really making any dent in the alien’s armoury or affecting their subterranean conquests – Wyndham’s comprehension of the creatures is clear and shocking. When the first of the ‘sea tanks’ makes its slow, loud way on to the shores of a Caribbean Island, Wyndham describes it as “an elongated egg which has been halved down its length […] thirty feet long, made of drab, lustreless leaden colour”. This clarity, in the face of such confusion and terror, is striking.
The way that people relate to each other whilst the world is slowly being erased by the sea throughout the novel is intriguing, too. The relationship between Mike and Phyllis is so 50s – it’s buttoned down Britain, every line is a quip, or a clever remark or a dry observation. Mike shows little emotion at all, let alone love, terror or compassion, in the face of almost certain death. Phyllis is, without question, the novel’s most interesting character – the way she gets swept up in to describing the fresh calamities the ‘krakens’ bring, her long monologues filled with pathos and doubt is the stuff of good radio, good writing. I found how Phyllis and Dr. Bocker – the researcher who foretold of the aliens, who was dismissed as a quack and then heralded as a sage – relate to each other is unusual. When they walk along the Thames towards the end of the novel, as the Government-ordered sandbag walls are built along the Embankment, Bocker calmly tells Phyllis how futile all efforts will be. He is talking to her for what she is – an intelligent, inquisitive person – not someone to be sedated. It is amazing that, in a world where aliens can ride fireballs from a gas planet and destroy all life on earth through egg shaped tanks, that an intelligent woman can be so humoured and by her husband.
It is well known that The Kraken Wakes gets its name from Tennyson’s poem ‘The Kraken’. But I believe that this section from Tennyson’s In Memoriam suits the final stages of the novel – where Phyllis, the stoic believer of a world after the alien invasion is finally proved right in her belief that we can survive:
There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.
The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.
But in my spirit will I dwell,
And dream my dream, and hold it true;
For tho' my lips may breathe adieu,
I cannot think the thing farewell.
The only thing I cannot think is that I would not read another Wyndham novel in my lifetime.
Alex the Unbeliever reads The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
In what may turn out to be a rather naive and fool-hardy venture, we at Holdfast have decided to attempt to spread the love of Speculative fiction by trying to convert some self-proclaimed 'Unbelievers.' Unbeliever and poet Alex Macdonald has agreed to our little experiment. We had a tenuous draw last time with Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria, but we have a resounding win this time round with The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham.
Unbeliever 1, Holdfast editors 1
We chose The Kracken Wakes for our Unbeliever as not only does it perfectly incorporate this issue’s theme Of Land, Sea, and Sky, looking at how much we rely on the Earth remaining exactly how it is, but it is also just a really excellent, classic work of brilliance. We offered poet Alex Macdonald the fantasy book A Stranger In Olondria for our first attempt, which sadly failed spectacularly to convert our skeptical lad to the wonders of speculative fiction. So it was with trepidation that we handed over this beloved piece of SciFi into the arms of a particularly articulate young man, who had the power to rip this book to shreds if he so wished.
But there was no need to fear! John Wyndham’s tale of aliens taking up residence in the deep crevasses and underwater mountain ranges of the sea has undoubtedly won us this round. At the centre of the story are journalist husband and wife Mike and Phyllis, who witness the original descent of the aliens via firebombs that shoot from the heavens into the ocean. They then follow the story as the world tries to figure out whether these are simply comets or some new form of weapon of mass destruction invented by the Russians (as Alex notes – it was the 50s, we liked to blame everything on the Russians). Even though the book is very of its time, I think the way that the world reacts to the invasion could easily happen today. The mystery of the firebombs falls prey to the news cycle, and so, when tank-like machines come crawling onto the land to reap human bodies in a gruesome sticky-tendrilled manner, humankind is anything but prepared.
The parallels to anxieties about climate change are startlingly clear considering that climate change wasn’t really a concern when the book was written. The ice caps melt, creating an apocalypse where mankind’s existence is threatened and society completely breaks down. The fact that it’s aliens purposefully melting them rather than the slow, ignorant reality of what’s happening now means that the effect is sudden and dramatic.
After England floods and the land mass is drastically reduced, society soon descends into feudal tribes, desperately fighting for the little land that remains. The added danger of sea tanks harvesting anyone that gets too close to the water adds another menace, but apart from this, The Kraken Wakes is a story of a very real, very near future that we as humans are careering towards with a collective shrug of our shoulders. This is something that science fiction gives us that no other genre can. Writers such as Wyndham look into our future and examine where we may be headed. If only we would pay a little more attention to them, perhaps it would help sway us into more positive paths?
There is something of John Wyndahm’s writing that manages to be simultaneously of its time and progressive. Whilst the story unfolds through the eyes of Mike, it is Phyllis who is savvy enough to figure out what is going on. As Alex the Unbeliever points out, Mike talks down to Phyllis in a way that feels natural and assumed, as if it is how all husbands should speak to their wives, and in the 1950s this was a general assumption. However, we see Phyllis not only surpass Mike in expertise, but actually shock him with her resourcefulness. Is this John trying to subliminally influence his 1950s science fiction readers? ‘You may talk down to them chums, but these girls are more than what meets the eye.’ I’d like to think so.
Of this we can be certain: Wyndham’s clear vision and dry tone have won holdfast this round of The Unbelievers, making next issue’s final a nail-biting tie breaker.
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