Posts Tagged ‘John Wyndham’

The five senses in fiction

January 21, 2019

When I wrote about Rupert Brooke’s poem The Great Lover, I referred to his use of the five senses in that poem; since then I’ve been thinking about writers’ use of their five senses more generally in literature, trying to remember novels where sensual experience has featured particularly powerfully.

Taste: the instant response was obviously Marcel Proust, of course, and that famous madeleine dipped in his tea, with the taste bringing back a whole world of childhood experiences and memories in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Which of us hasn’t experienced a similar moment at some time? It’s harder to think of a more powerful gustatory moment in literature. But then I recalled Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, set in the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and the importance of food throughout that novel, as a symbol of fellowship and sharing, especially when the recipient is in dire need. The descriptions of the preparation of food, the smells and tastes as well as the sensory pleasure enjoyed in its consumption and sharing are evident on numerous occasions in that book.

The sense of sight and its importance is brought home for me in two novels that deal with the loss of it. Firstly John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, where it’s the blinding of almost the entire population by a very powerful meteor-shower – that may have been a malfunctioning space-based weapons system, we never find out – that leaves everyone so vulnerable to the stings of the mobile plants which kill and then feed on decaying flesh. The powerlessness of the blind is evoked in many different ways, as is the reluctance of the few sighted ones left to be of help to their fellow-humans. But the shock of this novel pales into insignificance against the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, which I honestly do not think I would have the courage to read again, so horrific a picture of depraved human nature does it paint. I have wondered if Saramago was influenced by Wyndham. Nearly everyone is temporarily blinded in Saramago’s novel, and the viciousness and brutality of some of the blind in the ways they capture, maltreat and abuse the sighted ones, as well as their weaker fellow blind humans, is truly horrendous, and leaves one with very little faith in human nature.

The revolting smell of boiled cabbage permeates the world of Airstrip One’s London in George Orwell’s well-known Nineteen Eighty-four. It epitomises the poverty and deprivation of Big Brother’s world of rationing and control, along with the sickening smell and vile taste of the Victory gin. Indeed, I have found that Orwell is particularly attuned to the smells of poverty and deprivation in his writings. Tristram Shandy’s nose, and the unfortunate accident which happens to it during his birth, is at the centre of the eponymous novel by Laurence Sterne, and the whole of Patrick Süsskind’s novel Perfume centres on the central character’s olfactory skills. It’s also stunningly effectively translated to film.

Sound and hearing was rather more of a problem, and the only thing I could come up with was the character of Oskar in Günter GrassThe Tin Drum: his voice, singing or screaming, can easily shatter glass, and does so with various humorous, alarming and dramatic effects at many points in the novel.

Touch I found even more problematic, the legend of King Midas aside, partly as my acquaintance with erotic literature is somewhat limited, although I was again reminded of The Tin Drum: readers familiar with the book will know what I am referring to when I mention the episode of the woodruff powder…

I would be interested to hear from my readers if there are any novels I’ve either forgotten or don’t know about, in which particular senses feature strongly… I’m also wondering if some of our senses are more conducive to literary exploration than others.

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On literature and religion

May 27, 2018

I’ve written before about the connections I’ve found when thinking about literature and religion, and also about science fiction and religion (here and here, if not elsewhere!). Recently I found myself back with the theme…

It’s possible to see religion as something human beings have evolved or developed as a way of coming to terms with our own eventual mortality, a knowledge we have because of our powers of perception, reasoning and understanding, and a knowledge which might otherwise blight our existence. We are here, briefly, conscious of what goes on around us, we live, experience, remember things and cannot really understand it all coming to a stop, even though before we existed, everything was going on fine without us…

If there were no god, no heaven, no afterlife, then, nevertheless there are still impulses in us (some of us?) that take us away from the purely material plane onto one which has been called spiritual, acknowledging an aspect of how our minds work. I say some of us, because I know there are people who do not seem to be bothered by thoughts of this kind, or else deal with them in a different way from me, and appear to get on quite happily with their lives… the world is surely large enough for all of us. But some of us do experience a need or a drive to make sense of it all.

So for me, and others like me, religion is a way of addressing those spiritual impulses or leanings; for us there are very real issues that we engage with, that take us onto different levels of awareness or consciousness, that address our existential angst, I suppose.

Then I turned my thoughts to a novel I’ve always rated highly, for lots of different reasons: A for Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov. It’s a Soviet utopia, set a thousand or so years in the future after the inevitable triumph of socialism has transformed the whole planet, and humans are turned towards the cosmos and other worlds. No religion of any kind is mentioned; clearly it has died out under conditions of actually existing socialism, though it is referred to as an aspect of humankind’s primitive past. Yefremov nevertheless allows his characters to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and the natural beauty of the world, too, in ways which today we might call spiritual. But he is the only SF writer I know to have imagined the end of religion.

Olaf Stapledon‘s epic Last and First Men is different altogether. If humans cannot cope with the prospect of disappearance and individual annihilation, we are offered another picture, of our race evolving, mutating and moving to other planets in the solar system over geological time periods, during which we (?) become totally different species. And with a pang we realise that pretty early on in his imagined cycle, our particular humanity and its civilisations and achievements vanish, obliterated by the vastness of time and geological change, with absolutely no trace left behind…not just individual, but collective death.

Many less ambitious writers have written post-apocalyptic novels, and it’s a marvel that one of the few objects that usually survives the cataclysm that starts the novel is a copy of the Bible, so that humanity can safely ‘rediscover’ God, often in an even more warped version than many believers seem to find attractive today. John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids is a good example: post-disaster mutants are an abomination in His sight and must be hunted down and destroyed. No change there then. But for me the saddest of all is Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where, after a nuclear holocaust, monks are again the repositories of knowledge and learning, carefully salvaging the knowledge of our past; eventually, thanks to their efforts, ‘civilisation’ re-emerges after hundreds of years, only to travel down exactly the same pathway to another nuclear war…

I’m not really sure where this has led me, sceptical about much religion and the miseries it has caused (though I don’t only blame religion for human misery) and yet, from my own upbringing inevitably drawn to the spiritual that I find in myself and others, and all around me. None of this balances the knowledge that I only have a tiny amount of time to enjoy what our world offers.

John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids

December 29, 2017

41XXnBs1XZL._AC_US218_This – probably the best-known of Wyndham‘s novels – was turned into a film with an abysmal ending at some point in the 1960s, when black and white films were still being made. As a novel, it works well because of its first-person narrative. A puzzling start, with the narrator in hospital surrounded by everyone else blinded by a super-bright comet, is followed by a lengthy and tedious but necessary flashback as the history and origins of the triffids is outlined, along with some rather crude Cold War propaganda and attitudes, which later turn out to be rather more prescient than it initially seemed: were the triffids a sinister product of biological and genetic manipulation in a laboratory somewhere, and were the bright lights which blinded everyone another sinister Cold War weapon which went off by accident?…. we are in the hands of a read science-fiction writer here, no doubt.

Triffids are deadly, mobile and carnivorous plants which can communicate with each other; without sight, humans are doomed, so here we are in disaster-novel territory, though not one quite so appallingly horrifying as Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, a novel which I honestly don’t think I could face reading again…

Wyndham’s characters and their attitudes are seriously dated now – the novel was published in 1951 – but his plot is plausible, even convincing in its development once the premise of the triffids is accepted. Changes to people’s behaviour and morals would be necessary if the species were to survive and regenerate after the collapse of civilisation, and many novels of this era consider this problem from a number of angles – think Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or George Stewart‘s Earth Abides. These are real questions, though framed in 1950s terms. We are inevitably soon in survival of the fittest territory; various attempts at group survival fail, in London and in the countryside, particularly ones run along millenarist, Christian fundamentalist lines. Among many of the survivors a curious hope in the Americans coming to the rescue is seen…

There can be no satisfactory ending to such a novel, of course, only a glimpse of hope and optimism, which is where Wyndham perhaps differs from other writers of the time and genre who are rather more pessimistic; a settlement on an island large enough to be self-sufficient, and from which the deadly plants can be eliminated, is possibly a start.

John Wyndham: The Chrysalids

December 20, 2017

A long time since I last read this one, and for my money it’s still the best of Wyndham‘s SF novels. Despite being written over sixty years ago, it hasn’t dated badly; the post-nuclear apocalyptic scenario is still pretty convincing, as is the concern with genetic mutations from that time, and the religious screwball craziness of the United States is as valid as ever…

Nuclear war has devastated the Eastern US, where the story is set; little or nothing is known of further afield. Mutations are rife, among humans, animals and crops, and in the region where the story is set, formerly north-eastern Canada, are seen as punishment for man’s sins that led to the ‘Tribulation’ some three centuries ago, and in this fundamentalist Christian society are ruthlessly extirpated and destroyed.

Wyndham writes well, and his story has a leisurely pace, fitting the sort of times and paces he’s creating; his master-stroke is his careful choice of an adolescent as his narrator, and one who gradually comes to realise that actually he carries a mutation, along with a handful of others nearby. It’s not a visible one, however – it’s a form of telepathy and ability to read and tune into the thoughts of others similarly affected. This puts them in considerable, though not immediate danger.

Eventually they are betrayed and have to flee, and come into contact with a whole society of telepaths who have colonised New Zealand and rebuilt a technological society; they come to their rescue. And yet, Wyndham leaves us with a sense of unease at the end, too, because although our endangered few from Canada are rescued and taken to a place where they will no longer be at risk of extermination, the Zealanders seem cold, calculating, almost un-human… as of course they actually are if though-reading and telepathy are widespread in their world, and they are very ready to dismiss those who are not, as primitives…

This is what’s different about good SF – see my previous post – there’s a reasonable plot, some decent characterisation, in that I actually cared about the fate of some of the characters, and the futuristic or science-fictional elements are rather more plausible. There’s material to make a reader think; we are challenged by the idea that a better future for some may not be for all…

Post-apocalyptic futures…

February 24, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the taxonomy, or classification, of various types of what might loosely be called science fiction, in the light of earlier posts on this blog. There are differences and overlaps to consider, before I come on to today’s topic.

For instance, some utopias and dystopias might also be classified as alternative futures: Ernest Callenbach’s visions of California turning itself into an independent state run along ecological lines (Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging) might have been considered alternative futures in the 1970s when they were written. Many dystopias are clearly also alternative futures, or were when they were first written. And I suppose the argument might be made that all utopian visions are alternative futures, although that doesn’t actually get us any further.

But then it seemed to me, as I thought first about Richard JefferiesAfter London (see the preceding post) that the classification also needs to take post-apocalyptic visions into account, as many of these may also be alternative future scenarios…

Enough theorising, time to consider some of my favourite examples. One of the best science fiction novels ever (see my listings pages) is Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, also one of the most pessimistic visions of humanity I can call to mind. Hundreds of years after a nuclear war, monks – still the repositories of knowledge – preserve the relics of the ancients (us) as civilisation slowly and painfully rebuilds itself, over many centuries, until it reaches such an advanced state that it can once again build nuclear weapons. And yes, da capo. Double post apocalypse yes, dystopia? I’m not sure. in M P Sheil’s The Purple Cloud, poisonous gases wipe out humanity permanently; in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, it’s only temporary.

Apocalyptic scenarios were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s when consciousness of the fact that our species had reached such a high point in its development that it was now capable of not only destroying itself, but possibly most life on the planet, gradually dawned on writers. Not all visions used nuclear war as the trigger, in George Stewart’s Earth Abides it’s a disease, in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids it’s genetically-engineered plants plus laser weapons in space, though in The Chrysalids there has been nuclear war and attendant mutations.

Wyndham and JG Ballard are perhaps the obvious masters of the post-apocalyptic in different ways, although Christopher Priest, with The Death of Grass and The Empty World, rates a mention. All of these writers bring to science fiction, and to post-apocalyptic writing as a new genre, a consciousness of the ultimate fragility of our species, and indeed, of sentient life. Perhaps the first to consider this in a scientific fashion was HG Wells in The War of the Worlds, and interestingly Christopher Priest provides a marvellous twist on this story and on The Time Machine in his wonderful novel The Space Machine.

However, this is all to view everything from a twentieth century perspective, where science fiction itself is a recent notion, allowing us to ignore or forget writers from longer ago who also considered such notions, which brings us back to Jefferies, and of course, to Mary Shelley and The Last Man, which still gets my award for one of the best post-apocalyptic novels, for who can resist her fantasy of having the whole world to oneself to do with what one likes (with only oneself for company)?

After the Apocalypse…

August 3, 2014

Thinking about utopias and dystopias in recent posts reminded me of post-apocalyptic scenarios. It might seem as if that particular strand in literature must be a relatively recent one, in that only since the invention of nuclear weapons have we been forced to accept the possibility that we could annihilate ourselves as a species.

But no: back to Mary Shelley, author of the more famous Frankenstein. She wrote a novel which I think I prefer, because it’s rather less frantic and over-written than the former – The Last Man, which describes just that situation: a plague gradually kills off all human beings save one, who travels through the empty and deserted remains of civilisation, reflecting on his fate. It’s an astonishing effort of the imagination, and deserves a wider audience. Early in the twentieth century, in The Purple Cloud, M P Shiel imagines a similar series of events.

Perhaps because we are such a social species, writers have striven to imagine the opposite. Perhaps because we are a warlike species, they have sought to imagine us ultimately defeated, by greater forces than ourselves – H G Wells could have had us completely annihilated by the Martians in The War of the Worlds, but chose not to, developing a different message for the human race by pointing out the fragility of any organism when faced by unknown microbes or bacteria.

And then there’s the fantasy element, as we read any of these novels: what would I do in that situation? What if I had the world to myself, all its resources and riches: how would I play with them all? Where would I go? Shelley’s hero wanders through the beautiful places of Europe…

John Wyndham imagines a combination of elements dealing the death-blow to humanity in The Day of the Triffids: another warning about humans over-reaching themselves. Deadly plants which can communicate with each other wipe out the blinded human race, except for a small enclave which retreats to the Isle of Wight, there to exercise constant vigilance against the dreaded weeds.

One of my favourite tales is Earth Abides, by George Stewart: a storyfrom the 1950s again sees humans almost wiped out by a plague; there are some survivors, but what interests Stewart is how they would struggle to survive in small numbers, with their limited and compartmentalised knowledge, how much they would need to re-discover and re-invent in order to sustain civilisation, and how inevitably with the passage of time and generations, so much knowledge and ability would be lost, and the gradual sinking into primitiveness and savagery would be hard to avoid. It’s a poignant tale, perhaps somewhat dated now, but good for making one think about the fragile veneer of civilisation…

I think the best, and most harrowing and haunting, at least to my knowledge, has to be Walter M Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s set in a remote, post nuclear holocaust future where a bastardised version of the Catholic Church strives to preserve the knowledge of the past in its monasteries; slowly and painfully, civilisation is re-established, but only for humans to gradually and inevitably make the same ghastly mistakes all over again: nuclear weapons are re-invented and wreak their horrific toll once more. Such a pessimistic vision of the species and its history could only have come out of the 1960s, with the threat of annihilation hanging over the world. It’s beautifully written, painfully described, and leaves us with no hope.

But now, I’m off to re-read a novel from the 1990s: A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright, in which a Wellsian time machine maroons a traveller in a post-apocalyptic Britain…

 

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