I’m making a
documentary about John Wyndham for Radio 4. Nicola Swords is the
producer (we also made my Sarah Kane documentary together) and has done
all the leg work setting up interviews and so on.
The documentary will feature original
interviews as well as a bit of archive and some commentary from me.
We’ve interviewed Sister Bede on the Isle of Wight, whose decision to
convert to Catholicism and then to become a cloistered nun is said to
have satirically inspired the miraculous conceptions of The Midwich Cuckoos.
This week we interviewed Adam Roberts, my friend and colleague and
great science fiction expert, and also went to Kew Gardens where I asked
some pretty dumb questions (why can’t plants walk?) and was introduced
to a range of monsterish and carnivorous plants. Another morning was
spent at Bedales, the fascinating, progressive, co-educational school
that Wyndham seems to have taken as a model for the ideal communities in
the books. We also talked to Wyndham’s biographer, David Ketterer, who
is interested in the books as ‘estranged biography’ working out some of
his personal anxieties and regrets.
My line is, I think, that Wyndham is a
much more complex writer than he seems, partly because we don’t notice
how he’s working within the conventions of the 1950s English novel.
Before the Obscene Publications Act 1959 which allowed some degree of
sexual and other explicitness if there were artistic merit or a public
good involved, it was impossible to discuss some of Wyndham’s key themes
directly: sexuality, alternatives to marriage, as well as our evolution
as a species and relations to others. Wyndham’s complexity lies in the
way he allows subtext to generate his complexities.
Adam Roberts, in his superb short introduction to three new Folio Society editions of The Chrysalids, The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos,
is very alert to the way the books address post-war anxieties about
genocide, nuclear destruction, the Cold War and so on. He observes that
often there are logical lacunae and moments of hyperbole that one can
use to complicate the stories and ask more difficult moral questions.
I’m struck also by Wyndham’s complicated
sexual politics. The experience of Bedales seems to have left him with a
clear-sighted delight in strong-willed, independent women. He is also
rather uninterested in marriage, often representing married life as a
chore (Midwich, Chocky) and entertaining alternative forms of family (Triffids, Consider Her Ways, Midwich, Chrysalids, Trouble with Lichen).
In the long short story Consider Her Ways, a woman wakes in a hospital
to find herself many years in the future where the men have died out and
women rule, some of them being selected as mothers, baby machines,
whose bodies are prepared exclusively for the production of children.
When the devastated protagonist talks to one of the new rulers, the
arguments against the way we organise sexuality and childbirth in our
society are surprisingly, unsettlingly persuasive.
At moments I wonder if he visits horrors
on the sleepy Middle England of his books because he is repelled by
their complacency as much as to stress the uncanny in his vision. He is
particularly fascinated and horrified by children, it would seem. Midwich
of course is very much about the fear of children, their independence,
that they will outgrow and outlive you, in some ways be better than you.
The Chrysalids also. Chocky is a curious novel; it’s basically a story about a boy with an imaginary friend raised to another power.
But he also seems to fear women. It’s striking how often the threats in the novels are feminised. In Triffids, as Ketterer suggests, there’s an association between Triffids and female genitalia. Chocky is both sexually neuter and female, intriguingly. And in Midwich,
the telepathic communication between the children is prefigured by the
ability of the women of the village to arrange and hold a meeting on the
subject of their pregnancy without ever actually saying what they’re
talking about. Gossip mechanisms, it suggests, are alien, uncanny,
Wyndham was somewhat dismissed by Brian Aldiss, who spoke perhaps for the new wave’s harder-edged science fiction when he talked of Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophes’. It’s true that the stories often seem to be opportunities for the characters to show off good old British pluck and Wyndham’s preference is for no-nonsense, brisk and wryly deprecating narrators. But the books are surprisingly unheroic, and often peculiarly open-ended (think of Kraken and Triffids) or - surely - deliberate in their refusal to offer satisfying endings (the weird conclusion of Midwich).