Tag Archives: John Wyndham

SF Showcase interview

SF Showcase recently interviewed me about my YA novel, Machineries of Mercy, as well as the upcoming Snakeskins and even a glimpse of the novel after that. The conversation covers the influence of John Wyndham, the original Westworld film and one of my favourite Doctor Who stories, ‘The Deadly Assassin’. Click here to read the interview.

What I read in 2010

I saw a similar list on the blog Worlds in a Grain of Sand, and couldn’t resist. These are the books I read in 2010, in the order I read them.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue (Marghanita Laski, 1953)
A young mother recuperates from tuberculosis in 1950s London, lying upon a Victorian chaise-longue, and dreams, or perhaps becomes, Milly in 1864. Little in terms of mechanics is explained, but the view of Victorian society from a 20th century perspective is fascinating.

I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
Far closer to the fantastic 1964 film adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, than the 2007 turkey. The final act makes a huge amount more sense in the novel, linked to a double-meaning in the title. If more modern vampire films could use the more routine elements of this novel as an influence, they’d be better for it.

City of Glass (Auster/Karasik/Mazzuchelli, 1994)
Firstly, Paul Auster’s original story (part of the New York Trilogy) is one of the finest and most concise short stories I’ve read. The surprise is that this comic adaptation retains almost all of what is striking about the text. The additions – wordless explorations into recurrence of patterns and images – add an aspect that’s now fused with the original story in my memory.

Telling Tales (Melissa Katsoulis, 2009)
A great account of literary hoaxes and swindles. My favourite were the cases where the hoaxers produced their finest work under a pseudonym, whilst attempting to mock the establishment.

5 is the Perfect Number (Igort, 2003)
A classy affair. Igor Tuveri’s style is pretty spare and the characters are treated coldly, but I enjoyed this graphic novel about a workaday Mafia hitman.

Apples (Richard Milward, 2007)
Richard was in the year below me at secondary school – this novel charts teen relationships in a rundown suburb of nearby Middlesbrough. The dialogue is spot on (Irvine Welsh contributed a cover comment to Richard’s followup, Ten Storey Love Song) and it’s easy to see why this talk-heavy analysis of teen idiocy was adapted for the stage.

The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold, 2002)
My first book club title of the year, and certainly a novel I wouldn’t have read in other circumstances. Perfectly neat and all, but other than the character of the father, it didn’t lodge in my mind.

Castle Waiting (Linda Medley, 2006)
A mainly feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales, this graphic novel is rambling and full of heart. Perhaps not as special as the beautiful cover promises, but a cosy experience all the same.

Lunar Park (Bret Easton Ellis, 2005)
I had an enjoyable struggle with the amount of foreknowledge that Ellis expects of his readers, and the first third of the book had me hooked. But I quickly tired of (character) Ellis’ self-obsession, and the recurring images (the Terby, the peeling walls of the house) felt hammered home. The novel may have been intended as a parody of Stephen King-style thrills, but I felt that it fell for its own joke.

Fup (Jim Dodge, 1983)
A happy way to spend an hour or so. This wafer-thin novel features stars a man who believes he is immortal, and a duck. It’s wry and warm.

20th Century Eightball (Daniel Clowes, 2002)
A collection of Clowes’ early comics, this is far less assured than the only other of his works I’ve read, Ghost World. It’s fun, but there’s little to hold together this collection of short strips.

The Riddle of the Sands (Erskine Childers, 1903)
Good grief, this one dragged. I bought it on the strength of its being included in Penguin’s Read Red series of adventure stories (I wouldn’t have got round to reading the excellent Prisoner of Zenda without this series). At first, it lived up to it’s billing as an early espionage thriller, but soon became bogged down with minutiae about tides and boatcraft. Left a bitter taste and slowed down my year’s reading.

The Reader (Bernard Schlink, 1997)
Following up The Riddle of the Sands with this ponderous novel (another book club choice) was bad luck. To be fair, I would have resented it far less had I not seen the Kate Winslet stinker of an adaptation a few months previously. The view of post-war German attitudes to Nazism was fascinating, but the relationships were not.

Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003)
Another book club pick, which I’m embarrassed about: I rarely read female authors, and had never read a book by an African novelist – so the only way I would have read this was through coercion. I’m really glad this was picked – it was perfectly accessible and the account of post-colonial Nigeria was captivating.

The Unlimited Dream Company (J G Ballard, 1979)
Another novel that I laboured over, although this time it probably wasn’t the fault of the book. This story of a would-be pilot crashlanding in Shepperton, only to become trapped by unknown forces, was a real surprise to me. I’ve not read any other Ballard, and was impressed/baffled by the levels of woozy sexual fantasy. Unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984)
Another author I’d been meaning to read for ages, and this book seemed a sensible place to start. The sci-fi tropes may now be overused, but still felt fresh, and the plot was pleasingly light and action-packed. Compare this with another novel with a similar heritage, Snow Crash – I tried listening to the audiobook of that book and its clunky, meandering prose completely put me off. I’d like to read either the sequels to Neuromancer, or Pattern Recognition, in 2011.

Ubik (Philip K Dick, 1969)
The only Dick novel I’ve read, other than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and it was a relief to read his work without it being overshadowed by images from a film adaptation. The humour was unexpected, more like Douglas Adams than highbrow sci-fi.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005)
Another defiantly speculative-rather-than-science fiction novel. Never Let Me Go felt effortless, its female characters were wonderfully drawn, and the sense of impending doom was palpable. I felt a terrific amount of frustration with the characters inability or lack of desire to get to grips with their situation, even once they’re fully aware of their fate. My memory of this novel is of a vague, thick atmosphere, as hazy as distant schooldays.

Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003)
I read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale last year, and while this is a bit less distinctive, it’s a solid post-apocalyptic tale with some snarky humour. I’m looking forward to reading the sort-of followup, The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood’s books are the ones I immediately think of when trying to pin down a definition of speculative fiction, as opposed to science fiction. The big ideas are there, but she doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955)
I recently bought a bunch of Penguin John Wyndham editions with the beautiful 1970s illustrated covers, so I’ll be ploughing through them in 2011. But the edition of The Chrysalids was a later one, with a singularly unhelpful cover (to describe it would spoil the plot, by deduction). Rather than ruining the story, this left me completely unprepared for the turn of events and, in fact, resulted in one of the most rewarding reading experiences I had all year. I have my thoughts on a different outcome to the plot that I would have preferred, but having that kind of strong opinion about a novel was inspiring in itself.

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002)
I adored this book. I love hunting for the Great American Novel as much as anyone, and this was the best contender I’d read since Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. Middlesex ought to feel overblown, with several main themes: Greek families, American immigration and hermaphroditism – but it’s a flowing experience. A couple of episodes perhaps too neatly tie in with important events in US history, but on the strength of this novel, I’m anticipating Eugenides’ next book as much as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (Patricia Highsmith, 1987)
I’m a sucker for Patricia Highsmith, but this was the first of her non-Ripley books I’ve read. These gloomy short stories are all about beginnings – Highsmith constructs a nightmarish or upsetting scenario, lets the consequences play out for a handful of pages… and then stops abruptly, apparently uninterested in conclusions. A strange contrast to the environment in which I read these stories, my head leaning against an upturned canoe after trips down the River Wye.

Linger Awhile (Russell Hoban, 2006)
I used to be in a band called The Hired Sportsmen, named after the children’s book Captain Najork and the Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban. Our singer rang Hoban (who was at the time quite ill), who agreed – with some bewilderment – to us using the name. It was only after this point that we discovered that Hoban was, in fact, a prolific author of magic-realism novels. Since then I’ve read Riddley Walker and Amaryllis Night and Day – the latter of which is one of the most lovable books I’ve read in the last five years. I also love Hoban because, of all of the writer’s rooms photographed in the Guardian Review section years ago, his was the only one which was a total pigsty. Linger Awhile is the most frivolous of Hoban’s books that I’ve read (Hollywood cowgirl is raised from the dead, subsequently becomes a vampire), but the leaps in logic and non sequiturs are wonderful.

Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1915)
I came across this title in lists of proto-science fiction novels, and had expected the story of a lost land populated only by women to be a fun curiosity. But this Jules Verne-style exploration tale deals with big issues, and the arguments about the probably success of a female-only society are, while hugely biased, pretty convincing. Even more interesting is the story of Gilman herself: feminist, divorcee, child-abandoner – and editor of The Impress, a feminist journal to which she was the sole contributor.

A Long Way Down (Nick Hornby, 2005)
Although I enjoyed High Fidelity when I was about 15, it feels that both Nick Hornby and I are unsure whether his writing style can be adapted to mature fiction. The tone wavers between whimsical and navel-gazing, neither of which tend to feel appropriate for this story of four would-be suicides. A book club pick.

Scoop (Evelyn Waugh, 1938)
I’m embarrassed to say that I took ages to get through this one. I loved the Fleet Street and rural episodes, but the bulk of the book, with reporters stationed in a civil war-torn African state, left me cold. Still, I’m determined to read Brideshead Revisited this year.

And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, 1939)
I hadn’t read an Agatha Christie book since my early teens, and this felt like a real palate-cleansing treat. Most impressive was Christie’s abruptness – it felt sometimes that she could condense what might be a chapter’s worth of exposition into a sentence. Less appealing was her tendency to sketch back stories with just one single image per character, repeated ad nauseum. I paused before the epilogue and tried to convince myself that each of the ten characters in turn had been the murderer, and all seemed equally valid. Expecting a forehead-smacking revelation, I was disappointed with the outcome.

The Magic Toyshop (Angela Carter, 1981)
I’d expected magic realism similar to Jeanette Winterson’s books, but this story of orphaned children, an authoritarian father figure and swan rape was incredibly bleak. I’m still not sure I fully understand the significance of sizeable portions of this book.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr, 1960)
Back to my default, this is another post-apocalptic story, but with a difference. Each of the three books follow the events surrounding an abbey: in the first book the monks gather relics of the destroyed civilization and attempt to canonize Leibowitz, an ordinary engineer; in the second book the abbey protects the relics and redevelops pre-existing technology; in the third book the abbey witnesses the second rise of civilization and an impending nuclear war. It’s wryly funny and skippy for such a long book but packs a punch – definitely recommended.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder, 1927)
Wow. I’d thought this novel sounded neat: five people fall to their deaths from a bridge in Peru and a priest researches each life to understand why God chose them to die. But each of the stories is totally engrossing, each character so idiosyncratic and appealing, I just raced through this short book. Page for page, the most impressive work I’ve read this year.

Timequake (Kurt Vonnegut, 1996)
I can’t get enough of Kurt Vonnegut, and, as with Nabokov, I’ve taken to rationing myself so I don’t get through them too quickly. This novel is barely fiction – Vonnegut tells the story of a temporary contraction of the universe which sends everyone ten years back in time, doomed to make exactly the same decisions all over again. But really this conceit is an excuse for Vonnegut to hold forth on his favourite topics: humanism, family and his alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. Since reading this book I’ve regularly been espousing Vonnegut’s wisdom to poor Rose.

I’ve missed out the four books I’ve yet to finish. All are non-fiction: The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (absorbing account of modern classical music, but I got distracted making companion playlists); The Great Philosophers edited by Frederick Raphael; Teach Yourself Humanism by Mark Vernon; and an analysis of Jorge Luis Borges by Beatriz Sarlo.

I’ve already agonised over my choices of books in an earlier post. Suffice it to say that I didn’t read as much as I’d have liked to, and my to-read list is still longer than the list of books I’ve ever read.

The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)

The Day of the Triffids is often cited as the first and archetypal ‘cosy catastrophe’ novel. The hero, Bill Masen, is one of the few not to be blinded by the sights of a green comet storm as his eyes have been bandaged in hospital – in the first and most memorable scene he experiences a panicked blindness, then removes his bandages to find that the rest of the population is permanently blind. Only a day into the disaster, Masen discovers a society already collapsed, with many of the blind suicidal or frantically looting food from abandoned shops.

John Wyndham performs a couple of sleights of hand in detailing the background to the disaster. The triffids, strange carnivorous plants with an unknown origin, have dispersed around the world several years before the catastrophe and are common enough to no longer concern Western society. The coincidence that the blinding of the population is enough to allow triffids to gain the upper hand is never explicitly linked to the arrival of the triffids themselves – instead, both the triffids and the green comet shower are usually vaguely linked to human experimentation within an impenetrable Soviet Union.

Throughout most of the novel the Triffids present a persistent obstacle rather than a major threat. Wyndham uses the triffids to illustrate the tenuous hold on power that the human race had before the disaster – but the novel is more concerned with various groups’ opinions on the best way for society to survive. Masen meets several groups with differing opinions, from fatalist isolated communities to benevolent dictatorships.

The primary survivor groups are:

  • Miss Durrant’s Christian group who insist that traditional gender roles and morals are preserved;
  • Wilfred Coker’s initial gang allocating one sighted person to lead a community of blind people in looting supplies in London;
  • Michael Beadley’s practical group who recognize that the human race can only be rebuilt with a version of ‘free love’ and a stable community providing education and safety for future generations;
  • The despotic government offering Masen a feudal lordship over a blind community.

Wyndham appears to stress the need for society’s moral code to reflect the circumstances, and he details Masen’s internal conflict about breaking taboos – for example, stealing from shops or sleeping with more than one woman.

As per Jo Walton’s observations (see my first post, below), while many of the working class survive the initial blinding comet shower, they’re generally wiped out through their greed and inability to adapt. Bill Masen and the eventual stable communities are certainly middle-class and the outlook for their Isle of Wight appears ‘cosy’, while still likely to be fraught with the problems of sustaining a benevolent dictatorship. Peculiarly, Masen is the only character looking for a loved one (and even then, someone he’d met after the catastrophe, not before).

Rereading the novel last month for a book group (the brilliantly garish Penguin copy on the right), I was surprised how little of the novel I’d remembered since reading it age 10 or 11. Other than the blindness disaster, the elements that had stuck were the free-roaming sections where Bill Masen steals one vehicle after another and loots shops for food. I hadn’t recalled the role of the triffids themselves, and even now they seem a McGuffin designed to exacerbate the problems facing the survivors. I’ll be interested to see how the BBC’s new TV adaptation (beginning broadcast on December 29th 2009) treats the triffids, as I’m sure it’s tempting to heighten their role at the expense of the general survival theme.

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Cosy catastrophes

The term ‘cosy catastrophe’ was coined by Brian Aldiss in his science fiction history Billion Year Spree. Cosy catastrophes are stories involving a sudden non-violent event wiping out most of civilization; the cosiness refers to the conceit of a band of survivors left to rebuild society in relative comfort. Aldiss originally used the phrase to describe (with a hint of criticism, perhaps) John’s Wyndham’s novels, particularly The Day of the Triffids.

I think I’ve always been interested in cosy catastrophes, although I didn’t learn about Aldiss’ phrase until yesterday. I read The Day of the Triffids when I was 10 or 11, and while I found the catastrophe itself terrifying (the population watch blazing green comets in the sky, which by morning has rendered them all blind), I was caught by the idea of survivors having free reign over the country, with society in tatters. I’ve since read a bunch of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels – but I think that the concept of the cosy catastrophe is the aspect that really chimes with me.

But why? I’m starting to think it’s not too healthy an interest. Jo Walton points out that the survivors in the archetypal 1950s cosy catastrophe fiction are from the middle classes (with the working classes conveniently wiped out), and they rarely lose anyone significant to them. This allows the survivors to be nostalgic and yet able to recreate society from a more appealing starting-point.

Is my interest as self-centred as Jo Walton suggests? Maybe. I can think of a lot of aspects of a sudden non-violent catastrophe that appeal:

  • a fresh start
  • a new, clear purpose for life
  • a united background with fellow survivors
  • a need to learn and use practical skills

The final point is the one that often leads me to imagine a post-apocalypse world – i.e. what skills do I have that’ll help me to survive after an apocalypse? (Not many!) For the last few years I’ve been working on lengthy, often meandering editorial projects, so I can see the appeal of immediate and practical work. I guess there’s a self-indulgent excitement about the idea of wiping the slate clean in other senses too, particularly the idea of a less complex post-disaster society.

So, I’ll accept the fact that my interest in cosy catastrophes is a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy. I think I’m ok with that. I’m keen to think more carefully about fictional cosy catastrophes, partly to understand writer’s wish-fulfilments, but mainly to understand my own.

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