Tuesday, August 12, 2008

W is for Wyndham

It is fitting, I guess, as the ‘Holiday from History’ (August 21st, 1991 – August 8th, 2008) draws to an end, to say a few words about the work of John Wyndham, which more than most other bodies of work breathes the sense of Apocalypse that overshadowed my youth.

I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to write about Wyndham back around B or C, but I am afraid it has pretty much evaporated. My mind is like one of those thingies, you know, that is full of holes, and I don’t seem to remember much unless I write it down. And as I never wrote down what I was going to write back then, I haven’t remembered it. So I will have to start again.

‘She was quite abruptly aware that the world was almost noiseless.

There was an alarming feeling of unreality. She held her breath to listen for some reassuring sound. Supposing it had all stopped, now? – As it might do one day.

Perhaps, even at this moment, there were in some parts of the world great columns of smoke writhing upwards in Medusan coils, swelling out at the top into cerebral convolutions that pulsed with a kind of sub-life, marking the beginning of the silence that meant the end of everything.

For years now, when she was off her guard, those pillars of smoke had been likely to start up in her mind. She hated and feared them.’ (Wild Flower, 1956)

In another way, it is inappropriate for me to construct this around Wyndham, since I didn’t start reading him until I left the Old Country and no longer lived in fear. It was The Martian Chronicles that best embodied the feeling of Apocalypse when I was young. There was something I never understood. Why did all those people leave Mars and go back to Earth? Isn’t away the direction you ought to run, when everything goes pear-shaped? There was such a deep, deep, vein of melancholy in those two doomed civilisations, Mars and Earth, following each other into the void in the twinkling of an eye.

The short stories of John Wyndham are not always about the end of the world as we know it, but the novels almost always seem to be, in one way or another. I guess it is hard to keep writing for so long without doing something drastic. In The Outward Urge, which I am fond of for no particularly good reason, the nuclear war happens offstage and isn’t really so bad given the action takes place over centuries and in Brazil and Australian when its on Earth. In The Kraken Wakes and The Trouble with Lichen, civilisation isn’t quite destroyed, but it is clearly going to be replaced by something very different.

I remember that Stanislaw Lem was quite dismissive of ‘End of the World’ fiction. Ah, here he is:

‘In the course of its evolution science fiction has renounced the positive omnipotence, and for a long time it has occupied the opposite pole- that of maximum despair. Gradually it has made this pole its playground. Because the end of the world, the atomic Last Judgment, the epidemic provoked by technology, the freezing, drying up, crystallisation, burning, sinking, the automation of the world, and so on no longer have any meaning in science fiction today. They lost their meaning because they underwent the typical inflation that changes eschatological horror into the pleasant creeps. Every self-respecting fan owns a science-fiction library of the agonies of mankind that equals the book collection of a chess amateur, since the end of the world should be as formally elegant as a well-thought-out gambit. … There are specialists who have slaughtered mankind in thirty different ways, but still search diligently and calmly for further methods of murder. Structurally this (end-of-the-world) science fiction has put itself on the same level as the crime novel, and culturally it acts out a nihilism that liquidates horror, according to the law of diminishing returns.4

To me what is written and what is unwritten have always loomed equally large in these sort of novels, and I spend a lot of time thinking about the countless tragic stories that are not the adventures of the hero. My own imagination always interpolates the eschatological terror back into the most pedestrian of the sort of books Lem is talking about.

I have been reading ‘My Apprenticeship’, by Beatrice Webb, off and on for the past month or two. I had only ever heard of the Webbs as people mentioned unfavourably in books by or about Chesterton or Wells- sort of Machiavellian powerbrokers of the Socialist movement, the sort of people who might go out to dinner at Iguana Joes. It has been a pleasant surprise to find Beatrice so engaging, so rational, so- Clammish:

‘What body of scientific men, or even of ordinary shrewd business men, spoken to on the subject that interested them most, whether intellectually or materially, would tolerate that extraordinary mixture of personalities, dogmatic assertions as to fact and principle, metaphysical theories, grand and vague moral sentiments, appeals to personal devotion on the hand, and self-interest on the other, this extraordinary medley of sentiment, passion, and expediency which makes up the argument of the politician?’ (Beatrice Potter Webb, diary, July 1884)

But I wanted to quote something that she wrote when she was much younger, about ten:

‘A novel now and then is a wise recreation to be offered to a growing mind, it cultivates the imagination, but taken as the continual nourishment, it destroys many a young mind … The whole of their thought (for a child of nine or ten spends little or no thought on her lessons) is wasted on making up love scenes, or building castles in the air, where she is always the charming heroine without a fault.’

When I was of that age, a good many of my castles in the air involved the destruction of everything I knew, a desperate struggle to survive, and my death at the age of 21 from radiation-induced cancer after playing a role in the salvage of something from the wreck of civilisation. I thought, a lot, about the exact sort of story that the first chapters of The Day of the Triffids is, with myself as the protagonist. Most times I travelled into town- for we lived on the edge of town- I would think about how far we were likely to be from Ground Zero, and what our chances of survival might be. My calculations were based on false premises; for I later found out the city I lived in was surrounded at a goodly distance by a ring of Titan II missile silos, which no doubt had at least one missile each allotted to them, so wherever I went I would have been comprehensively obliterated by overlapping blast zones in the event of a nuclear exchange.

I still think, uneasily, sometimes. Should I lay in a better store of organic seeds? Do I really have any practical skills that my neighbours in the village might find useful, were civilisation to collapse? Are we far enough away from the highway to avoid the starving hordes from the cities?

Oh well.

It appears to me that the holiday is over. We had for a little while the luxury in the West of casting down tyrants, but now we are well on our way back to being tied-up by Realpolitik and the Balance of Terror from effecting anything good in the world.

We shall see.

4: The quote from ‘Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case - With Exceptions’ was long enough, so you will have to hunt down a copy of ‘Microworlds’ yourself to read the footnote. But it will be worth it, if you have any weakness for curmudgeonly footnotes at all.


Dave said...

Interestingly, recent events in Southern Ossettia et al have been, for me, less cause for pessimism than much of the geo-political finagling of the past couple of presidential terms. Just as you appear to be returning to the post-apocalyptic alarums of your youth*, my optimism vis a vis global events is heading in a cautious but upwards vector. This may have much do to with my naive expectations of the likely successor to that silly little Leader of the Free World title you hear thrown about.

*I confess that mine have never really gone away, and the second that someone gene-genies up a walking canola tree, I'm packing the family up and heading into the outback with a can of diesel and a hedge trimmer.

Dr. Clam said...

Hhrhmm, hmmmmhh... it seems to me that this is a comment best answered in Entish. But I will have a go in rambling and grammatically muddled English prose.

Marco sees more clearly than either of us: he is not distracted by the swish of the matador's red cloth, but sees the steel hidden behind. You and I have the hope, or the fear, that having a different individual as the Leader of the Free World can *really* make a difference, but we forget that he is not an elected monarch, but someone who is hemmed in with a good many more checks and balances than our own very-hemmed Prime Minister. It is the movements of the steel, the changes in the geopolitical game that Marco is so sensitive to, that we should be worrying about. What is happening now is that the projection of weakness by the United States- partly over the objections of its President, but often with his active connivance- is starting to bear fruit. Which projection of weakness and which fruit-bearing looks set to continue to happen, whoever wins in November.

Marco said...

I concur. To put it another way, the "Unipolarity" of the world since 9/11/1989 is swiftly eroding. It appears that the world with a strong, free, democratic controlling power has been only temporary. Another pole of resurgent financial and military might (China and/or Russia) seems to be ready to play a spoiler influence for anything the US does, and may yet invoke again the spektre of MAD.

Dave said...

Hrmm, I'm not so sure I am as afflicted with rose-coloured blinkers as all that, though I concede to frequently favouring optimism over dispassionate analysis, if only because I dislike doing the numbers associated with the latter stance.

I don't doubt you're right about the decline of unipolarity. The 21st century will not, for its majority, be the American Century. My gut instinct is that that distinction will go to China rather than Russia. Russia, despite its belligerent confidence over the fact that it is currently holding most of the cards that matter in terms of European energy stocks, is a little too inherently unstable, insecure and frankly drama-laden to maintain a dominant position. China, on the other hand is calculating, ruthless, relentless and owns an unsettling chunk of America's foreign debt, and it's hard to see where its ascendancy could be curtailed, without some sort of world-destabilising internal revolution.

And yes, America is projecting weakness, though I maintain this is in large part due to failures of self-analysis and ill-thought-out adventurism on the part of strategic policy makers. Short of extending the War on Terror to a third front (with Iran or North Korea), I can't offhand think of anything more that the Bush administration can do to set itself up to look weak.

Despite all this, I'm not seeing anything yet that points alarmingly towards a MAD scenario. Feel free to steer me towards something really scary.

Marco said...

I thought the Threats of nuclear strikes against Poland would be scary enough. Remember that *any* nuclear strike that happens on any reasonable size city anywhere in the world would make 9/11 look like a petty crime in comparison. There are still hundreds of ICBM's quickly and easily deployable with nuclear weapons to various retaliatory effect. Russia has now started to play the nuclear card as well as its energy card and its UN veto card. China has two of these cards also, but keeps them close to their chest. I worry more these days (with the world so interdependent) about a single nuclear weapon destabilising the whole world system than I ever did about complete mutual destruction. The absolute worst natural disaster I can think of that could be attributable to global warming is dwarfed by the fear of a nuclear strike on any one city.

Dave said...

True. To be fair to Russia, the US putting parts of a "missile defence system" inside Poland would be a pretty provocative move, to put it mildly. The Russian counter-moves, including the show of force (let's politely call it a disproportionate response)in Georgia and letting a general or two off the leash, seem to be chiefly a demonstration that the disdain with which the west has treated Russia for the past decade or so will no longer be tolerated. (Bush's relations with Putin, for one thing, have sucked,failing strategically, diplomatically and for all I know economically as well). It *is* an alarming resurgence in Russian nationalism, but my interpretation of the "Poland has made itself a target" comment is thinly-veiled code for "You've stepped over the line and we are calling you on it". The timing is not insignificant, either - with the US mired in two other wars which they are not conducting with resounding conviction, any strong response they make will lack credibility, while any mealy-mouthed unbacked threats will make their feet look awfully brittle.

Win-win, for Russia.

Europe, having a great deal more to lose from a belligerent Russia than the US, presumably should be stepping up with a diplomatic offensive. They should certainly not be fast-tracking EU membership for states that institutionalise repression of minority populations, which appears to be the case with Georgia. That pisses off the Russians, who rightly see it as a double standard.

Dr. Clam said...

I was looking for abkhazia.org again to put a link to it as well, to be more even-handed towards the mingled folks who are both ethnically cleansed and ethnically cleansing, but it seems to have been vanished. So that's why I've hidden the abkhazia.com link. abkhazia.ru seems to be all about the seaside holiday apartments.

Dave said...

Presumably happened as part of the Russian cyberwar effort, which commenced several weeks before the tanks rolled in. Will see if I can locate a link to that story (might have spotted it in Boing Boing) because it's an interesting piece of provocation from Russia.

Dr. Clam said...

I meant to say this earlier, but abkhazina.org, which has disappeared, was the page of the government of the newly recognised (by Russia and Nicaragua) nation dominated by ethnic Abkhazians; abkhazia.com, which is still here, is the page of the dispossessed largely-russified Svans and Mingrelians (mostly) who have embraced Georgian nationalism. So if it has disappeared due to the cyberwar, its the 'Counter-Cyberwar' by the Georgians against the Russians...