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?
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.