Tuesday, 10 February 2015

John Wyndham- The Kraken Wakes

The Kraken Wakes
Penguin

John Wyndham
1953

“I'm a reliable witness, you're a reliable witness, practically all God's children are reliable witnesses in their own estimation--which makes it funny how such different ideas of the same affair get about.”

Like everybody else in the known 'verse, the first and until now only John Wyndham novel I'd read was of course Day of the Triffids- his 1951 apocalyptic science fiction novel about a deadly invasion of extraterrestrial fauna, the novel that made his name and is now regarded as a must-read classic for fans of the genre. To be completely honest though that was a good few years ago and I dare say I didn't pay as much attention as I should've, so I can't give any more detailed thoughts than that I remember quite enjoying it. It didn't strike me as a genre-transcending piece of brilliance, but as a well-constructed fantasy thriller, inspired mostly by standard-bearers H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rather than Wyndham's more recognisable contemporaries Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

John Wyndham
The Kraken Wakes was Wyndham's first novel following Triffids, and it quickly shows his willingness to follow up on that success with a similar plot. The copy I found is the same edition as the cover above, the images alone from the start conjouring up the right connotations for such a piece of fifties sci-fi. The story wastes no time in delving into another unexpected planetary invasion; the opening frames the rest of the narrative as the personal testimony of EBC (yes) news reporter Mike Watson, faithfully accompanied by his wife Phyllis; their own uncensored recollections of the slow invasion of Earth by hostile but unseen alien forces.

Over the course of 200+ pages, Watson recalls the initial sightings of mysterious shooting-star like objects falling into the deepest parts of the world's oceans, and the increasing panic, disbelief and paranoia of the human race as shortly after ships begin sinking without trace. While Watson and a few others close to the heart of the matter come to the correct conclusion of an alien invasion, the general public as a whole and governments around the world are extremely reluctant to agree, instead preferring to blame each other. By the time undeniable proof forces the human race to come to a concencus. it is far, far too later, as the aliens' ultimate plan is put into place and the Earth is changed forever.

It's dramatic, world-breaking stuff, and I'd wager it'd make a good modern-day Hollywood adaptation. I found the pacing to be unforunately too drawn-out across the majorty of the novel, but there was just enough progressive action in segments, leading the reader with a slight increase of pace towards the final act. For me though, it was too little, too late to have much of an impact beyond the recognition that some of Wyndham's ideas were quite interesting, as there was far too much else that just wasn't. The main overall problem for me was the tone of the narration, which then effected the other features of the story.

Penguin-again
The character of Watson was initially an appealing one; amiable, polite and unmistakably English. His almost-naive optimism and relentless good manners seemed like a veil to cover a deeper character when put under pressure, but though there was a growing introspective intensity as things became calamitous it never became a particularly strong one. Somehow Watson and his wife stay unruffled despite the world falling apart around them, and this British steel damages the legitimacy of the alien threat. This wouldn't matter if Wyndham were a better philosopher, but he's not. That's not to say he doesn't have a good eye for some political criticism; his depiction of the world's governments as made inept through the paranoia of the west/east divide has some Orwell to it.

Ultimately the main flaw of The Kraken Wakes is that it just doesn't have enough interesting content to justify the length, not enough direct sci-fi or action for the genre, and not enough philosophising, satirising or post-modernising to be anything more. Wyndham hits upon some interesting ideas, but I think was hamstrung by some of the details of his plot, in particular the constant separation between the human race and this new threat. I'm all for an heir of mystery, but Wyndham gives so little away about the invaders that he makes them generic and uninteresting, unlike the distinctive Triffids of his past successes. I don't want to call it a bad book because it's not; the plot makes sense and Wyndham's prose is well-constructed- but it is the very definition of a three star science fiction book, entertaining enough in its way but with nothing new leaving any kind of lasting impression.