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Friday, 10 February 2017

Wyndham - or hot air?

John Wyndham was an English author of the 1950s and '60s who made a name for himself with a string of literarily respectable SF novels, most of which injected a seed of something very strange into an everyday life decribed in matter-of-fact, if not humdrum, terms. You should anticipate spoilers...

The Day of the Triffids
Why “cosy catastrophe” – Brian Aldiss’s description of the genre to which The Day of the Triffids belongs? To begin with there’s the narrative tone, sometimes described as middle-class, whatever that’s meant to imply. But the cosiness must mostly come from the triffids themselves. Not that they aren’t threatening, but it’s an otherworldly threat that locates this apocalypse in a safely fantastic framework. Imagine instead that mankind went blind and was then menaced by packs of wild dogs, or rats, rather than ambient vegetables. That might be too close to reality for many readers, and it certainly wouldn’t be cosy.

Wyndham is clearly making up the plot of Triffids as he goes along, especially at the start where every character the narrator meets has to top themselves in order to prune what would soon become a cluttered narrative. Take the doctor that Bill encounters soon after leaving his ward. He must have been blind for all of two hours, he’s a medical professional, he’s in a modern well-equipped hospital, and he has a sighted helper in the person of our narrator. Yet the moment he finds the phone network is kaput he’s gone head-first out the fifth floor window. Reeling across the road for a stiff drink after witnessing that, Bill finds the publican drowning his sorrows. His wife has already gassed herself and the kids, he just needs a few more G-and-Ts to work up the courage to join them.

Really? Would you not wait a few hours to see if help came? If you were a doctor, wouldn’t you at least have a go at finding a cure? Or give it a day or two in case it was a temporary effect? I wouldn’t be diving straight through the nearest window myself, but Wyndham needs to get rid of these inconvenient plot hangnails so that they don’t hold his narrator back.

After Bill runs across a sighted woman called Josella, Wyndham suddenly remembers the triffids – and having remembered them has a half dozen of the buggers packed into every lawn in St John’s Wood. One of them has even got into Josella’s house and done for her dear old dad – handily sparing him the need to find a shotgun or a pack of rat poison to get him out of the way of the plot. “She was not going to care for the idea of leaving her father as we had found him,” muses Bill. “She would wish that he should have a proper burial.” But you can almost hear Wyndham’s sigh as he contemplates a chapter spent de-triffiding the house and burying the old cove. So he has a convenient triffid leap from behind a bush to attack their car. “Drive on!” cries Josella. “Oh, let’s get away before it comes back.” And dead dad is never mentioned again.

I first read this when I was nine or ten years old. I loved the triffids, second only to Daleks in my esteem, but I couldn’t figure out how they were connected to the meteor shower. “They’re not,” said my dad. “The triffids were created, then the meteors blind everybody and that gives the triffids the whip hand.” I was wary of double mumbo jumbo even then, and late in the book Wyndham seems to decide that he ought to link this all up, at least thematically, so throws in the notion that the blinding lights in the sky were caused by orbiting man-made weaponry rather than simple meteors. But what then is the book’s theme? Mankind meddling in things we were not meant to know? Gimme a break. Antibiotics, central heating, water purification, surgery, electricity… It’s too lazy just to wheel out science as a bad guy because nothing else leaps to mind.

Another criticism: Bill and his sighted friends give up on the rest of humanity far too easily. Most of us would have many blind friends and relatives, and we wouldn’t just abandon them. I can think of ways to set up farms with a ratio of several hundred blind workers to maybe a dozen sighted people. The characters in Day of the Triffids barely even try, to the extent that you begin to wonder why Wyndham didn’t just kill the majority off with a plague rather than blinding them and then having to have them commit suicide or wander off. About halfway through, that occurs to him too, at which point he brings in a mysterious plague (also satellite-borne, amazingly) to trim the fat.

Still, Day of the Triffids is fantastic rip-roaring stuff if you’re ten years old and it’s quite fun for adults too. If we hadn’t had Terry Nation’s much better Survivors in between then and now, I might not have found so many faults with the book. And at least triffids are a lot more original and interesting than zombies.

The Midwich Cuckoos
After finding Triffids a bit of a disappointment, I thought I'd better give Wyndham another chance, but this one bears out the same impression, namely that he had fabulously original ideas but then proceeded to flatten the life out of them with a dry, distant, ironic, and indeed slightly comedic prose style.

"The essence of cosy catastrophe," says Brian Aldiss, "is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off." It's hard to describe the narrator of The Midwich Cuckoos as the book's hero. In fact, he hardly seems to exist at all, and after a few chapters tells us that he's basically going to have to make up a lot of stuff that he's pieced together later and has written up like a third-person novel.

What is the narrator even there for? We know he's going to survive the story, and his wife isn't one of the women who become pregnant with the Cuckoos, so he is certainly cosily looking on from outside. In a review in The Guardian, Dan Rebellato thinks that the narrator (I had to look up his name: Richard Gayford; he hardly features) is there to be unreliable, to make us look more warily at the gaps and unexamined aspects of the story. Well, that's charitable. I just think Wyndham launched in with a first-person viewpoint and never went back to change it.

It's hard going. The ideas are there, but Wyndham (or his narrator) is determined to undercut any drama in the telling. We're halfway through the book before the babies are even born. Much of the novel just tells us drily about how the whole thing is organized. The government take almost no interest, despite having an MI5 chap keeping an eye on the village. The way that the plot is explained to us is through a local author called Zellaby. He's the sort of opinionated crackpot whom one dreads getting stuck in a lift with. Every so often, when Wyndham needs us to understand what's going on, Zellaby will come out with some nugget of aboriginal wisdom like, "It can only be what Huxley calls xenogenesis," or, "Man cannot have evolved on Earth as there are too many gaps in the evolutionary tree." We're supposed to take all this as the pronouncements of Yoda, but I'd rather Wyndham had found a way to show us what he was thinking instead of bunging in this Basil Exposition geezer.

The story is wrapped up without any set-up; we don't know how the character concerned knows how to do what he does, it just happens. And by this time we've been fed so much narrative nitrazepam that what ought to be shocking comes across as a so-what moment. The way Wyndham tells it, the eeriness of the children hardly comes across at all. Deaths feel untroubling, almost comic. It doesn't build so much as swell until it's time for the author to let the air out. And any subtextual themes - for example, the concern of a mother at finding she has no emotional bond with her child - aren't handled with a tenth of the skill and tension of something like We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Yet there is a strong, creepy idea in there, and lots of imaginative touches like the villagers falling asleep. Wyndham tells it as if he's relating a particularly uninvolving shaggy-dog story. The 1960 movie makes it all nail-biting. A case where the book is not better. Because the ideas in Wyndham's classics are so strong and different, they would make excellent settings for a role-playing game - and because the execution of those ideas in the novels is so flat, I'd feel no compunction about ripping them apart to use in that way.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A near disaster

I don’t think this merits a featured post of its own, but it’s a curiosity that might interest dyed-in-the-wool gamebook otaku. Back when Oliver Johnson and I started writing the Golden Dragon gamebooks, we were learning the ropes about book production at the same time. Manuscripts had to be ready months ahead of publication, and cover copy and artwork were usually the first thing you had to think about.

Series editor Angela Sheehan asked me to come up with a cover idea for The Lord of Shadow Keep. I tend to prefer visual imagery to prose, in fact, hence the frequent references here to movies, television and of course comic books. But I had no clear idea of what was going in the book, and when inspiration fails it really tars and feathers you. Case in point, this absolutely epic fail of a cover concept. A back view of a dark lord gazing out at the countryside in contemplative mood? What in actual frell?

Luckily the cover artist Bruno Elletori had the sense to ignore my notes and instead fix us up with a full-tilt action scene which conveyed a sense of immediate danger. All I can say is that usually I did a lot better job of coming up with a cover concept – consider Lords of the Rising Sun, for instance, or all the new Critical IF gamebooks. But when you know what you’re doing, and you still drop the ball, that’s when it lands with the most resounding of thuds.Still, it could have been worse. Check out this cover of the Berkley edition that was released in the US.
Come back on Friday for the main post, in which we’ll be taking a look at the work of a classic science fiction author whose bravura world-building makes for great roleplaying campaigns.