Thursday, 14 August 2008
The John Wyndham Post That Made My Brain Hurt
As someone with two middle names, I know the difficulty of getting them all onto official forms. Let's spare a thought, then, for John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, born 1903, died 1969, and, as John Wyndham, one of the greatest science-fiction writers of the last century.
Any blog which has as one of its obsessions the end of the world can't neglect John Wyndham. In The Day of the Triffids he wrote one of the genre's masterpieces. It's a wonderful book: when what seems to be a fantastic and beautiful meteor shower lights up the night skies, almost everyone goes out to watch it. The next morning, they're all blind. This would be bad enough if the world hadn't also come to rely on a genetically engineered ambulent plant, the triffid, which also has carries a lethal sting.
This was the first novel I ever read in one hit, under the covers with a torch at the age of eight, unable to stop. Much of it must have passed me by at the time, but regular rereadings since have not lessened its power.
Wyndham ended the world again with The Kraken Wakes (called Out of the Deeps in the US), in which rarely glimpsed acquatic aliens invade the deepest parts of our oceans and then calmly and effectively take over the planet by dramatically raising the sea level.
Along with Day, Wyndham's other masterpiece is The Chrysalids (called Re-Birth in the US). Generations after a huge nuclear war, tiny communities scattered around the depleted, radioactive globe struggle to survive. The story is told from the viewpoint of a boy growing up in rural Canada, under a warped Fundamentalist Christian culture obsessed with stamping out mutations that do not breed true. But the boy has a secret, one he shares with other children scattered around the world. It's a brilliant, gripping book.
I'll discuss his other books below. But let's begin the cover cavalcade. One reason I took so long to get to Wyndham on this blog is the sheer profusion of covers I had to collect. The search for them made my brain hurt. I apologise in advance for the low-quality of some of these images, but with many of them should be able to click for a bigger, more detailed version.
Here are the original 1950s and 1960s hardbacks of most of his books, published by Michael Joseph. The last, Web, is actually a posthumous work, first published in 1979. It features a group of people trying to set up a utopian community on an uninhabited Pacific island. Uninhabited, that is, except for a new species of spider, evolved under the effects of nuclear testing, which have learned to work as a community. Not one for the arachnophobes.
Here are some other early hardbacks--the 1951 Doubleday edition of Triffids, the Dobson edition of Jizzle (a collection of horror stories), and two Walker editions. The Midwich Cuckoos cover is by Jack Gaughan.
The Midwich Cuckoos is another great book. A UFO appears over a sleepy English village, and erects a force field keeping the world outside at bay. Everyone inside the village is rendered unconscious. All attempts to get in fail. Then, the UFO suddenly departs, and everyone wakes up, unharmed--except that every fertile woman in the village is now pregnant.
The Trouble with Lichen is a look at what might happen to society after the accidental discovery of a "cure" for ageing.
In the UK, Penguin have been Wyndham's paperback publisher from the start. The original Triffids paperback was one of the first Penguins to feature a cover illustration, based on a sketch by Wyndham himself.
Many other Penguin Wyndhams from the 1950s and 1960s had covers designed by John Griffiths.
In the 1970s, Harry Willock redesigned the Wyndham range for Penguin.
The Outward Urge tells the future of humans colonising the inner Solar System through a series of novellas about one family. The highlight is a gripping thriller where two explorers are trapped together on Mars, millions of kilometres from help, when a head injury sends one of them just a little bit mad. The co-author, Lucas Parkes, is another couple of Wyndham's names--not entirely sure about the quality of what he'd written, as it moved away from his usual earth-bound, present-day milieu, Wyndham invented a co-writer to shift any criticism onto.
Chocky, one of Wyndham's last books, is a touching story about a young English schoolboy who becomes mentally linked to an alien. The Seeds of Time, like Consider Her Ways, is a short story collection.
In the early 1980s the books had another redesign, this time featuring painted covers by Peter Lord. These, for the most part, are the editions I borrowed and reborrowed from the local and the school libraries. The series also came as a boxed set.
In the late 1980s there was another redesign, with paintings from Mark Salwowski. These are, for the most part, the editions I used birthday book vouchers to horde.
In the late 1990s, Triffids was released as one of the Essential Penguins, a series of very nicely designed classics.
And then, in the late 1990s, another redesign, this a rather cartoonish one at the hands of Spencer Wilson.
Several of Wyndham's books have also been given the Penguin Classics treatment.
And, to bring us up to date, Penguin have just reissued five of Wyndham's books with new covers by an artist I know not. UPDATE: The tremendously wise John Self has done the research, and says that the cover artist is Brian Cronin. A follow-up post on this chap's other covers is a-coming.
But wait! There's more. As well as some various random covers I may as well bung in here (including those for the dire Triffids movie, the excellent Triffids TV series, and the excellent children's TV Chocky).
Other paperback houses have also put out Wyndham--Ballantine in the 1950s and 1960s, and Coronet/NEL in the 1970s and 1980s.
Tnen there's this hardback edition from Gollancz, as part of their SF Masterworks series. This is a digital image by Fred Gambino.
Finally, in the US these days, Wyndham seems to be rather less well known. Fortunately for Americans, Triffids is available as part of the Modern Library (as a "lost" classic, oddly enough), and The Chrysalids as an upcoming NYRB Classic.
So! You've some reading to be doing.