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John Wyndham Lucas Parkes Beynon Harris wrote under various combinations of his names, although almost everything after 1945 was as John Wyndham. He began writing science fiction in the 1930s, mostly traditional space adventures and tales of superscience. The Secret People (1935) is a mildly interesting lost race novel. Efforts to irrigate the Sahara cause trouble when they stir up the residents of a subterranean race that has been hiding from the surface world for thousands of years. Stowaway to Mars (1935, also published as Planet Plane and as The Space Machine) is a routine story of the political and commercial rivalries involved in the race to be the first to reach the planet Mars. The story is primarily of interest because Wyndham included a female character who was not relegated to the category of helpless female or presented as merely a foil to whom the protagonist explains everything. Strong female characters would recur with some frequency in Wyndham’s later work. Most of his short stories from this period can be found in Love in Time (1946, as by Johnson Harris), The Seeds of Time (1956), Sleepers of Mars (1973), Wanderers of Time (1973), and Exiles on Asperus (1979), the last three as by John Beynon. The short story “Sleepers of Mars” (1938) is a loose sequel to Stowaway to Mars.
After World War II Wyndham largely abandoned outer space as a setting for his work. Short stories such as “Jizzle” (1949), “Close Behind Him” (1953), and “Chronoclasm” (1953) were more thoughtful and sophisticated, and tended to present their fantastic content in a form that would be palatable to mainstream readers. His next novel was The DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1951, also published as Revolt of the Triffids), which was faithfully transformed into a BBC miniseries but in 1963 was turned into yet another shambling monster movie. Ambulatory plants with a poisonous sting become a major threat when an anomalous meteor shower causes near universal blindness. Out of the Deeps (1953, also published as The Kraken Wakes) followed. This was an alien invasion story somewhat in the vein of The WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898) by H. G. WELLS, in that the aliens are almost entirely offscreen during the novel. Wyndham acknowledged Wells as the author who most influenced his own work. Wyndham’s alien invaders have settled underneath the world’s oceans and use their advanced technology to melt the icecaps and flood the coastal regions, wreaking havoc on the surface world. Concerted action against them is constrained by international tensions and by humanity’s inability to see beyond its parochial concerns. The result is a story more concerned with life in the midst of a major environmental disaster than in a confrontation with monstrous aliens, all told in an understated, unmelodramatic narrative style that was extraordinarily effective.
RE-BIRTH (1955, also published as The Chrysalids) is one of the best stories of life generations after a nuclear holocaust, ranking with DAVY by Edgar PANGBORN and The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh BRACKETT. The Midwich Cuckoos (1957, also published as Village of the Damned after the 1960 film version) posed an interesting situation. A small English village is cut off from the outside world by a force field for a short period, during which time everyone inside the perimeter remains unconscious. The zone of interdiction is subsequently lifted, with no explanation of its cause, and no obvious effects within the affected area, but months later every female in the village of child bearing age finds herself pregnant. The children who are born all bear a strange similarity to one another, and as they mature they begin to display extraordinary psi powers, abilities so potent and dangerous that the authorities realize the children have to be destroyed because they menace the human race. Wyndham’s matter-of-fact style was particularly effective, although the plot does not entirely make sense.
During the late 1950s Wyndham wrote a sequence of five stories that made up a brief future history. Following an atomic war, Brazil and India emerge as the two major world powers. As they develop their own space programs, the members of the Troon family emerge as pivotal figures. Four of the stories were published in book form as The Outward Urge (1959), as by John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes, although Parkes is another of his pseudonyms. A revised edition added the remaining story in 1961.
The last of Wyndham’s major novels was Trouble with Lichen (1960), in which the discovery of a method by which the human lifespan can be significantly extended has an ever widening effect on various aspects of human society. All of Wyndham’s previous novels showed minor variations in text between the American and British editions, but the disparities for Trouble with Lichen were much more substantial, with U.S. publishers removing much of the author’s commentary on international politics. His remaining two novels were comparatively minor. In Chocky (1968), a young boy’s imaginary friend turns out to be a visiting alien. It was filmed for television. Web (1979), published posthumously, describes the consequences when a group attempts to turn a remote island into a utopian community, only to discover that the local insect population has a unique society and defense mechanism of its own.
Wyndham’s later stories have been assembled as Jizzle (1954), Tales of Gooseflesh and Laughter (1956), Consider Her Ways and Others (1961), and The Infinite Moment (1961). Time travel was a common theme in the last of these. His single best short story is “CONSIDER HER WAYS” (1956), a visit to a future feminist utopia of sorts, and surprisingly advanced for its time. Although technology is sometimes important to the plot of his stories, it is always subordinated to the characters. Wyndham achieved verisimilitude by populating his fiction with ordinary people with whom his readers could readily identify.
Encyclopedia of Science Fiction