After HG Wells, John Wyndham is perhaps the UK’s most successful sci-fi writer. His best works show us a society that is only a couple of steps away from our own, and they’re as nuanced as they are inherently readable. These works tend to contain interesting philosophical dilemmas and thought-provoking ideas that stay with you long after you’ve finished reading; the plots are gripping in themselves, but their afterlife is just as impressive. Here’s a reflection on several of Wyndham’s most iconic texts, which rightly occupy a hugely important place in our own literary history.
The Day of the Triffids (1951)
When I was a kid, I remember being terrified by The Day of the Triffids. It tells the story of Bill Masen, who is hospitalised and unable to witness a spectacular meteor shower. However, the next day, he learns that everyone who did enjoy the show has been blinded. As society attempts to rebuild, they face a new threat – triffids, tall carnivorous plants that are taking advantage of the disaster to actively hunt the blind populace. In some ways, it’s a road trip book as Bill attempts to find a place in the new world, but it’s concerned with much more than that. Wyndham is also interested in the breakdown of the society and the ensuing discrimination, and with the rise of nature. Fighting against nature is a futile task, because it will always win.
The Chrysalids (1955)
Discrimination is a major theme at the heart of Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. Set in the future after a nuclear war, religious and genetic fundamentalists take care to banish any human being they consider ‘blasphemous’ – that is, different from what they perceive as the norm of God’s creation. Any abnormality, no matter how small or trivial, results in you being cast out. Our protagonist David initially accepts this rule, but the discovery that he has an unseen difference forces him to question everything. It’s a harrowing text about the oppressiveness of bigotry, and it’s still painfully relevant today.
Trouble with Lichen (1960)
Not every Wyndham text is concerned with this theme, though. Trouble with Lichen looks at the power wielded by science, and questions how much we should trust those who consider themselves the guardians of science. It follows two scientists who make an incredible discovery: a lichen that slows the ageing process by hundreds of years. One wants to keep the discovery secret, while the other hopes to use it to create a new, female-dominated world order, and it forces us to really consider the ramifications of such a discovery. With every great change comes considerable moral and social fallout, and Wyndham captures that perfectly in this book.
The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
My favourite Wyndham work is one that has been spoofed hundreds of times (and which I first learned about after a Simpsons parody). In The Midwich Cuckoos, all the inhabitants of a small town witness a mysterious silver object and then fall unconscious. Later, all the women in the village are discovered to be pregnant, and the resultant children clearly do not belong to their parents. They’re blonde, golden-eyed and exhibit incredible mental abilities. The town must figure out what to do, and how to survive against a formidable foe that outclasses them in every way. It boasts a hugely fallible narrator who clearly doesn’t understand the story he’s telling, and it boasts a palpable tension as the Midwich residents realise just how little power they have. This is a classic and, if you only pick up one Wyndham book, make sure it’s this one.
The best sci-fi writers seek to reflect our society, asking questions about the limits of our culture, our technology, our knowledge and our very existence. Wyndham was an absolute master at this, and this is why his books have stayed so essential.