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Posts Tagged ‘John Wyndham’

You never forget the moment when you realise you don’t believe in God despite what everyone around you has told you all your life; you never forget the moment when you realise the mortality of your parents is a fact; you never forget the moment when you discover that Wikipedia, far from being a perfectly objective source of Platonic fact, is fumbling around for information just like the rest of us. For me, the last of these came in 2007, when I was spending an awful lot of time just surfing the web in my local internet caf√© in Japan. I came across the Wikipedia entry for John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a novel I have always had the greatest admiration for, and was gratified to see that my opinion was very much shared by critical consensus, according to the article. This turned out not to be so surprising after all, as it turned out that in this instance Wikipedia’s idea of the critical consensus had been arrived at by reading an old article I myself had written some years previously, which was duly listed as a source. Wikipedia did not so much happen to agree with me, as I happened (less shockingly) to agree with myself.

Well, cue shock, bemusement, etc – my faith in the whole site was shaken. How could I set so much store in the quality of information provided by a website which set so much store in the quality of information provided by a goon like me? Still, if nothing else I can now proclaim myself as an acknowledged expert on The Chrysalids and John Wyndham, and it is only marginally spurious.

While I may have lost faith in Jimmy Wales’ brainchild, I have never lost faith with The Chrysalids, nor indeed with Wyndham, who remains one of my favourite writers: he is up there with H.P. Lovecraft when it comes to the great names whose style and content I have ineptly been ripping off every November come NaNoWriMo time. Any Wyndham adaptation will automatically grab my attention; indeed, I have been awaiting with some trepidation the moment when some bright spark in Hollywood happens upon The Chrysalids and realises it could quite easily be filleted into an effective YA dystopian adventure a la Hunger Games.

Turning up to Pegasus Theatre’s stage adaptation of the book, I wondered if this would in fact be the case. I was pretty sure going in that this would inevitably not be a ‘straight’ adaptation of the novel, for many reasons which will be instantly obvious to anyone who’s read it – the discovery that this would be a youth production by the theatre’s 11-15 age group only confirmed this suspicion. So – how were they going to tackle it? Had they found a young performer with extra toes?

Well, perhaps inevitably, the first casualty of the stage version (cut down to a fairly pacy sixty minutes in length) is much of Wyndham’s careful world-building, and with it much of the context of the novel. The stage show concerns David and Petra, two of the children of Joseph, a strict and authoritarian father, living on a farm somewhere called Waknuk. Their society seems to be strictly religious (though this element is downplayed) and under the control of an oppressive authority (represented by dreaded functionaries in grey suits). The authority exercises strict genetic control, and anyone diverging from the established norms is declared a mutant and banished to somewhere called the Fringes.

However, David and Petra have a secret: they are also mutants, possessing a telepathic link with others of their kind (there are five telepaths in the stage show, a reduction from the number in the book). If they are found out, the very best they can hope for is permanent exile to the Fringes. But how long can they keep their secret?

As readers of the book will have perhaps gathered, David Harrower’s adaptation dispenses with a lot of the background detail – it’s never really suggested that the characters are living somewhere in Canada, nor that this is taking place in the distant aftermath of a nuclear war, which has flattened civilisation and left many of the survivors genetically damaged. This is in many ways a more allegorical version of the story. It should also not come as a surprise that the climax of the novel, which features a pitched battle between armies of norms and mutants and the intervention of another group of technologically-advanced telepaths from elsewhere, has also been radically amended. You expect these sorts of things in the theatre.

Something being amateur youth theatre should also impact on your expectations if you have any decency in your soul. The performances at the show I saw ran the gamut from capable to rather less so; one should also not be entirely surprised by a number of fluffed lines, missed cues, or someone accidentally sticking their foot through the set. All of this gets a pass, and I will repeat that some of the young actors were actually pretty good.

The question is really one of whether you can actually make The Chrysalids work as a piece of youth theatre. Quite apart from the changes to the story, and I will add to them the fact that a story which plays out over a decade or so in the novel is very compressed here, some of the key characters really do need a bit of mature gravitas and authority to them in order for them to work – I’m thinking here of Joseph and Axel, both of whom struggle to fill their narrative roles when they appear to be teenagers.

And there really is no getting away from it – The Chrysalids isn’t a children’s book, nor even really much of a YA book (all right, I read it when I was ten, but I’m just strange). It is about bigotry and intolerance, and a Darwinian battle to survive between different subspecies of human – the kicker being, of course, the final realisation that ‘baseline’ humans like the reader are both bad guys and likely to lose in the end. It is shot through with serious, even vicious moments – a woman drowning herself and her mutant child, a father contemplating the murder of another child in order to protect his own, mutants being tortured by the religious authorities.

You can’t really put this sort of stuff in a youth theatre production, and indeed most of it has been excised (with one surprising exception, concerning the fate of Sophie Wender). Even the cross which all the norm faithful wear has been tweaked into an ankh, presumably to avoid inflaming people concerned about Christophobia (or whatever we’re supposed to call it).

The most telling change comes near the end, and I should say that a mild spoiler follows. Joseph, believing Petra to be a norm child kidnapped by the telepaths, comes to rescue her from the Fringes people, and is appalled when she tells him she is a mutant too. Nevertheless, he wishes her well and they bid a sad goodbye as she and the others head on into the wilderness. This is not recognisably Wyndham’s Joseph Strorm, a monstrous character who happily joins a posse to hunt down his own children – if Wyndham’s Strorm was in the scene, it would have a totally different ending and qualify for one of those ‘scenes that some viewers may find disturbing’ trigger warnings.

As I say, this is the nature of the beast where this book is concerned. I should say that the stage version is often intelligent and inventive in its take on the novel, and the young performers all obvious tried their best. If the production still ends up feeling a bit flawed and lacking in a climax, that’s simply because The Chrysalids is not really at home in this particular context.

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In terms of the cardinal sins a book or film can commit, having a title that no-one is quite sure how to pronounce is not especially high on the list – after all, Koyaanisqatsi seems to have done pretty well for itself, along with the entirety of the Cthulhu industry. The problem only becomes acute if the title itself is not that great to begin with. Here we begin to get to the nub of the issue as it applies to John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen, which for all the world sounds like a placeholder title that the author never got back to. Never mind that it’s possibly the least gripping title in the history of literature – should one pronounce it to rhyme with kitchen or as a homophone of liken? (Wyndham himself offers no guidance.)

Oh well. Trouble with Lichen was originally published in 1960, by which time Wyndham himself had made his name with the four great novels he is best remembered for – The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids, and The Midwich Cuckoos – and tried his hand at some slightly more conventionally science-fictional space futurism with The Outward Urge, with arguably less success. Trouble with Lichen is something else again, being in some ways the softest of soft science fiction.

Even disregarding the fact that this is not a long novel, we’re quite a long way into the story before the SF element openly appears. The early chapters concern the progress of a brilliant young biochemist, Diana Brackley, whose combination of intelligence, beauty, and willingness to challenge social convention tends to unsettle those around her. She ends up at Darr House, a small research company run by Francis Saxover, a reserved, slightly diffident older man in the classic Wyndham mould. One day there is an accident in the lab, or perhaps one should say a serendipitous occurrence – a tiny flake of lichen, part of a batch of samples being tested for possible medical applications, falls into a saucer of milk, which is left overnight.

The next day Diana and Francis are alone in discovering that the milk has not completely turned – that in the vicinity of the lichen has been preserved. Francis says he’ll see if the lichen has antibiotic properties, but his eventual attempts to avoid the subject, not to mention a certain awkward shiftiness, leads Diana to mount her own researches.

Well, to cut to the chase, what Francis and Diana have independently stumbled upon is what Wyndham christens an antigerone – a drug which slows the ageing process. The upper limit of this is never made clear, as it partly depends on what dosage you’re on, but it’s implied that a life expectancy of three or four hundred years is entirely possible. The problem is that the lichen from which the antigerone is derived grows only in a small and remote region of Manchuria, and even if the source can be kept secret, there is only enough to provide a steady supply of the drug for a few thousand people.

Francis hides the discovery, fearful of the chaos and upheaval that will result when the antigerone becomes a fact in society; Diana hides the discovery, fearful that vested interests will conspire to suppress widespread use of the antigerone. While Saxover is content to limit use of the drug to himself and his immediate family, she is more ambitious, putting a (necessarily) long-term plan into action to ensure the arrival, and ultimate survival, of what she calls homo diuturnus – Enduring Man…

I say that Trouble with Lichen is soft science fiction, even though it is predicated on a biochemical concept. This is because the exact nature and operation of the antigerone is rather skipped over in favour of discussion, of a rather abstract kind, of its potential impact on society. The book is all about discussing what could happen, rather than showing what is happening – the whole thing feels rather like the opening movement of a much more ambitious, more epic (and rather longer) novel about an absolute phase shift in the nature of human existence.

Wyndham enjoys himself a lot with some gentle social satire about the response of various vested interests to the existence of the antigerone, when news of this inevitably leaks, but on the whole the novel is rather short on incident and the kind of vivid imagery and memorable dialogue that epitomises the Big Four. In the end, the status quo has not significantly changed.

The novel manages to glean a happy ending from the fates of the main characters, however. Another reason for thinking of this as soft SF is because… well, I’m not going to try and claim it’s written like a Mills and Boon book or some other mass-market romantic novel, but at the same time… notions of romance are more prominently featured than in anything else Wyndham wrote. In addition to his usual wry and forensic analysis of how society functions, the relationship (or lack of it) between Francis and Diana is simmering away under the surface for most of the book.

I imagine many readers will find that a bit dispiriting, for elsewhere Wyndham goes out of his way to establish that Diana is an unusually intelligent and ambitious woman, quite capable of taking care of herself and dealing with the establishment forces set against her. Presumably he felt that making her entirely self-sufficient and independent would prevent readers from sympathising with her at all (which may even have been true in 1960) – the theory being that a sympathetic female character had to be at least partly defined by her romantic interests.

This kind of links to the other thing that makes the book seem horribly dated to a modern reader. Diana’s plan is to introduce the antigerone invisibly into society, so that by the time it is discovered, a corps of influential people prepared to fight for their right to an extended lifetime already exists. Fair enough: but she does this by investing in a beauty parlour and offering women the chance to look younger for longer. The book offers some fairly astute observations on the limited social options available to women around 1960, but much of its nitty-gritty still feels dated and chauvinist. The movement of women fighting for life extension is implicitly compared to the suffragettes at more than one point, which if nothing else is simply odd.

The thing about John Wyndham’s books is that either they are too epic to easily film – this is true of three of the Big Four – or just not cinematic enough to easily adapt for the screen. Trouble with Lichen falls into the later group – and you can imagine Wyndham himself, having hit upon the (very strong) notion of the discovery of the antigerone and its potential impact on society, trying to find a way to tell a real story about it and really, really struggling. There’s a good idea at the heart of this book, but Wyndham doesn’t really find a way to turn it into a proper narrative – at least, not one which contemporary readers are likely to find completely satisfying. Definitely one of the great man’s minor works, but not without points of interest.

 

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It was with bemusement, shading into horrified disbelief, that I realised not long ago that the classic BBC adaptation of The Day of the Triffids is thirty years old this Autumn. Thirty years? Thirty? But I remember watching it on-broadcast so vividly. It would mean that I’m… well, anyway, how old I am is irrelevant (honest).

The BBC had another go at adapting John Wyndham’s classic novel at Christmas 2009, and the result was an ugly travesty, which did no justice to the book and can’t have inspired anyone to read it. But seeing the 1981 version was a key moment in my life, one of those things which are so influential you can’t imagine how your life would have developed otherwise.

The Day of the Triffids was the first piece of grown-up TV I was allowed to watch – probably the first piece I even wanted to watch – and I was given special dispensation, bed-time-wise, in order to do so. Even then I was reluctant to do so alone, so addictively terrifying was this programme.

It’s a story which sounds ridiculous and pulpy – and, perhaps, a little incoherent. An unexplained celestial light-show blinds the vast majority of the world’s population, with the catastrophic results you’d expect. This would be bad enough, but the survivors are also preyed upon by mobile, lethal, and borderline-sentient carnivorous plants which have been bred for their oil – these are the triffids of the title, of course. A deadly plague is also a key plot element.

Picking his way through the aftermath is Wyndham’s narrator, Bill Masen, a biochemist and triffid-expert (portrayed in the TV show by John Duttine). Masen is a very typical Wyndham protagonist in that he doesn’t start off with any particular goal worth speaking of, he just wanders around watching more than doing anything. He eventually becomes involved with a wealthy young woman (Emma Relph) and after they are separated his determination to find her propels him through a fairly large chunk of the plot.

But, on the whole, the structure of the story is… well, if Wyndham turned up to a modern creative-writing class with his first draft of The Day of the Triffids, he’d have been told in no uncertain terms to go away and have a good hard think about the idea, because in some ways it’s sort of hopeless.

Bill Masen doesn’t have a particular goal he’s looking to achieve beyond simply staying alive. Most characters drift in and out of the book for one or two chapters. Even the triffids don’t show up that often; the TV show has to write a brand new triffid sequence unconnected to the main plot in order for them to make it into every episode. There isn’t what you’d call an actual antagonist, and the ending is very low-key. Even so, it’s not as if the book doesn’t contain blatant plot devices: Wyndham spends many chapters setting up a situation out of some ghastly nightmare, with the main characters having to choose between their own survival and helping the blind survivors who constitute the overwhelming majority. It’s a terrible moral dilemma, which Wyndham eventually resolves by means of a massive cop-out: a plague of unknown origins suddenly manifests and conveniently wipes out most of the blind population, freeing Masen and the others to get on with the plot.

And yet it’s an extraordinary, haunting book, one that essentially created a new genre. It’s fashionable to dismiss the works of Wyndham as ‘cosy catastrophes’ – civilisation falls without the protagonists seeming to suffer in any real way – but this is not the impression you get upon reading the book. Masen witnesses numerous suicides in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and later assists in a mercy-killing. You don’t notice the unwieldiness of the structure: society itself has fallen to pieces, so the collapse of conventional narrative seems somehow appropriate. Wyndham even manages to pull all his elements together, near the end, suggesting that all the diverse woes he’s inflicted on his characters are ultimately the result of science gone out of control.

One of the reasons the horrible 2009 adaptation is so horrible is because it attempts to fix all of the problems, by turning The Day of the Triffids into a much more¬†conventional story: a proper bad guy is introduced (a relatively minor character is promoted to full-scale villain status), the convenient plague is snipped out, the long tail of the book (four chapters, over a period of six years, recount Masen and his adoptive family eking out a living on a farm in southern England) is collapsed into a much shorter period. And it’s awful. Awful, awful, awful. Only one moment is genuinely surprising, and that’s because a line of dialogue from the book makes an unexpected appearance.

The 1981 version is brilliant precisely because it sticks so closely to the hopeless plot of the book. Only one section has been cut, and it’s possibly the least vivid – where Masen and his associate Coker encounter a small group of other survivors and together try to set up a community – the rest of Wyndham’s story is there, entirely intact. Wyndham himself might not have approved (his family apparently weren’t impressed) – John Duttine plays Masen as rather more Northern and lower-middle-class, and less detached and wry, than he’s written in the book, and a lot of Masen and Coker’s discussions about post-apocalyptic ethics and sociology have been excised.

But, despite that, and the fact the TV show was clearly made on a fairly low budget, it works. Duttine holds the whole thing together admirably, though the biggest impression on the acting side is probably made by Maurice Colbourne as Coker – Colbourne had an edgy charisma that made him extremely watchable in this kind of drama (the reasons why such a powerful actor ended up fronting ridiculous yachting-soap Howard’s Way remain a mystery).

John Wyndham made a career out of Omegas – the destruction of Civilisation As We Know It looms large in most of his novels, one way or another. But for me he was an Alpha: not only was The Day of the Triffids the first piece of adult TV I watched, but the book was the first piece of adult SF I read. And from then on, I was surely lost. In its own way it was probably as crucial a moment in my life as my first episode of Doctor Who or the first time I saw Star Wars.

I’ve been drawn back to the end of the world, in its various different iterations, ever since – can it be any coincidence that my other favourite stories include The Death of Grass, Survivors, Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later? (28 Days Later in particular owes a massive debt to Wyndham and Triffids, which screenwriter Alex Garland openly admits.) And the last time I sat down to write for NaNoWriMo, my goal was to produce a very Wyndhamesque tale of the collapse of civilisation. And so I did, but where Wyndham abandoned structure to produce a chilling masterpiece, I only managed to come up with an unreadable shapeless mess. Still, one would have expected no less: there’s no point in copying genius. Recognising and appreciating it when you find it is surely enough.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 7th November 2002:

‘John Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for disaster… but he effectively domesticated some of its defining patterns: the city (usually London) depopulated by the catastrophe; the exodus, with its scenes of panic and bravery; and the ensuing focus on a small but growing nucleus of survivors who reach some kind of sanctuary in the country and prepare to re-establish man’s shaken dominion.’ – John Clute, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction

There are some things that we here in Britain like to think we do better than anyone else. Costume dramas. Glam rock. Jingoistic psychosis (especially when it comes to our chances in sporting events). And the End of the World. The catastrophe novel was one of the mainstays of British literary SF throughout the 20th century, ranging from J.G. Ballard’s The Drought (apocalypse by drought), to John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (apocalypse by famine), and going right back to Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel After London. Of course, in recent years American writers and filmmakers such as Stephen King and George Romero have done much interesting work in this genre, but it’s still enormously pleasing to see British storytellers return to the idea – as they do in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

Boyle’s film, written by Alex Garland (author of The Beach – so he’s clearly a forgiving man), superficially resembles a transatlantic take on the subject, not least in that the disaster that destroys civilisation is a form of plague rather than a natural catastrophe. But it seemed to me that the major influence on this film was the most famous of the all the British post-apocalypse novels, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.

The film starts with a brief pre-credits sequence in which animal rights activists break into a lab with the intention of releasing chimpanzees that are being used as test subjects. Little do they realise the apes are infected with ‘rage’, a viral agent spread by blood and saliva, inducing a berserk, feral mania in those infected…

28 days later (hence the title) bike courier Jim (newcomer Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a London hospital – he was involved in a traffic accident some weeks earlier. The place seems deserted… and not just the hospital, the whole city. Early signs that some terrible disaster has occurred are confirmed when he is set upon by deranged, infected strangers… But he’s rescued by fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who fill him in about the rising tide of violence that swept away civilisation. Eventually they meet up with former taxi-driver Frank (Brendon Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), who have heard about a possible sanctuary, up north. But it turns out that the infected don’t hold the monopoly on irrational violence…

28 Days Later draws upon a number of sources: the infected hordes are a slightly more athletic take on George Romero’s rabid zombies (from Dawn of the Dead, etc), while another less explicit influence seems to have been The Omega Man (for one thing, to begin with Harris’ character dresses and acts like Rosalind Cash from that movie). But Wyndham (or at least, the catastrophe story as defined by Wyndham) seems to have supplied most of the inspiration (and certainly the opening). The coming together of survivors, the cheerful looting of shops, the abandonment of the city for a rural refuge, and the country house under siege: they’re all here, along with the vital conflict between pre-apocalypse morality and the needs of post-apocalypse survival.

I’ve always thought Danny Boyle to be a rather overrated and pretentious director but here he does a very good job indeed. His stylistic flourishes don’t get in the way of the story, and he handles the action sequences with aplomb. There are some startlingly big stunts in this movie, which basically blow Boyle’s cover: this film isn’t made on grainy digital video because it has a particularly low budget, but simply because Boyle likes the medium. It works to his advantage, though, giving some sequences an oddly dream- or nightmare-like quality, particularly those in the impressively-staged empty London.

Most of the performances are fine, too: Murphy is an engaging screen presence, as is Harris. Brendan Gleeson is particularly affecting as the concerned father. There are only a couple of off-key turns: Christopher Eccleston, normally so good, struggles to convince as an army officer determined to rebuild civilisation at any cost. And in the vital precredits sequence, the role of the scientist who explains the dangers of the ‘rage’ virus is played by David Schneider, a man best known for playing Alan Partridge’s stooge, with all the credibility problems that raises.

And, if we’re honest, telling this kind of story on film always has its problems, mainly in coming up with a ending that’s satisfying without seeming glib. Certainly 28 Days Later weakens near the end as it first turns into a more orthodox action-thriller, before abandoning its grim but coherent subtext (human beings are innately violent and self-destructive creatures) for an unlikely, hopeful conclusion. But these are minor flaws in an engaging and well-made film. It may not capture the existential dread and crushing sense of loss of the best of its literary antecedents, but this is still the best screen treatment of this genre in over twenty years. Recommended.

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