Wednesday, November 17, 2021

SF Luminaries: John Wyndham

John Wyndham: Plan for Chaos (1951 / 2009)

Plan for Chaos is a very odd book. It's certainly not without interest. However, I think one can see why no publishers actually leapt at the chance of putting it out back in the early 1950s when veteran Sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl (then moonlighting as a literary agent for John Wyndham and various other clients) was shopping it around New York.

There's the Nazi angle. In that respect, it serves as a precursor to Philip K. Dick's alternative history classic The Man in the High Castle (1962), or - for that matter - M. K. Joseph's Tomorrow the World, written in the late 1970s but only published posthumously in 2020.

There's the evil clone angle. In some ways it's very like Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil (1976), only this time with flying saucers thrown in: quite a novel plot-twist for 1951, given that the expression wasn't actually coined until 1947, as a result of Kenneth Arnold's claim that the objects he saw on June 24 of that year "moved like saucers skipping across the water."

One can see so much in it, and yet it somehow doesn't quite work - it isn't visceral, actual, like his breakthrough title The Day of the Triffids (1951), or even its successor The Kraken Wakes (1953).

I'm not sure how much I need to say about them. I wrote a piece focussing on my early reading of The Day of the Triffids, in particular, in the introduction to my New Zealand Speculative Fiction website. I doubt that it's necessary to repeat all that here.

John Beynon: The Secret People (1935)

Nevertheless, having recently reread as much of his earlier work as I can easily access, it is facinating to see how many false starts one writer can have before settling into their mature style. There are flashes of Wyndham in all of the early novels, but the instinctively colonial attitudes displayed in both The Secret People (1935) and Planet Plane (1936) seem pretty repellent now.

John Beynon: Planet Plane (1936)

The John Wyndham heroine - smart, stylish, witty - familiar from later books begins to make an appearance quite early on, which is really the main attraction of these pre-war pulp serials and short stories. For those curious about how he came to create this character in the first place, Amy Binns' recent biography provides a number of new insights.

It's probably not much of an exaggeration to say that without her book, the so-called "invisible man of Science Fiction" would have remained a shadowy figure, accessible only through his witty prose and a set of curiously repetitive ideas. Fatherless children, wiser than their elders (Chocky, The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos); alien invasions of the British countryside ("The Puff-Ball menace", The Day of the Triffids, Trouble with Lichen); the oppressive nature of conventional domesticity ("Dumb Martian," "Survival," "Compassion Circuit") ... Binns supplies vital information about Jack Harris's early life which make seem these far less unaccountable.

But literary talent is, of course, not readily reducible to any such set of causes. Why did it take him so long to break through? Why did he persevere in the face of such steady discouragement? Where did those Triffids really come from?

H. G. Wells: SF Masterworks Series

We'll never know. It is, however, safe to say that without H. G. Wells, there would have been no John Wyndham. So many of his ideas - not to mention the ease of his story telling - find their roots in the vast turbulent sea of Wells's oeuvre (particularly the early SF romances and short stories). But Wyndham is not Wells: he lacks his didactic bent, and has a healthy cynicism about the expression of great ideas. His appeal was to as much to the readers of Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse as it was to hard-core Sci-fi fans.

I suppose that John Wyndham's real tragedy was that his success came so late, and that he died so young. But then, that's more our tragedy than his. There's no doubt that he had more to say, but the few books he did write remain classics of the genre. The fact that they're still in print after half a century rather speaks for itself.

A great deal of incidental information about him is available online at the John Wyndham Archive website. Beyond that, much though I would recommend Amy Binns's well-written and insightful biography, your first stopping-place should be the books themselves - from the Triffids onwards, at any rate. If you don't find them charming and absorbing at first sight, chances are he's not for you.

Brian AldissBillion Year Spree (1973)

In his 1973 history of the SF genre, Billion (later revised to 'Trillion') Year Spree, Brian Aldiss described John Wyndham's breakout books as ‘cosy catastrophes’:
Both novels [The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes] were totally devoid of ideas but read smoothly, and thus reached a maximum audience, who enjoyed cosy disasters. Either it was something to do with the collapse of the British Empire, or the back-to-nature movement, or a general feeling that industrialization had gone too far, or all three.
Aldiss goes on to describe the characteristics of this ‘urbane and pleasing’ SF subgenre as follows:
The essence of cosy catastrophe 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 … Such novels are anxiety fantasies. They shade off towards the greater immediacy of World War III novels, a specialist branch of catastrophe more usually practiced by American writers.
He concludes with a rather premature epitaph on Wyndham and his ilk: ‘the race is not always to the swift, etc.’ Unfortunately, such dismissive judgements on a possible trade rival can cut both ways. Has Brian Aldiss himself fared much better?

Who (besides myself) now reads Non-stop (1958) or Hothouse (1962)? Who wades through The Malacia Tapestry or the Helliconia trilogy? Who remembers that one of Stanley Kubrick’s last film projects was an adaptation of Aldiss’s short story ‘Super-Toys Last All Season Long,’ which he delegated instead to Steven Spielberg, who turned it into the flawed, though not uninteresting, A.I.?

Steven Spielberg, dir.: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

John Wyndham, by contrast, continues to be read. It seems safe to say now that he probably always will be. Aldiss's rather self-conscious attempts to be mod and up-to-the-minute sound even more uncomfortably dated now than what he saw as Wyndham's perverse determination to write "a kind of country-house science fiction."

And, as Hilaire Belloc once put it, speaking (perhaps) for all such writers who pop in and out of fashion with the passing years:
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
"His sins were scarlet, but his books were read."

John Wyndham (1903-1969)

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris

[His work appeared under a variety of pseudonyms, mostly constructed from his various initials: John Beynon, John Beynon Harris, John B. Harris, Johnson Harris, J. W. B. Harris, Lucas Parkes, Wyndham Parkes, & John Wyndham among them]


  1. [as 'John B. Harris']: The Curse of the Burdens. Aldine Mystery Novels No. 17 (London: Aldine Publishing Co. Ltd. 1927)

  2. [as 'John Beynon']: The Secret People (1935)
    • The Secret People. 1935. Coronet Books. London: Hodder Paperbacks Ltd., 1972.

  3. Foul Play Suspected (London: Newnes, 1935)

  4. Planet Plane [aka 'The Space Machine'] (1936)
    • Stowaway to Mars. 1935. Coronet Books. 1972. London: Hodder Paperbacks Ltd., 1977.

  5. [as 'John Wyndham']: The Day of the Triffids [aka 'Revolt of the Triffids']. 1951. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954.

  6. The Kraken Wakes [aka 'Out of the Deeps']. 1953. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

  7. The Chrysalids [aka 'Re-Birth']. 1955. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

  8. The Midwich Cuckoos. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

  9. Trouble with Lichen. 1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.

  10. Chocky. 1968. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

  11. Web. 1979. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

  12. Plan for Chaos. Ed. David Ketterer & Andy Sawyer. 2009. Introduction by Christopher Priest. London: Penguin, 2010.

  13. Short Story Collections:

  14. Jizzle. 1954. Four Square. London: New English Library, 1973.
    1. Jizzle
    2. Technical Slip
    3. A Present from Brunswick
    4. Chinese Puzzle
    5. Esmeralda
    6. How Do I Do?
    7. Una
    8. Affair of the Heart
    9. Confidence Trick
    10. The Wheel
    11. Look Natural, Please!
    12. Perforce to Dream
    13. Reservation Deferred
    14. Heaven Scent
    15. More Spinned Against

  15. The Seeds of Time. 1956. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
    1. Foreword by John Wyndham
    2. Chronoclasm
    3. Time To Rest
    4. Meteor
    5. Survival
    6. Pawley's Peepholes
    7. Opposite Number
    8. Pillar To Post
    9. Dumb Martian
    10. Compassion Circuit
    11. Wild Flower

  16. Tales of Gooseflesh and Laughter [US selection from 'Jizzle' and 'The Seeds of Time'] (1956)
    1. Chinese Puzzle
    2. Una
    3. The Wheel
    4. Jizzle
    5. Heaven Scent
    6. Compassion Circuit
    7. More Spinned Against
    8. A Present from Brunswick
    9. Confidence Trick
    10. Opposite Numbers
    11. Wild Flower

  17. [with 'Lucas Parkes']: The Outward Urge. 1959 & 1961. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.
    1. The Space Station A.D. 1994 [aka 'For All the Night'] (1958)
    2. The Moon A.D. 2044 [aka 'Idiot’s Delight'] (1958)
    3. Mars A.D. 2094 [aka 'The Thin Gnat-Voices'] (1958)
    4. Venus A.D. 2144 [aka 'Space Is a Province of Brazil'] (1958)
    5. The Asteroids A.D. 2194 [aka 'The Emptiness of Space'] (1960)

  18. Consider Her Ways and Others. 1961. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
    1. Consider Her Ways
    2. Odd
    3. Stitch in Time
    4. Oh Where, Now, is Peggy MacRafferty?
    5. Random Quest
    6. A Long Spoon

  19. The Infinite Moment [US edition of 'Consider Her Ways and Others', with two stories replaced] (1961)
    1. Consider Her Ways
    2. Odd
    3. How Do I Do
    4. Stitch In Time
    5. Random Quest
    6. Time Out

  20. The Best of John Wyndham. London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1973.
    1. The Lost Machine (1932)
    2. The Man from Beyond (1934)
    3. The Perfect Creature (1937)
    4. The Trojan Beam (1939)
    5. Vengeance by Proxy (1940)
    6. Adaptation (1949)
    7. Pawley's Peepholes (1951)
    8. The Red Stuff (1951)
    9. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1951)
    10. Dumb Martian (1952)
    11. Close Behind Him (1952)
    12. The Emptiness of Space (1960)

  21. [as ‘John Beynon’]: Sleepers of Mars. Introduction by Walter Gillings. Coronet Books. 1973. London: Hodder Paperbacks Ltd., 1973.
    1. The Fate of the Martians, by Walter Gillings
    2. Sleepers of Mars (1939)
    3. Worlds to Barter (1931)
    4. Invisible Monster (1933)
    5. The Man from Earth (1934)
    6. The Third Vibrator (1933)

  22. [as ‘John Beynon Harris’]: Wanderers of Time. Introduction by Walter Gillings. Coronet Books. 1973. London: Hodder Paperbacks Ltd., 1974.
    1. Before the Triffids, by Walter Gillings
    2. Wanderers of Time [aka 'Love in Time'] (1933)
    3. Derelict of Space (1939)
    4. Child of Power (1939)
    5. The Last Lunarians (1934)
    6. The Puff-Ball Menace [aka 'Spheres of Hell'] (1933)

  23. [as ‘John Beynon’]: Exiles on Asperus. Coronet Books. 1979. London: Hodder Paperbacks Ltd., 1980.
    1. Exiles on Asperus (1933)
    2. No Place Like Earth (1951)
    3. The Venus Adventure (1932)

  24. No Place Like Earth [Some stories previously published in 'Jizzle', 'The Seeds of Time', 'Consider Her Ways and Others', Wanderers of Time' and 'Exiles on Asperus'] (2003)
    1. Derelict of Space
    2. Time to Rest
    3. No Place Like Earth
    4. In Outer Space There Shone a Star
    5. But a Kind of a Ghost
    6. The Cathedral Crypt
    7. A Life Postponed
    8. Technical Slip
    9. Una
    10. It's a Wise Child
    11. Pillar to Post
    12. The Stare
    13. Time Stops Today
    14. The Meddler
    15. Blackmoil
    16. A Long Spoon

  25. Short stories:

    [Included in Jizzle (1954); The Seeds of Time (1956);
    Consider Her Ways and Others / The Infinite Moment {CW / IM} (1961);
    Sleepers of Mars / Wanderers of Time / Exiles on Asperus {SM / WT / EA} (1973, 1974, 1979);
    The Best of John Wyndham / No Place Like Earth {Best / NPE} (1973, 2003)]

    1. Worlds to Barter {SM} (1931)
    2. The Lost Machine {Best} (1932)
    3. The Stare {NPE} (1932)
    4. The Venus Adventure {EA} (1932)
    5. Exiles on Asperus {EA} (1933)
    6. Invisible Monster {SM} (1933)
    7. The Puff-Ball Menace {WT} [aka 'Spheres of Hell'] (1933)
    8. The Third Vibrator {SM} (1933)
    9. Wanderers of Time {WT} [aka 'Love in Time'] (1933)
    10. The Man from Earth {SM} [aka 'The Man from Beyond' {Best}] (1934)
    11. The Last Lunarians {WT} [aka 'The Moon Devils'] (1934)
    12. The Cathedral Crypt {NPE} (1935)
    13. The Perfect Creature {Best} (1937)
    14. Judson's Annihilator [aka 'Beyond the Screen'] (1938)
    15. Sleepers of Mars {SM} (1938)
    16. Child of Power {WT} (1939)
    17. Derelict of Space {WT} {NPE} (1939)
    18. The Trojan Beam {Best} (1939)
    19. Vengeance by Proxy {Best} (1940)
    20. Meteor (1941)
    21. The Living Lies (1946)
    22. Technical Slip {NPE} (1949)
    23. Jizzle (1949)
    24. Adaptation {Best} (1949)
    25. Time to Rest {NPE} (1949)
    26. The Eternal Eve (1950)
    27. Pawley's Peepholes {Best} (1951)
    28. The Red Stuff {Best} (1951)
    29. No Place Like Earth {EA} {NPE} [aka 'Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus'] (1951)
    30. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down {Best} (1951)
    31. A Present from Brunswick [aka 'Bargain from Brunswick'] (1951)
    32. Pillar to Post {NPE} (1951)
    33. The Wheel (1952)
    34. Survival (1952)
    35. Dumb Martian {Best} (1952)
    36. Time Out {IM} (1953)
    37. Close Behind Him {Best} (1953)
    38. Time Stops Today {NPE} (1953)
    39. Chinese Puzzle [aka 'A Stray from Cathay'] (1953)
    40. Chronoclasm (1953)
    41. Reservation Deferred (1953)
    42. More Spinned Against (1953)
    43. Confidence Trick (1953)
    44. How Do I Do? {IM} (1953)
    45. Affair of the Heart (1954)
    46. Esmeralda (1954)
    47. Heaven Scent (1954)
    48. Look Natural, Please! (1954)
    49. Never on Mars (1954)
    50. Perforce to Dream (1954)
    51. Una {NPE} (1954)
    52. Opposite Number (1954)
    53. Compassion Circuit (1954)
    54. Wild Flower (1955)
    55. Consider Her Ways {CW / IM} (1956)
    56. But a Kind of Ghost {NPE} (1957)
    57. The Meddler {NPE} (1958)
    58. For All the Night [aka 'The Space Station A.D. 1994' - from The Outward Urge] (1958)
    59. Idiot’s Delight [aka 'The Moon A.D. 2044' - from The Outward Urge] (1958)
    60. The Thin Gnat-Voices [aka 'Mars A.D. 2094' - from The Outward Urge] (1958)
    61. Space Is a Province of Brazil [aka 'Venus A.D. 2144' - from The Outward Urge] (1958)
    62. A Long Spoon {CW} {NPE} (1960)
    63. The Emptiness of Space [aka 'The Asteroids A.D. 2194' - from The Outward Urge] {Best} (1960)
    64. Odd {CW / IM} (1961)
    65. Oh, Where, Now, Is Peggy MacRafferty? {CW} (1961)
    66. Random Quest {CW / IM} (1961)
    67. Stitch in Time {CW / IM} (1961)
    68. It's a Wise Child {NPE} (1962)
    69. Chocky (1963)
    70. In Outer Space There Shone a Star {NPE} (1965)
    71. A Life Postponed {NPE} (1968)
    72. 'Phase Two': Excerpt (1973)
    73. Vivisection (2000)
    74. Blackmoil {NPE} (2003)


  26. Amy Binns. Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters. London: Grace Judson Press, 2019.

John Wyndham: Plan for Chaos (2009)