Archives » John Wyndham

Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020

 Interzone 287 cover

Editorial duties fall to cover artist Warwick Fraser-Coombe where he outlines his influences and compares their apocalypses to today’s ongoing Covid crisis. In Future Interrupteda Andy Hedgecock wonders at the relative absence in modern fiction of stories dealing with debt. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories tells of her life-long (well at least since she watched the film of John Wyndham’s classic) fear of and fascination with triffids.
In Book Zone I find both N K Jemisin’s The City We Became and Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards well up to, indeed beyond, the mark, Duncan Lawie describes Paul J McAuley’s The War of the Maps as absorbing, Duncan Lunan reviews Beyond Time: Classic Tales of Time Unwound edited by Mike Ashley, reprints of mostly forgotten time travel stories, the most recent from 1958, Andy Hedgecock says Docile by K M Szpara is a promising but deeply problematic debut in comparing rape to financial exploitation in its exploration of debt-ridden commercial transactions while Maureen Kincaid Speller declares the third of Jeff Noon’s John Henry Nyquist mysteries, Creeping Jenny, the most satisfying yet in its twisting of narrative expectations and its binding of stories together.
In the fiction, meanwhile:-
Influenced by his Uncle Edward, the young narrator of Night-Town of Mars1 by Tim Lees seems to flit between our own reality and a separate one with an almost identical town to the one where he lives but which may be on Mars as its gravity is lower than Earth’s. Identical that is, except for the stones which can speak and the shop dummies which can move by themselves. This is all interpretable as a young boy’s dreams but the story’s thrust is that he moves between parallel universes.
Those We Serve2 by Eugenia Triantafyllou is told from the point of view of an ‘artificial’ called Manoli, who works on a holiday island whose human inhabitants have retreated undersea. Manoli is obsessed by human visitor Amelia who comes to the island annually. But the island is running down and Manoli is programmed not to leave.
In The Transport of Bodies by John Possidente, a journalist on a small space station (would he even have enough to do?) is told a tragic tale by a celebrity chef of his famous pitcher husband both just back from the two-year mission they’d volunteered for beyond Neptune. (Again. ??)
Make America Great Again3 by Val Nolan might have been designed to illustrate Halford E Luccock’s formalism to the effect that, when fascism comes to America it will not call itself fascism; it will be called Americanism. A black journalist – suspect to the police on two counts, then – is investigating the strange background of Kenny Hanson, who prevented a right-wing gunman, in his turn disrupting a protest, to stop him from killing Riley Porter, a woman who wants to be President one day. However, Hanson may be a fighter pilot from World War 2, brought to the story’s present by aliens.

Pedant’s corner:- a“in another story” (is another story.) 1“In the window were a series of posturing dummies” (was a series.) 2“he though” (he thought.) 3“with cops likes that on the beat” (with cops like that,) bandoleers (bandoliers.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (vii)

This meme started with Judith at Reader in the Wilderness but has now been taken up by Katrina at Pining for the West.

Science Fiction Books Again

This shelf is the last containing SF books I have read. These start at Connie Willis and finish with Roger Zelazny – to whom all bar Silverberg and Le Guin bow down – but also incorporating my copies of the old Spectrum SF magazine (I have six copies of issue 2 because I had a story in it – I also had one in issue 3 but only got four copies of that) and 17 issues of Galaxy Magazine. [Edited to add. I forgot my four copies of the Destinies collections are in there too.]

In there is also my John Wyndham collection.

The 20 books following I had read (from Dumbarton Library it must have been) before I bought copies to keep and have housed them separately from my other SF ever since.

Then you’ll note two copies of a book called A Son of the Rock, plus a Zelazny collaboration.

Snakeskins by Tim Major

Titan Books, 2019, 407 p.

The supposed genesis of the conceit of this novel could have been lifted from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. In an event called the Fall, one day in 1808 green lights fell through the sky near the village of Ilam in Derbyshire. Unlike in Wyndham’s classic though, nobody was blinded. Instead a change was effected on the people living near where the lights fell. From that point on those few, since dubbed Charmers, on achieving adulthood shed a version of themselves every seven years. These sloughings-off are the Snakeskins of the title, which are identical to the original in every respect including memory, but last only a few minutes before turning to ashes; leaving the Charmer unblemished, younger, and longer lived as a result. Despite being a minority of the population, Charmers, in the guise of the Greater Britain Party, have been in charge of the Government for almost a century. Non-Charmers are second-class citizens at best, resentful of the advantages Charmers have, not least wealth and influence, though they still live and, in the case of one of our viewpoint characters, are schooled, side-by-side. She is Caitlin Hext, at sixteen soon to experience her first shedding. We also see this society through the eyes of Russell Handling, an aide to Government member, Ellis Blackwood, and of Gerry Shafik, an investigative journalist. Handling and Shafik are both non-Charmers.

This Charmers’ Britain is deliberately cut off from the outside world, technically backward. Hence references to Commodore 64s, an Acorn computer, VHS tapes and floppy discs. Yet one character sends a text message. And there is also a comment about an affected American accent. I’d have thought that was not likely to have been heard by the general public if the country’s isolation was as complete as suggested. (While reading it struck me that this book could have been written many years ago as a contemporary piece and only changed slightly for modern consumption after having been dug out of the metaphorical writer’s drawer.)

Caitlin’s Uncle Tobe’s latest shedding (like all such, attended by a Government employee) passes without incident. Caitlin’s, when it comes, provides a surprise. Her Snakeskin does not ‘ash,’ but stays alive. Only days later Uncle Tobe is found dead, a supposed suicide. Russell is contacted by the mysterious Ixion and asked to spy on Blackwood. Gerry begins to investigate the funding of the January care home.

It turns out that not only Caitlin’s but many Snakeskins do not ash, those in Government employ their surviving ones as substitutes in order to function twenty-four hours a day, but others’ – like Caitlin’s offshoot, soon calling herself Kit – are confined to the January care home until they do ash. (Though since the home is to all intents and purposes unregulated, that fate may not be as natural as the authorities pretend it to be.) A thriller plot then ensues with Caitlin helping Kit to escape the home with the aid of unregistered Snakeskins, and Gerry and Russell uncovering the designs Blackwood’s associates have to replace the Prime Minister and anticipate another Fall. The importance of the Hext family to goings-on are also revealed.

The setting-up of the situation is fine and the inter-personal dynamics are reasonably well-handled, those of a character named Dodie’s Snakeskins particularly so, but the text never really convinces as a conspiracy thriller. Moreover, Handling’s amour fou for Blackwood’s wife, Nell, is at best adolescent.

Pedant’s corner:- I read an ARC so some of these may have been changed in the final book. Time interval later count; seven. Otherwise; snuck (too many instances to count; sneaked,) focussed (x2, focused,) “off the edge off the bench” (of the bench,) “the catering company were scheduled” (was scheduled.) “‘What’s kind of trouble is Nell Blackwood in?’” (What kind of trouble.) “She nibbled at a corner of a sandwich” (the sandwich had been mentioned before, there was only one; ‘a corner of the sandwich’, then,) “on the world ‘your’” (on the word ‘your’,) fit (x2, fitted,) focussing (focusing,) sunk (sank.) “‘It was you that I met you in the…’” (It was you that I met in the,) staunch (stanch,) “none of them were experts” (none of them was an expert,) “none of the words were audible” (none … was audible,) “‘I’d be grateful it if you’d answer’” (no ‘it’.)

A Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher

Hodder and Stoughton, 1965, 218 p.

A Wrinkle in the Skin cover

John Christopher is perhaps best remembered for his Tripods series of books for young adults but also contributed to the British sub-genre of “cosy catatstrophe” most mined by the other John (Wyndham.) A Wrinkle in the Skin falls firmly into the catastrophe category as a series of giant earthquakes befalls the world. (From a modern perspective Christopher’s description of the cause of earthquakes was obviously written before the theory of plate tectonics was fully established.)

Matthew Cotter is a widower living in Guernsey when the earthquakes hit. After living through the ’quakes, his aim is to try to find his daughter who was living somewhere in England before the catastrophe. He first joins a small group of survivors one of whom acts as a kind of petty king intent on keeping the best female to himself to ensure any sons that ensue are recognized as his and regards Cotter (whose relative lack of interest in the opposite sex was established in the short pre-disaster chapter) as his right hand man. It is here perhaps that the sexual attitudes of the time A Wrinkle in the Skin was written (of time immemorial?) are most obvious as a woman who is a willing sexual partner for most of the others is referred to in the text in crudely dismissive terms.

Soon Cotter escapes to strike out on his own but is followed by a pre-pubescent boy whom he had earlier managed to rescue from a damaged building and for whom he now has to take responsibility. The English Channel has disappeared in the vast upheaval and they can walk across the old sea bed. During this sojourn they come upon a more or less intact oil tanker deposited on the new land, inhabited by a captain who has gone slightly mad.

Making it to England they hit upon a group who recognize them as non-threatening and take them in. The group seeks to hide both themselves and their stash from bands of marauders but of course can not always be successful. One such raid takes place when Cotter and many of the others are away from the camp on a food search. They arrive back in time to prevent the attackers from unearthing the food and Cotter uses a shotgun to drive them off, wounded or not. However, he later learns from one of the women of the new accommodation she has had to make to those gangs of men who chance upon her and the contempt in which she holds all men for their appetites. In a lawless, almost hopeless environment I suppose this is the way it would be.

As I recall the author’s The Death of Grass was somewhat similar in its treatment of the post-apocalyptic scenario.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘You know how to get here?’” (context suggests there rather than here,) Skiopos’ (Skiopos’s,) dark-aureoled (they weren’t aureoles, but areolas,) “he cut if off” (he cut it off.)

Brian Aldiss

Earlier today I read the news that Brian Aldiss has died.

At times during my youth he was about the sole standard bearer for British SF (for which actually read English SF as Science Fiction from other parts of these islands was more or less invisible till years later.) Only John Wyndham and J G Ballard had anything like as high a profile and they were very different writers.

(Edited to add: I don’t know why it was that Arthur C Clarke slipped my mind when I originally wrote this. Maybe because his output was hard SF as compared to the others.)

As a result of Aldiss’s prominence I have a large number of his books. I think The Interpreter was the first SF book I bought as opposed to borrowing them from the local library.

The latest such purchase was bought for me for Christmas by the good lady because she liked the cover so much – and she read it before me!

I suppose there won’t be any more now.

I did meet him once; briefly, at one of the Liverpool Eastercons.

One of the greats. Arguably the last of the SF pioneers.

Brian Wilson Aldiss: 18/8/1925 – 19/8/2017. So it goes.

The Day Of The Triffids

I settled down last night at 9 pm to watch the second swatch of the latest BBC adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids only to find it wasn’t on. This was because Holby City had been bumped to an hour later by River City and so we in Scotland didn’t get to see The Day Of The Triffids until 10.20. I went and had a bath instead.

But… The main BBC news was on in Scotland at 10. The Day Of The Triffids lasted 1½ hours and so the news in the rest of the UK wasn’t till 10.30.

Was there a special news, for Scotland only, at 10? What did the (London) BBC news unit think of that? (The Scottish news opt out which normally follows the news – the “where you are” bit – came on as usual afterwards: it wasn’t a BBC Scotland main news.) Or did they just use the BBC 24 hour news feed for the fifteen minutes?

Anyway, The Day Of The Triffids adaptation itself was well done and, apart from some updating and an unnecessary emphasis on the hero, Bill Masen’s, family, (I blame Russell T Davies) reasonably true to the book as I remember it, with a fine performance by Eddie Izzard as the baddie, Torrence.

It was, however, – even the daylight scenes – filmed almost entirely in what I call Super Murk-O-Vision. This was probably to avoid too many shots with triffids in them as, no matter what you do, plants are not really that scary in appearance. Here, the book definitely scores over any possible visual version. The depiction of the triffid sting, showing it as a potent disabling weapon, was also much too late.

[Edited to add: the voice over was a mistake too.]

I doubt this version would have converted anyone that didn’t already have a penchant for it to SF, though.

For anyone who wants to see them, the iplayer reruns are here and here.

free hit counter script