Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

'A Very Primitive Matter': John Wyndham on Catastrophe and Survival

Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

'A Very Primitive Matter': John Wyndham on Catastrophe and Survival

Article excerpt

Contemporary environmental anxieties present the perfect chance to revisit British sciencefiction writer John Wyndham's Cold War-era stories of mutations, climate change, and nature revenging itself on humans via carnivorous plants. Wyndham himself would hardly have been surprised at his continued relevance. Indeed, his body of imaginative fiction - from his most famous work The Day of the Triffids (1951) to, as discussed below, 1953's The Kraken Wakes, 1955's The Chrysalids, and 1957's The Midwich Cuckoos - argues that our reactions to disaster should be guided by the evolutionary truths imposed by nature itself, however obscured those truths have become by everyday life. At the height of his popularity in the 1950s, Wyndham's speculations drew deeply from a tradition of British adventure literature and its accompanying preoccupation with the character traits of survival and dominance. At the same time, Wyndham wrote in the aftermath of a cataclysmic world war and in the context of a worsening threat of nuclear death and social collapse. He consciously placed this state of affairs in tension with the tranquil life of affluence that the post-war West had supposedly achieved. Thus, as an author concerned both with his own historical moment and with the ultimate survival of the human species, Wyndham offers works rich in symbolic potential.

In this article, I examine the fantastical creatures in Wyndham's novels as beings that do more than present the negative of post-war life. Instead, through their symbolic multiplicity - their lack of a stable meaning - Wyndham's creations fracture the certainty of that life. By arranging these encounters with beings that puncture the coherence of the social totality, Wyndham urges readers to see themselves not as members of a vast complex of institutions and organisations, but as lone individuals, rising and falling by their ability to survive. Wyndham advocates the power of the individual as an adaptive creature, stifled by the post-war edifice of the cradle-to-the-grave British welfare state. As he blends Cold-War politics and imaginative elements, Wyndham consistently reaches to images from natural selection, in a bid to awaken in the reader the principles of survival, which have been momentarily usurped by a massified society that rewards weakness.

This essay therefore evaluates Wyndham's ideology of nature, as well as his status as a writer of gothic-inflected science fiction with an 'evolutionary' perspective. Specifically, Wyndham deploys the language of Darwinian struggle as a reaction to post-war society. That is, Wyndham utilises such language only to the extent that he opposes the mass organisation of people around the mid-century ideal of a comfortable, domesticated existence. His idea of humans' relationship to nature does not quite match that of the 'inextricable web of affinities' offered by Darwin, which emphasises species' interdependence.1 Instead, for Wyndham, nature hands down an imperative that affects species and individuals: Wyndham first asserts that societies are compelled to follow nature's logic of survival, contrasting the singleminded 'survival instinct' governing wartime Britain (for example, in its mobilisation of women in masculine roles) against what he sees as a postwar society of leisure. Yet 'evolution' in Wyndham's sense also directs individuals' actions: the 'honesty' of following evolutionary precepts is repeatedly contrasted against the pretence of respectable society, its class divisions, and its sexual mores, as shown in examples below.

Really, Wyndham is interested in the possibilities that emerge when such social pillars have toppled. In his most significant novels, Wyndham expands upon the challenge posed by philosopher Hannah Arendt, in the wake of the Second World War. She writes, '[i]ntellectually [...], America and Europe are in the same situation: the thread of tradition is broken, and we must discover the past for ourselves. …

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