John Wyndham, genius and prophet

The Wyndham Collection

John Wyndham, three vols. (Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids), Folio Society, 2022, 704 pps, £125

ALEXANDER ADAMS finds 1950s classics have troublingly modern messages

The publication of a clothbound boxset containing the classic novels Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1903-1969) by the Folio Society, prompts the question, ‘How much is Wyndham a man of his time?’ In this review, we will look at the novels, these illustrated editions and how much 1950s England influenced these stories.

Wyndham had a difficult childhood. His parents were involved in a high-profile divorce case, at a time when divorces were rare, and must have been aware of the consequent press coverage. The family moved around the country, and the young Wyndham attended a number of schools, including the famously progressive Bedales School. He had a number of different professions before deciding to pursue fiction writing. While he had some success as a writer of science fiction and pastiching American detective stories during the inter-war era, he did not seem to have found his metier. Although he did not know it at the time, his background and writing had set him up for spectacular success in the post-war period.

It was the catalyst of the war which seemed to bring Wyndham new introspection and a wider view of human nature. He was attached to a corps which saw heavy fighting in the advances through western Germany. Seeing the effects of wartime barbarity first hand – and the related crimes, atrocities, despair and vengeance – gave his vivid thoughts immediacy. Seeing exceptional events occurring in ordinary towns and houses, and the tide of history demolishing the certainties that complacent lives generate, meant the clichés of science fiction and crime noire (however clever) no longer seemed adequate.

The result of this transformed – or perhaps condensed – outlook led to Day of the Triffids (1951), the first book in this set. It is set in an alternative 1951, where a bio-engineered plant has become cultivated across the world for its rich oil. This ‘triffid’ plant can eat meat, stings animals, and can walk. Possessing a rudimentary form of intelligence, this plant is kept under control by docking the stings in ornamental individual plants or by penning undocked crop plants. In this alternative timeline, weaponised satellites orbit the Earth. A shower of meteors arrives, or an accident triggers weapons satellites; whichever it is, the result is that lights in the night sky blind almost the entire human population. Survivors have to struggle against gang warfare, disease, starvation and the threat of the triffids, which come to dominate the land.

In Triffids, Wyndham’s interests and skills form a glorious combination in his most successful and popular book. His progressive schooling and multiple careers gave him insight into the problems of farming and food supply; his wartime experiences sharpened his imagery of social breakdown and casual brutality. Wyndham’s sci-fi-writing origins allowed him to think through the plot; his experience of writing detective thrillers gave his prose a clipped asperity and punchy impact. He wrote strong characters and a compelling plot, yet Triffids is actually more of a novel-of-ideas than it seems. The excitement of the plot, believability of the characters and emotional appeal of the situations combined to make Triffids an ideas book that gets readers to think about issues organically, as we see characters deliberating options or forced to live out the consequences of their circumstances. Added to which, the astonishing imagery and haunting atmosphere make Triffids one of the best novels of the century. It far transcends science fiction, thrillers, dystopias and sociologically oriented examinations of the human condition and – I would say – functions as literature of the highest level. For the issues-driven, it includes discussion of environmentalism, disarmament, geo-politics, ethics and self-sufficiency. It has elements of thriller, romance, dystopia and social commentary, blended in a manner that is seamless.

Well, almost. There is a single chapter that is devoted to the backstory of the development of the triffids, which, while necessary, is rather dry on first reading. It is an obligatory exposition dump. On subsequent readings, it answers some of thoughts of readers now familiar with the titular antagonists of humanity. This chapter is the creakiest in terms of prose. Palanguez, the South American intermediary who smuggles triffid seeds from their point of origin in USSR laboratories, has a ‘sleek, dark head’ and addresses his interlocutor as ‘señor’. Wyndham’s pulp-fiction apprenticeship shows through a little. We have to sit through a bit of global politics, which is something that mars Wyndham’s follow-up novel The Kraken Wakes (1953 – not included in this set). However, if you can make it through chapter 2, the rest of Triffids is a terrific read – gripping, memorable, moving, thought-provoking. The contemporary film version was a wretched traducement, as was an embarrassingly updated 2009 television mini-series. A television version, co-produced by BBC Television in 1981, is excellent and well worth seeking out. 

© Patrick Leger from The Folio Society’s The Wyndham Collection – The Midwich Cuckoos

Wisely, for its new edition, Folio Society commissioned illustrations by Patrick Leger that are firmly in the 1950s style. The limited colours, bold blocking and strong line work all point back to the classic illustrations of comics and pulp fiction from the 1920s-1950s era. The speckling and deliberately loose registration imitate the printing of the time. Leger brings a cinematic eye to scenes, viewing protagonist Bill and young Susan from an aerial viewpoint. My favourite is the view of Bill in his hospital bed, with a swatch of sunlight illuminating his sheets. Folio Society, because it markets directly, rather than through bookshops, does not have to put text on its cover to inform browsers. This gives Folio Society designers a freer hand than otherwise. (Producing volumes for a boxset also allows book covers to remain text free.) Leger has illustrated all three books, including the covers.

Like Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) is infused with Cold War anxiety. Midwich, a village in southern England (based on Midhurst, Sussex), is suddenly isolated by an inexplicable forcefield and the residents rendered unconscious. When the barrier is lifted and people revive, they soon discover that all the women are pregnant. The human-seeming babies turn out to be uncanny cuckoos, planted into the wombs of women by aliens. Once born, the cuckoo children develop fast, act in a disciplined collaborative way and have powers of telepathy and limited mind control. This makes them an inscrutable and dangerous enemy. The hosts find themselves being held hostage by the parasite children, who threaten to grow strong enough to destroy the community that (warily and fearfully) cares for them.

Wisely, Wyndham does not dilute his story by introducing the aliens as other than prime movers. He has no interest in aliens. The science-fiction premise is merely a device to allow Wyndham to explore how communities (and civilisations) respond to the knowledge that they have in their midst forces that wish to supplant them and that are ruthless. From inter-species rivalry, Wyndham has moved to in-species rivalry. Of course, what must have been obvious to more observant readers of the time, was how this was an allegory for Communist infiltration of the West. The Midwich cuckoo-children, like Communists, form a tightly knit group working in concert to overturn the current order and advance to the next level of development, using any means necessary to overcome opposition. What seems so troublingly prescient, is how this scenario could act as a parable of multiculturalism. When a foreign group cannot be integrated, conflict for resources and status arises. If the organised minority overcomes the disorganised majority – as Mosca’s Law tells us – the numerical inferiority of the foreigners is no bar to them consolidating themselves and even coming to rule the hosts. So, while Midwich may seem dated sci-fi tosh set in a rural England of the past – Brian Aldiss will be forever remembered as the writer who damned Wyndham’s novels as ‘cosy catastrophes’ – it is actually a novel of ideas that is vitally relevant in a multicultural society facing a crossroads.

Likewise, The Chrysalids (1957) gives us another brilliant novel with exciting action, suspense and vividly drawn characters in a unique world, and one with a deeply troubling ethical conundrum. Chrysalids is a coming-of-age story set in a post-nuclear-war rural community in Canada, where millenarian Christianity holds sway. The society is obsessed by genetic stability, considering it a moral issue, which they police by destroying produce and animals if they genetically deviate from the norm, and exiling abnormal children. David, the protagonist, becomes aware that he has the power of telepathy. Living in fear that his psychic deviancy will come to light and lead to his expulsion, David forms a bond with the few other children of his age who also have this rare power. Eventually discovered, David and his friends have to flee into the wilderness to escape torture and (potentially) sacrifice.

Perhaps inadvertently on the author’s part, Chrysalids presents us with a question that is even more pointed than the one in Midwich: How far would you go to preserve your values and culture? What would you do if your children joined an extremist political group, or converted to a radical religion? Would you exile (even kill) relatives or your own children, knowing that if you did not, their values would supplant your own? I cannot think of any novels of ideas that are more pertinent today. Engaging with the novel’s issues honestly will result in readers doing some painful self-assessment about his/her limitations and the robustness of his/her values.

Wyndham, like every author, wrote in and of his time. In Triffids, a character drains the petrol from a car’s reserve tank. I don’t think I have ever travelled in a car with a reserve tank, although the concept is decipherable enough from the name. Perhaps the youngest of readers might need a reminder of what a corkscrew is; the idea of vacuum-packed cigarettes is rather neat, although today’s cellophane wrappers perform an inferior but cheaper alternative.

The language and social mores are of their time – which is a strong recommendation to readers of today – and this is particularly so in Triffids. When Wyndham presents the debates between pragmatists and Christians about whether or not sighted men should have multiple blind wives (who could give birth to seeing children), we encounter a slice of 1950s Britain, the last time Christian traditionalism had social hegemony. Today, I suppose many people would consider the matter merely one of avoiding partner jealousy rather than the breaching of a moral commandment.

The illustrations have a strong period flavour, with clothes, interiors and vehicles in Triffids and Midwich being contemporary with the period within which they were written. The retro quality of the illustration style suits the texts. If I had to venture one minor reservation about the illustrations in the Folio Society Wyndham boxset, it is that Leger tends to place us close to the actions, with main figures reaching the page edges. That means we are immersed in an event depicted, rather than viewing a scene at a distance. We are inside a motif, rather than outside a picture. This has some advantages – immediacy, engagement, impact, energy – but also reduces detached artistry, complex composition and contemplative reserve. On balance, it is well that Leger remains stylistically consistent within each volume and across the set.

Designers have taken care to co-ordinate the cover colours with the front and end-papers. The production quality is high and the margins and bindings make reading easy. This boxset with pictorial slipcase and hardback books with cloth spines (a reissue of the editions originally published in 2010) is a handsome set, and an ideal way to enjoy key novels of one of the greatest post-war British novelists.

The Folio Society’s The Wyndham Collection, three-volume set, with three novels by John Wyndham, illustrated by Patrick Leger, is available exclusively from: