Mike and Phyllis Watson are journalists who are covering a series of unexplained phenomena. Beginning as a lethal curiosity, a series of unexplained catastrophes are wreaking havoc on the world’s sea lanes and coastal communities and – eventually – on the polar icecaps. Finding themselves increasingly isolated and at risk, they eventually become part of the struggle to overcome whatever it is that is endangering humanity.
John Wyndham (1903-1969) pretty much owned the subgenre of Science Fiction known as “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction”. However, they only represent a small section of his oeuvre, which stretched all the way back to the 1930s. His influence is still being felt today, in films such as 28 Days Later which cheerfully admits its debt to the opening chapters of The Day Of The Triffids. Brian Aldiss and Christopher Priest have both slated his novels as “cosy catastrophes” and “middle-class” but that really only highlights the safe, comfortable world that Wyndham’s protagonists begin their stories in, rather than how it ends up for them.
The Kraken Wakes was the first novel he wrote after the immediate success of Triffids. It follows a similar pattern: Mike, our narrator, is relating the story from a distance of several years, rather like Bill does in Triffids. It also begins with a slightly off-kilter opening: Triffids begins with Bill in hospital thinking that he’s woken up very early, while Kraken begins with Mike and Phyllis on what turns into a working honeymoon as they witness the arrival of the mysterious aliens – interestingly, we never find out just what they are – on Earth. They then follow the events as the aliens lay siege to humanity through prolonged attacks on coastal communities and deep sea shipping lanes, and then by melting the polar ice caps which causes the sea levels to rise…
The similarities continue: Mike and Bill both witness examples of society breaking down; both take refuge in isolated homesteads where they can avoid violent incursions; and both skip a gap of several years to get to the end of the novel.
And I’m going to put my cards on the table here and now: Triffids is a more exciting story, but Kraken is a better novel. It’s better for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the events feel like a more natural and likely response to a global catastrophe. We also get a better picture of what is happening in different parts of the world than we do in Triffids, largely because of the Watson’s journalistic background and resources.
It’s also a deliciously literary book: like a lot of Wyndham’s work, the characters often quote or reference other books or poems or art to highlight their situation or just to throw it into some kind of relief. I used to hate this sort of “posturing” as a young reader because it just felt like the author was being pretentious or fulfilling some sort of “lit-cred” checklist. It wasn’t until I was older and was able to start spotting a lot of these allusions myself that I started to recognise them as just homages to work that had inspired the authors, rather like the “easter eggs” that movie makers pop into the backgrounds of their work.
The novel’s title is itself a reference to an early poem by Tennyson in which
“The Kraken sleepeth…
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep…”
Which is quite a spoiler for what happens in the story.
But really, I love it mostly because it contains Mike and Phyllis Watson (hmmm, a character named Watson who recounts adventures in which he plays only tangential parts…?), who make up one of the best spousal acts in any kind of fiction.
Mike and Phyllis are a modern couple: they are both working journalists, with Mike sometimes stating outright that Phyllis is the better of the pair. They also cope with a lot of details that were out of place in contemporary fiction: they have a child who later dies, and who they mourn. There’s a strain there for a while but they recover and get on with things. Mike, however, has a breakdown and spends several months at a “sanitorium” before he can deal with the regular stresses of life again. But his breakdown is largely due to the cumulative nature of the catastrophes that he has witnessed and – conveniently, to a cynical reader – also provides an opportunity for him to have several pages of boring plot explained to him in a few paragraphs. But it highlights a vulnerability in his retelling of the events that you might not otherwise find in a book of this nature.
It also reinforces your opinion of Phyllis as a complete badass: she has witnessed and experienced everything – more, in fact – that Mike has, but manages to put off her own breakdown through applying herself ruthlessly to her situation and in trying to save both of them. She and Mike are separated by work for some time in the latter stages of the book, but she isn’t staying at home and patiently waiting for him; she’s preparing for the collapse that she knows is coming so that they can both survive. She’s a reaction and an improvement on the character of Josella in The Day Of The Triffids who, while no shrinking violet, often takes a back seat to what Bill wants to get done.
Female characters are often a sticking point in fiction from the past. While Wyndham isn’t perfect, he often writes women who are strong and capable and who drive the plot with as much agency as his male heroes. Something I only found out a few years ago is that this wasn’t limited to his fiction: Wyndham himself only married in 1963, to Grace Wilson, with whom he had been in a relationship for twenty years. They did not marry previously because Wilson was a teacher and if she had gotten married, she would have had to give up her career, due to the stupid rules of the time. So they waited until she retired before tying the knot. That illustrates, to me at least, the priority Wyndham gives his female characters in a lot of his books.
I first read this book in 2002. I loved it, of course. As you can see from the photo, it’s a second-hand copy and it was old long before I got my mitts on it. But my family and I had just moved to Perth after three less-than-brilliant years teaching in a couple of small country towns after a less-than-stellar beginning to my career in my home state of Tasmania, and finding any kind of shop that sold books I liked was a sign that things just might turn out okay. Books are, you may already have guessed, important to me and I was glad that the new city I lived in was going to be able to keep me sane in that regard. Obviously, the internet existed at that time, and I did often order books from far-off lands, but there’s very little that soothes the soul like walking into a library or bookstore and knowing that you will be able to find something to capture your attention. The Kraken Wakes was proof that Perth would be able to do that for me. It was a ridiculous notion, I admit – Perth being an order of magnitude larger than Hobart where we had previously lived – but finding a book, and knowing that I was able to find books, was a big part of me coming to terms with the magnitude of the move we had made: I’d discovered a part of my life that could continue happily in this new place and, therefore, I could cope with everything else that came my way, even with my prospects, career and self-confidence being under a cloud.
However, life continued and, indeed, continues to have a few more curveballs to throw at me. What The Kraken Wakes gave me, though, was a way of getting through them. And a way of appreciating my own Phyllis, who has always looked after me in times of trouble.
You can find out more about John Wyndham at https://www.wyndham.lode.co.uk/