A way the world ends: John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes

I read The Chrysalids when I was a kid, and I read all the rest of Wyndham when I was about twelve, but I never managed to own a copy of The Kraken Wakes. I’ve re-read the others occasionally over the years, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve re-read The Kraken Wakes since it went back to the library in 1978. I’d remembered it as being a cosy catastrophe where the world is destroyed by sea monsters, and rather second-tier Wyndham, but I’d done it an injustice. The Kraken Wakes is quite an unusual cosy catastrophe, and really much more interesting than I’d remembered it.

To start with, it’s an alien invasion. The first things are “red dots,” fiery meteors landing in the deep sea, which are actually alien craft. It’s speculated that they might come from Jupiter or Neptune and like living at high pressure under water, and it’s speculated that humanity could share the planet with them, since they need different things. The rest of the book is a series of attacks by the aliens, never called krakens in the book, culminating in the scene that starts the novel where rising sea water and icebergs in the Channel have entirely changed the climate and landscape of Britain and the protagonists are trying to escape. This is essentially the story of how some very unusual aliens conquer the world in 1953, and it’s much closer to The War of the Worlds than it is to Wyndham’s other novels.

The action takes place over a period of about ten years, which is very unusual for a cosy catastrophe. You kind of have to assume it’s ten years of 1953, or ten years in which the social, political, and technological themes of 1953 continue unchanged. The eagerness with which the Americans, British and Russians use “the bomb” against the dwellers of the deeps, and the blithe indifference to radiation (and the quaint spelling “radio-active” with the hyphen) date attitudes precisely. There’s also the “EBC,” the English Broadcasting Company for which the protagonists are reporters, and the running joke about how people thought they said BBC—the first actual British commercial TV network was launched in 1955. Wyndham’s ideas about how such a thing would work, without having seen any commercial TV, and in an era before TV became widespread are quaint—people writing scripts for news rather than live reporting, reporters having days and weeks after an event to write long thoughtful pieces about it before it becomes news. The way in which it is 1953, or the day after tomorrow in 1953, is one of the things that’s most interesting about reading it now—it’s an alien invasion of a very specific and very different world.

The events of The Kraken Wakes take place all over the world. The protagonists even visit some other parts of the world to report. This is unique in my experience of cosy catastrophes, most of them take place in a “fog in Channel, continent cut off” England, where at best it will be noted that radio broadcasts from the rest of the world have gone silent. The rest of the world is necessary to The Kraken Wakes because of the sea-based nature of the menace. That the rest of the world seems to consist of teeth-grittingly clichéd cartoon locations and countries is regrettable, but I suppose Wyndham deserves points for trying.

Wyndham always had very odd attitudes towards women. Phyllis, the narrator’s wife, wheedles, stockpiles, flirts, and has hysterics. There’s no use saying I shouldn’t notice this kind of thing, it’s like a colour-blind person saying I shouldn’t notice that a very nicely shaped chair is a screaming shade of puce. I can’t turn my awareness of it off, though I certainly can roll my eyes and keep going. Wyndham’s treatment of Phyllis is repulsive and patronising, and much worse than average for 1953, or even 1853. It would be just barely possible to read it as the narrator’s misogyny if one hadn’t read any other Wyndham, and I recommend this if possible. Phyllis does have a job and she’s good at it, but she’s good at it because she flirts and wheedles her way into interviews more scrupulous people wouldn’t get. It’s just ghastly, but you just have to accept it as ghastly and keep reading. There’s another awful woman, Tuny, short for Petunia, who serves as a kind of comedy anti-Russian chorus. She keeps insisting that it’s the Russians doing everything that the aliens are in fact doing. She’s like the comedy character in The Day of the Triffids who keeps insisting the Americans will rescue us, except not funny.

That leads me to another odd thing about The Kraken Wakes, the fact that it keeps trying to be funny, or perhaps “light” would be a better word. It seldom achieves humour—though I am notoriously hard to amuse—but there’s a consciously light tone about a great deal of it. Tuny and her constant accusations of communist plots that are mirrored by the Russian constant accusations of capitalist plots are almost satire. I called the “EBC, not the BBC” thing a running joke earlier, and that’s clearly just how it’s intended. There are also things deliberately phrased to be amusing—the only one that made me laugh was about the scientist who equipped himself with a brand new cat every time he approached a flock of pigeons. And when Phyllis does some relaxing bricklaying, actually as a blind to disguise the fact that she’s hoarding food, there’s a joke about the “arbour” she’s built looking like an outside toilet which is so old-fashioned and coy that I’m not sure modern readers will even get it. It’s as if Wyndham felt constantly aware of the need to entertain, and wanted to stress that this wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously. He doesn’t do this at all in The Chrysalids, and very little in Triffids, but some of his short work does it. I think it’s a flaw here, and the story works best when it isn’t being facetious. I think all stories, no matter how much they are intended as comedy, work best when the writer takes them seriously. Trust to the reader to figure out that it’s light entertainment.

The book is divided into three “phases”—the first one where the aliens are landing and doing mysterious underwater things nobody knows about, the second when the aliens are attacking in “sea tanks” that send out sticky tentacles and drag people into the water, and the third where the aliens raise the sea level and change the climate and civilization collapses. The obligatory empty London scene is excellent, the characters look across the flooded Trafalgar Square from the steps of the National Gallery and wonder what Nelson would think of it now—classic. There’s a brief epilogue in which you get the “normal” situation of the latter part of a standard cosy catastrophe—the aliens have been defeated offstage and civilization is being put back together on modern scientific lines without all those inconvenient working-class people who have so regrettably been killed off.

There’s something weirdly introspective about considering why I enjoy something. There’s a particular sort of pleasure of dissection and analysis I get from reading something clearly flawed. A lot of what I was enjoying here was the deviation from the standard cosy formula, which Wyndham had just invented and was already playing with. I was also really interested in the invasion of 1953, in a way that I’m quite sure wasn’t intended, or even possible for the original readers in 1953. I also like the way the aliens were never explained—everything about them is hypothetical, except what they actually do, and there are lots of potential explanations for that. They’re not so much “vast, cool, and unsympathetic” as utterly mysterious—at one point there’s a comparison between the way they are upsetting the world and the way we destroy an anthill. Yet what they do makes sense, assuming they’re Neptune-forming, or perhaps Europa-forming Earth. The oceans of Europa hadn’t been discovered in 1953, but they make a fascinatingly plausible place of origin for the krakens now.

This isn’t Wyndham’s best work, but it’s better than I remembered. If you’re fond of cosy catastrophes, if you like reading something weirdly flawed but very interesting, if you’re interested in the idea of the invasion of 1953, or if you like mysteriously alien aliens—no, I have no idea whether anyone else would like it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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