Tue
Oct 13 2009 3:14pm

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.

18 comments
Marc Houle
1. MightyMarc
In the fourth grade, my brother bought me The Chrysalids for my Birthday, the first actual "grown-up" novel that I ever owned. It was such an incredible book, I immediately became an avid John Wyndham fan. However, my brother warned me to never, ever to read the Kraken Wakes.

Coincidentally enough, today is my Birthday. And interestingly enough, I still haven't read the Kraken Wakes.
Azara microphylla
2. Azara
I was very impressed by this when I was twelve. One way in which I thought it was better than The Day of the Triffids was that there was only one turning point involved (the aliens) compared to two (the triffids and the blindness). It made a deep enough impression on me that I carefully checked the map contour lines of all my relatives' houses, and since then have never considered living anywhere within 50 feet of sea level.

I'm interested that you have such a negative reaction to Wyndham's women: I always read them as fallible but real people of their time. I must take another look!
Durandal
3. Durandal
I read this novel about 10 years ago as "Out of the Deeps," which I guess is what it was called for US publication. I remember liking it quite a bit.

It's interesting you mention the portrayal of women in this; I'm notoriously oblivious to gender issues, and it even struck *me* as being unpleasant.

Still, this was a pretty great story with some memorable concepts and moments. I enjoyed your take on it a lot.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
I hadn't come across the title Out of the Deeps but it's a lot better than some US retitlings I have seen. Thanks for pointing it out.
Geoffrey Dow
5. ed-rex
I must take issue with a couple of major points of your re-read of what I sometimes argue is Wyndham's best novel (it's my favourite, one I pick up on a rainy Sunday afternoon at least once every year or two, but The Trouble With Lichen just might be an even better satire).

The parenthetical word, satire, is where I think you've missed the key thing about this novel and Wyndham's work in general.

I think Wyndham wrote serious political satire disguised (most often) as "cosy catastrophes", not cosy catastrophes per se.

In his constant references to how the various left, right and centre versions of the popular (and the elitist) press dealt with the ongoing crisis, and even in Tuny's (and other, male, characters) belief the Russians were behind everything - remember, this was written during the height of McCarthyism in the States and of Cold War hysteria throughout the Western world - there is (or at least, I see) a quiet but devastating portrait of human short-sightedness, stupidity and good old fashioned avarice that is anything but "cosy".

Similarly, I saw Phyllis as probably the strongest character in the book. Her arbour may have been made fun of, but the supplies hidden within it saved her and her husband's lives; she was a highly talented writer in her own right who kept up her work even after she got married; and she only (briefly) went into "hysterics" because Mike spent weeks (months?) having nightmares about Muriel Flynn, depriving her of sleep and creating a tremendous amount of stress for her. And, she spent maybe two weeks taking the rest-cure, while Mike spent - what? A month? Two? Long enough to completely lose touch with the outside world at any rate.

Well. That was quite a rant; I hope I've been coherent, at least.
Durandal
6. Jdamen
I often find flawed, second-tier book by my favorite authors to sometimes be more enjoyable to read than their best work. Philip K. Dick has a string of lesser novels that are still so fascinating and entertaining that it's hard not to recommend them to other fans. I'm thinking particularly of "The Game Players of Titan," which is one of my favorite Dick books even though I'm well aware it's not in the same league as "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" or "Valis." I'll check out this Wyndham and hope for a similar surprise.
Durandal
7. Brian2
"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." A perfectly good sentence, but I must admit that I badly misread it the first time ...

I read The Day of the Triffids when I was 8 or so, when I innocently assumed that if a book got published, it must be because it was not only extraordinary but exemplary as well. Accordingly I was very puzzled by the plot. So you have triffids, which are sort of walking, deadly plants that can talk to each other, and the narrator just happens to get blinded temporarily by triffid venom just in time to avoid being permanently blinded by a green meteor shower, which affects nearly everyone else? And then mumble, mumble, the end. Was that how you wrote a story? And what made this a story, anyway, as opposed to just one damned thing after another? I was confused about what to learn from this. Still am, I suppose.
Durandal
8. William Hyde
I haven't read the book for decades, but it was my distinct impression, reading as a teenager, that Phyllis was the brains of the outfit.

And "Out of the Deeps" is an utterly horrible title. For a start, they go "Into the Deeps".

William Hyde
Durandal
9. SDH
Hi,
I'm late coming to this thread - the trail is probably significantly cold - but I just wanted to say that I am somewhat obsessed with this book. I have read it three times in so many months and it stills fascinates. Unfortunately, I find it hard to pin down why it's so good...

Is it...
1) the fact that the 'kraken' are never revealed in any meaningful sense having dominance of the sea and leaving no real enemy to fight back against
2) the perfect three phase structure
3) the grim 'survivalist' post-catastrophe England
4) the slowness of it all
5) the extreme violence - not described in any real detail - of the ship sinkings
6) the awful crushing and drowning deaths of all those caught in the psuedo-coelenterata's tentacles

I have no idea!
Durandal
10. JCDenton
Today, I just read the 1953 typescript for The Kraken Wakes.

Do not think it is /meant/ to have that magical ending.

The original ending has both a foreword and an afterword from the "International Renaissance Commission", saying that they are publishing this "account" from a found manuscript and that they do not know if the authors are dead or alive.

Secondly, there is no ultrasonic weapon, and there is a suggestion that the Xenobaths have simply entered a dormant state or had trouble breeding in Earth's oceans, rather than have died out.

That's a brutal, short summary of it, but the "Oh hey the Japanese saved us" ending was added as an "alternate" ending, apparently for Ballantine books.

Anyhow, just a head's up.
Durandal
11. TriffidUK
Oh God, every erroneous Wyndham cliche rolled into one lazy article. Phyliss is actually the hero of The Kraken Wakes, and to imply that Wyndham the writer of one of the earliest feminist novels (THe Trouble with Lichen) is simply absurd. Don't suppose you've read Consider Her Ways? I would recommend the article 'cosy cliches' at WyndhamWeb (the internet's first dedicated website) for a robust defence against the tired anit-Wyndham criticisms peddled here and elsewhere.
http://www.wyndhamweb.com/
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
TriffidUK: I have read all of Wyndham except the newly published early story. I consider "Consider Her Ways" deeply creepy, and most especially in the light of the short story "Perforce to Dream". I think he had really bizarre issues to do with women even for someone of his time, but nevertheless I enjoy his work. I also think you have to be doing a handstand with your head in a bucket to think he was a feminist, but do have fun in that position.
Durandal
13. Scififan
Thanks for your great review. The Kraken Wakes was the first Wyndham novel I read (I've meanwhile read them all except Consider Her Ways) and although I tremendously enjoyed the actual plot and the story, the utter bourgeois dreariness of the 1950s and the treacly sentimental narrative style Wyndham uses (as he does in his other books too) set my teeth on edge each time I reread it. One wonders if people really were like that in those days. I was born in the mid-50s but of course I was too young to be aware of what people were like then, or to analyse their attitudes.
Your comments on Wyndham's attitude to Phyllis were interesting too. I don't like her particularly, as she can be a bit wet at times (and I don't like Mike at all, especially when he's trying - and failing - to be funny). But she is a lot more gutsy than e.g. Josella (Triffids) or Tavia (Chronoclasm). On the whole Wyndham's women seem to be pathologically dependent on men and think of nothing but Romantic Love and having babies. Not at all flattering to the many 1950s women who did have wider interests. Even Diana (Lichen), who is at least a scientist with a successful career, goes weak at the knees for Francis! I don't agree with putting all that romantic slush in science fiction stories anyway. Wyndham should have confined himself to relevant and matter-of-fact conversations between spouses instead of making them gush "Oh, darling, darling" at each other the whole time. It does indeed make you wonder about his general attitude to women.
Durandal
14. Awix
A really interesting review which picks up on the two things that I always recall about this book: it's almost as if the publisher said 'Give us another Triffids, but with more jokes and a proper happy ending.'

Some of Wyndham's attitudes are a bit uncomfortable these days, and the deep disquiet about the maternal instinct in the 'new' book doesn't really help his cause much. Still, he's one of my favourite writers for many reasons - his wit, his tone, his ideas.
Durandal
15. Jack Moss
I know I'm wading into an old discussion here, but I would like to reiterate that you seem to have missed the point of this novel to a certain extent. You've taken it as a straight-up alien invasion / catastrophe narrative because of this retroactive "cosy catastrophe" label Wyndham's work has been saddled with. Actually it's fairly clear that the book is very self-aware for the most part and at times an outright satire of 1950s invasion allegory. "Commies from space" is the 1950s SF cliché, and with the character of Tuny Wyndham hangs a lampshade on the simplistic wish-fulfillment of the period.

There's also a more serious point raised in all of his "cosy catastrophe" texts, where humanity's demise is brought about more by our own tendency to self-destruction than any external threat. It'd be easy in TKW to paint a straightforward Us vs Other (or US vs Other, as the case often was) opposition between mankind and the alien threat, but the Americans and Soviets spend most of the novel blaming each other and acting out myopic paranoia and hostility instead of working together against the real enemy. Notably, neither side is shown as any more effective or valid than the other - Wyndham, unusually for the period, is uninterested in the political ideology of the Cold War, and his repeated commentary across his work is that it's all so much fatally misguided human fallibility. This is one of the reasons why Wyndham fans get so angry about this "cosy catastrophe" tag, because it implies his work is mere '50s paranoia dressed with pipe and slippers, when really Wyndham was one of the most self-aware SF practitioners of the era.

I don't want to defend his depiction of female characters too much, because it's obvious he's coloured by the views of his era. I think his views on gender are best expressed in the scene in DOTT where a male character accuses a female character of refusing to learn to fix an electric generator because she assumes it's a man's job. Here Wyndham outright accuses women of being complicit in patriarchy because it allows them certain benefits and relieves them of certain responsibilities. This is a far from-sympathetic view and I doubt many women now (or then) would enjoy being told it, but it shows Wyndham was at least aware that the 1950s image of the woman was a social construction that could, and should, be changed. The man wasn't an idiot, and he never used a cliché without having something to say about it.

To close, I read The Kraken Wakes when I was about 12 and it scared the hell out of me. Now I'm older I enjoy the satire more, but the events of Phase Two still make my skin crawl a little. I think it achieves the rare feat of both being a commentary on '50s SF and a hugely effective example of it. Not a perfect novel - the tampered ending is especially weak, and it has dated a lot in places - but smarter than a lot of people seem to think.
Kristen Templet
17. SF_Fangirl
I just finished reading The Kraken Wakes. I am sure that its thanks to Jo's review nearly three years ago that this book got on my reading list. Frankly three years is a really quick rise on my "to read" list.

Thanks, Jo. I did quite enjoy it. I think it was the creepy, powerful mysterious aliens who remained unexplained. What little was mentioned/speciulated about them seemed reasonably scientific. 1953 humanity would find it very difficult to defeat any alien invader because of the mismatch of technology.

Yes Phyllis acted like a 50s woman in old movies, but I did think she was hero of the book as much as there was one. She was certainly the brains of the her marriage. I can't say I particularly liked her or Mike or any other character though.

As for the setting its hard for me to explain, but I enjoyed that. Yes, its obviously badly dated simply because it was set the day after tomorrow in 1953. But it very distinct of its time and that world is an alien one to me.

It was a heck of a lot of fun for something written nearly 60 years ago.
Durandal
18. celtthedog
Not sure what to make of a review where a second-rate scifi writer slags off a first-rate one.

Take the whole "cosy catastrophe" argument. Most catastrophes -- even global ones -- are experienced at the local level. Most Britons in World War II, for example, experienced it from home (only a minority of the population actually served in the army and travelled). No-one would call Camus's La Peste a "cosy catastrophe" so why apply it to Wyndham?

I think his discussion of foreigners is better than is claimed in here. For one thing, he's citing "official sources" -- i.e. Soviet and Chinese govt statements which actually were pretty crude and bombastic in the 1950s (yes, the Chinese really did call us "Capitalist Running Dogs"). Also, the fact it's the Japanese who come to the rescue (a mere decade after Word War II) also speaks against xenophobia.

Finally:

"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..."

Except Phyllis actually saves her husband's bacon -- repeatedly. You're confusing the narrator's views with Wyndham's. Frankly, I always had a soft spot for old Phylllis...

...and frankly, she's hardly any less ridiculous than the female characters of contemporary fiction who are mostly cartoons.

But then, our culture is simply an adolescent version in comparison to Wyndham's adult one.
Durandal
21. Chris Mander
Phyllis is quite clearly the brains throughout the novel. She brings about so many advantagous situations whilst blokey does little to nothing useful. I think you are overly harsh on Wyndham in this review!

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