Wyndham, John 1903–1969
Wyndham was an English science fiction writer. Born John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, he wrote under various combinations of his name. His novels generally present the predicament of human beings struggling to recover from a catastrophe. His first novel, The Day of the Triffids, is a classic in science fiction literature. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102; obituary, Vols. 89-92.)
When British science fiction writers are good, they have a way of imparting a devastating reality to their inventions, and this is true of John Wyndham's first book "The Day of the Triffids". The people of earth, 90 per cent of them blinded by inexplicable green radiations from the sky, fall an easy prey to the Triffids, an ambulant plant-form which can kill with a stroke of their poisonous lashes. How William Masen, a biologist, builds up one of the small communities to fight the rule of the unreasoning plants makes an engrossing addition to science fiction.
Villiers Gerson, "Spacemen's Realm," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 22, 1951, p. 19.∗
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H. H. Holmes
[In "The Day of the Triffids"] John Wyndham has created … tripodal and lethal mobile plants which he calls "triffids"—something to haunt your nastier nightmares for some time to come. What's more he has presented these abominable creatures in a novel of quite unusual literacy and even, in its strange way, charm. The concept of a civilization in chaos reverting to primitivism is anything but new; but it has rarely been treated with such plausibility of detail, such immediacy of human impact.
H. H. Holmes, "Science Fiction," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation), August 19, 1951, p. 12.∗
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The Times Literary Supplement
The author of The Day of the Triffids, a fantasy of the future …, has been rather too fertile in invention; he predicates two thundering improbabilities, the artificial breeding of ambulant plants seven feet high, and an aerial missile which gets out of control and blinds the whole human race, with a few lucky exceptions. A better book could have been written about either of these ingenious ideas. In addition, the viewpoint is that of a thorough Londoner; we are left in doubt about what happens to the beasts of the countryside, and the cockney survivors seem to pick up farming much too easily. But otherwise this story deserves nothing but praise. The language is excellent, and the description of London filled with the groping blind, seeking food in shop-windows and bearing away tins of paint instead, has all the qualities of a vividly-realized nightmare.
"Nightmares and Realities," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1951; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2587, August 31, 1951, p. 545.∗
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The Times Literary Supplement
Mr. John Wyndham, writing in a disarmingly mild and humorous way, sets his story [The Midwich Cuckoos] in an English village. Invaders land there from another planet, accomplish their mysterious design, and make their escape. The consequences turn out to be very nasty indeed; some readers may find them objectionable, though Mr. Wyndham does not go into any obnoxious details. The Midwich Cuckoos is an ingenious yarn, with pleasant, unpretentious characters, about yet another bit of mischief on the part of one of our neighbours in space, but it lacks the force of his previous ventures into science fiction.
"Interplanetary Frolics," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1957; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2901, October 4, 1957, p. 598.∗
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[The] ideas for The Day of the Triffids and the many works that followed were adapted from many sources, since [John Wyndham] was a regular reader of science fiction and thoroughly familiar with its various gambits. His rhetoric, on the other hand, appears to have been persuasively influenced by only one major writer, H. G. Wells. Great ingenuity at approaching an old idea from a fresh slant was characteristically his own contribution. (pp. 128-29)
[Wyndham] had written a dozen or more stories with a time travel theme. It seemed to be his private form of fun and relaxation, and the best of these stories, such as Pawley's Peepholes …, where prying intangible tourist buses from the future are sent scuttling back where they belong by the use of vulgarity, appeared to have nothing else in mind but light entertainment.
Not so with the time travel story, Consider Her Ways…. Through the use of drugs, a woman doctor of our time turns up in the future as an obese "mother" in a world without men, where selected females produce children like the queen bees. The high point of the story is the dialogue on whether the world is better off with or without men, which introduces a highly original and disturbing point of view (at least, to a man) on the subject.
Because of the international success of Day of the Triffids, the feeling was prevalent that [Wyndham] had made his mark with...
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A story-teller nearly perfect in every other respect, Mr. Wyndham has never had any feeling for climaxes; and although nobody much cares about this when menaces are in question, the Wyndham even pace is less satisfactory in a benign context, as [in Chocky]. Having fumbled, Chocky withdraws. All is as it was before—and precious little changed, even while it wasn't. The science-fiction grapevine, for at least a decade past, has rumoured Mr. Wyndham to be brooding over giant malevolent spiders. In its gentle, skilful fashion, Chocky is excellent; but one can perhaps be forgiven for looking forward to those spiders.
Michael Joseph, "Wide Open Spaces," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3452, April 25, 1968, p. 441.∗
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You might think that the discovery of a longevity drug that would increase life expectancy by a couple of hundred years would make everybody happy. You might think so, but not John Wyndham, master of the scientific paradox…. [In "Trouble with Lichen"] he depicts the waves made by the appearance of a miracle essence called antigerone.
First off, there is a difference of opinion between its two discoverers. One, a dilletantish male savant, is immobilized by the cataclysmic possibilities of a semi-permanent population. The other, a militant lady scientist, spins off and rushes into production…. The collision between the long view and the short gives Mr. Wyndham ample opportunity to develop some of his characteristic ironies.
Martin Levin, "Reader's Report: 'Trouble with Lichen'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September, 1969, p. 46.
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["Re-Birth"] is an enthralling science-fiction story…. It may easily be designated a philosophical commentary on the nature of man surviving the most cataclysmic of events. Though it is never explicitly stated, this is the story of the various remnants of mankind that have survived a world-wide atomic catastrophe. There is wry humor implicit in the efforts of one major remnant to emulate the "old People". The survival of the ancient prejudices and misguided religious ideals that bedevil mankind today is a testimony to man's perverse ignorance and smugness. But there is a prophetic hope in the life-style of still another remnant. This is, indeed, an impressive satirical commentary on man and his pitiable pretensions.
"'Re-Birth'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1970, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 29, No. 24, March 15, 1970, p. 478.
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John Wyndham's science-fiction stories are memorable for the 'unthinkable' situations they postulate. His strength stems partly from the creation of tensions and choices that pose awkward problems for the reader as well as the characters—was Zellaby morally right to murder the children in The Midwich Cuckoos? Could his action even be termed 'murder'?—and partly from the nightmare quality of some of the pictures he presents: the silence of the suddenly-blinded city; the dreadful 'shrimping expeditions' of the 'seatanks' in The Kraken wakes.
Stowaway to Mars and The Secret People, first published in 1935, 16 years before The Day of the Triffids,… will disappoint anyone looking for the mixture as before—or, in this case, after. The title of Stowaway to Mars makes the first 50 pages almost redundant, and the virtually human Martians with their perhaps-sentient machines—this nettle is not firmly grasped—provide little leavening; while The Secret People features yet another hardy perennial, the isolated race, inhabiting in this case a system of caves beneath the Sahara.
But though no feast, we have at least a curate's egg: good in parts, and nourishing, given the sturdy digestion of science-fiction enthusiasts. Joan's description, in Stowaway to Mars, of the unearthly machine which followed her father home anticipates the horror of those sea-tanks in...
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Science Fiction isn't generally my beaker of tea. I've always made an exception though for the work of the late John Wyndham. He's outstanding in the genre—out Bradburying even Bradbury who runs him close. Why? Chiefly because he sticks closer than most to planet Earth. Not for him those galactic encounters with thoughtful, sinister strangers possessing a good command of B-picture American English and a less good though willing acceptance of standard story-line requirements. Wyndham sticks instead to earthy aberrations, and this makes him the most plausible as well as by a long way the creepiest of writers in this line….
[In Web,] published now for the first time, he addresses himself to spiders. An expedition returns to a South Pacific island, long left abandoned, so it is erroneously believed, because of a close-at-hand trial nuclear explosion. The party encounters a stupendous multiplication of spiders who have learnt to tangle their webs to dire effect, and to understand the truth of the proposition: United we stand to win. The author keeps you hooked, and, as it were, enmeshed.
David Williams, "Cricket Anyone," in Punch (© 1980 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 279, July 16, 1980, p. 115.∗
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