Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS by John Wyndham:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/07/2004]

John Wyndham's THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS was a fair success at our science fiction book discussion group. Coincidentally, the New York Review of Science Fiction had just run two articles on John Wyndham, including one which traced the roots of the triffids (as it were) to such works as Edgar Wallace's "The Black Grippe", Edmond Hamilton's "The Plant Revolt", and John Wyndham's "Puff-Balls" (a.k.a. "Spheres of Hell", a.k.a. "The Puff-Ball Menace"--it went under almost as many names as John Wyndham himself).

To order The Day of the Triffids from amazon.com, click here.


THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS by John Wyndham:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/27/2015]

The book-and-film pair this month was THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS by John Wyndham (ISBN 978-0-141-03301-3) and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. This has gone through many editions (including a movie tie-in in 1960 re-titled VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, but the most bizarre may be the Ballantine "Bal-Hi edition of 1966, which has "A Note to Teachers and Parents" at the beginning which begins, "This is not a novel for young children or the unimaginative. Very young children will not appreciate the catastrophe of every woman in a small English village suddenly becoming pregnant, and the unimaginative will not find it easy to accept the idea that the human race may be an underdeveloped contestant in a jungle war to the death with other living forces in the universe. The fascination of books which are good novels, imaginative science fiction, and provocative speculation is that in addition to being fun to read and among the best modern forms of the mystery story, they raise questions which are so fundamental." They then go on to compare THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS with Arthur C. Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END, and John Wyndham's OUT OF THE DEEPS and RE-BIRTH. This defense of science fiction is then followed with nine questions to think about, which makes this all seem the pre-cursor to the "discussion group" edition.

The idea of the human race as among the lesser intelligences in the universe is one that does recur, but not nearly as often as the idea that we are among the best. (One reason Asimov populated his universe in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s was that John W. Campbell pretty much insisted that in a multi-species universe, humans had to win out, and Asimov just avoided the issue altogether.) But this question is coming up now in a different context: artificial intelligence. Recently, some scientists (and others) have expressed concern that the attempt to create artificial intelligence could result in a "computer" which is capable of modifying its own programming as it learns reaching and then surpassing humanity in a matter of milliseconds.

And this gap would not be just like the gap between a very smart human being and a mentally retarded human being, but more like the gap between a human being and an ant.

This points out one difficulty that science fiction has, of course- -to portray this effectively, the author needs to be able to do the equivalent of explaining to an ant what a human being's thought processes are like. (Dan Carlin, on the podcast "Common Sense", uses a dog rather than an ant--closer to us, certainly, but as he notes, no matter how smart the dog is, it will never understand how a gun works, or how to make one, or why one would make one, or just about anything else humans do.)

However, Wyndham, along with others, has to make his aliens smart/alien enough to make the threat believable, but not so alien that we cannot even understand them.

Based on the 1959 copyright and the mention of September 26 as being a Monday, one can presume that the events take place starting in 1960.

"The Domesday survey notes [Midwich] as a hamlet..." I love the offhand way Wyndham establishes the age of Midwich; the Domesday survey was in 1086, 873 years before he wrote the book. Needless to say, Midwich is fictional, and Stouch, Oppley, Hickham, and Traune are apparently as fictional as Midwich. (London is real, though.)

Wyndham has some marvelously sly humor:

""[Midwich] has had its moments. In 1931 it was the center of an untraced outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. And in 1916 an off- course Zeppelin unloaded a bomb which fell in a plowed field and fortunately failed to explode. And before that Black Ned, a second-class highwayman, was shot on the steps of the Scythe and Stone Inn by Sweet Polly Parker. Although this gesture of reproof appears to have been of a more personal than social nature, she was nevertheless much lauded for it in the ballads of 1768. Then, too, there was the sensational closure of the nearby St. Accius' Abbey and the redistribution of the brethren for reasons which have been the subject of intermittent local speculation ever since it took place, in 1493."

St. Accius is also fictional, by the way.

It is a reminder of the illegality and unavailability of abortions in the late 1950s that the doctor talks of one woman who attempted suicide and then goes on to say, "Besides, there is another aspect that is scarcely less worrying. In the last fortnight I have been called to two women who have fallen downstairs, and one who had stewed herself into a state of collapse in a hot bath. I can't be sure, of course, but in the circumstances I feel obliged to regard such things as pointers. One notices things--such as, for instance, a certain young woman who has suddenly bought herself a bicycle and is now likely to be encountered pedalling madly up any hill in the district." (One can also point out that these are examples of things a young child would not understand, or even notice. For the record, bicycle-riding would probably not have any effect, and hot baths could affect the pre-natal development but probably not terminate the pregnancy, but falling down stairs would pose a definite risk.)

The doctor and Zellaby spend some time discussing how much to tell Mrs. Zellaby and whether to mention the possibility that the women are carrying alien babies and decide not to, because it might upset the women and they would not be able to cope with it. (They do say that women are "mentally tougher" but that it "is difficult to appreciate how a woman sees these matters." This is a classic example of the paternalism towards women that was so common in the 1950s. It shows up now in shows like "Mad Men", where the psychiatrist calls the husband to give him his diagnosis of the wife's problem. (Clearly, in that instance confidentiality did not count for much either.) But in "Mad Men" they may well be trying to make a point of it; here it is just the way things are.

This recurs throughout the book. "[It] still suits more temperaments than our times like to pretend to go straight from dolls to babies." And, "if we remember that the majority of feminine tasks are deadly dull and leave the mind so empty that the most trifling seed that falls there can grow into a riotous tangle."

(Interestingly, the book does technically pass the Bechtel Test, although discussions of pregnancies is not far removed from discussions about men.)

The idea that by four months after the "Dayout" people would be "inquisitive as to what it could be that could put the doctor, the vicar, their wives, the district-nurse, and both the Zellabys, too, to see that everyone was called on and given a personal invitation," indicates that the inhabitants of Midwich are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier.

Mrs. Zellaby talks about "girls of seventeen and eighteen," but since the effect was supposedly on all women of child-bearing age, there should be girls of thirteen and fourteen as well (unless one assumes the aliens felt that was too young--but why would they, since their considerations seem to be entirely on the biological aspects rather than sociological or psychological?). But it seems that Wyndham balked at dropping the age that low.

It is not clear how the influence of the Children works. Early on, it was made clear that the baby born to Miss Lamb was perfectly happy to be brought back to the village by Miss Latterly--indeed, as soon as Miss Latterly took the baby away from Miss Lamb, the baby's attentions were focused on Miss Latterly. Later, Zellaby says, "Separate the baby from the mother--or perhaps one should say remove the mother from the neighborhood of any of the babies--and the compulsion at once begins to lessen and gradually to die away." This seems to imply that the babies could exert influence on anyone nearby. But they don't have the ability to read minds that is in the movie.

[It is interesting how I seem to see more "Boston marriages" in British fiction than in American fiction. Agatha Christie had her Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, and Wyndham has his Lamb and Letterly.]

Wyndham has a skepticism of science in general. The doctor and others who attempt scientific explanations spend a lot of time saying they do not know what is happening, or why, or what they can do about it. The minister does not try to explain it either, but he is not bothered by his inability to explain it. This can probably be summed up by Zellaby's statement, "[Our] ancestors ... had a word for it: they called such things changelings. None of this business would have seemed as strange to them as it does to us because they had only to suffer religious dogmatism, which is not so dogmatic as scientific dogmatism."

Zellaby seems to be a stand-in for the author, serving as the mouthpiece for what is presumably Wyndham's own philosophy. So when Zellaby is reported as wondering whether "civilization is not biologically speaking, a form of decadence," or "whether the gap between homo sapiens and the rest was not too wide; with the suggestion that it might have been better for our development had we had to contend with the conditions of some other sapient, or at least semi-sapient, species," one can probably think of these as Wyndham's ideas.

Of course, the irony is that recent discoveries show that Homo sapiens *did* have to contend with at least one other sapient species, namely Homo neanderthalensis, and possibly Denisova hominins as well. However, Wyndham died in 1969, well before these discoveries, and it is not clear he would have been happy with the results--whether or not there was some interbreeding, Homo neanderthalensis and Denisova hominins both ended up extinct. (And just as a total aside, can someone explain why it is "Denisova hominins" and not "Homo denisovensis"?)

"If we don't evolve we shall die out, like the big reptiles." Well, the big reptiles *had* evolved, but when the asteroid hit they just couldn't evolve fast enough to cope with that change. (Given that they would have had to evolve into much smaller, less resource-intensive animals in ... oh ... about a week, it is not clear that they could have. :-) ) Evolution only works when there is enough time--indeed, that was what stumped Darwin at first, because the estimates for the age of the earth (and hence for its inhabitants) were much lower than what we currently believe, or even what was believed toward the end of Darwin's life.

Wyndham definitely seems to think women are practically a separate species:

"'Man's arrogance is boastful,' he observed, 'woman's is something in the fibre. We do occasionally contemplate the once lordly dinosaurs, and wonder when, and how, our little day will reach its end. But not she. Her eternity is an article of her faith. Great wars and disasters can ebb and flow, races rise and fall, empires wither with suffering and death, but these are superficialities: she, woman, is perpetual, essential; she will go on for ever. She doesn't believe in the dinosaurs: she doesn't really believe the world ever existed until she was upon it. Men may build and destroy and play with all their toys; they are uncomfortable nuisances, ephemeral conveniences, mere scamperers-about, while woman, in mystical umbilical connexion with the great tree of life itself, knows that she is indispensable. One wonders whether the female dinosaur in her day was blessed with the same comfortable certainty.'

He paused, in such obvious need of prompting that I said: 'And the relevance to the present?'

'Is that while man finds the thought of his supersession abominable, she simply finds it unthinkable. And since she cannot think it, she must regard the hypothesis as frivolous.'"

As the Children's powers become more apparent, one of the girls asks Bernard, "Can *any* State, however tolerant, afford to harbor an increasingly powerful minority which it has no power to control?" This question has taken on a new meaning--consider "the 1%" (or the fractional percent). If Bill Gates throws litter out his car window, he might get fined $1000. How much will this actually affect him? About as much as a one-cent fine would matter--to a millionaire. So ordinary financial penalties, unless keyed to net worth, are not very useful. Prison time? But given how much someone really rich can spend on a lawyer, how likely is it that they will actually serve any prison time? And if things get really dicey, they can just take off in their private plane or their private yacht to some other country with no extradition treaty. The Children may have mental powers, but the super-rich have money.

The movie, not surprisingly, dropped a lot of this. There is very little discussion of the higher intelligence of the Children, hence no discussion of competing sapient species. (In fact, the Children don't seem to be considered more intelligent at all. However, they do have telepathic powers.)

What else is gone? The humor, which might have been difficult to convey in the film anyway. All the references to abortions, miscarriages (induced or otherwise), and only one passing mention of an attempted suicide. No long discussions about women (no great loss), and Miss Lamb and Miss Latterly are nowhere to be seen.

What is left is basically an invasion by aliens with telepathic powers. The lead-up to the Children's arrival took half the book, but happens very quickly in the movie, giving people very little time to philosophize about it. The plot may be the same, but the effect is very different.

To order The Midwich Cuckoos from amazon.com, click here.


"Sleepers of Mars" by John Beynon [John Wyndham]:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/13/2014]

"Sleepers of Mars", John Beynon [John Wyndham] (Tales of Wonder, March 1938): I had forgotten how good a writer John Wyndham was; this reminded me. This needs to be read with not only a 1938 frame of mind, but also a British one. The fact is that in 1938 the idea that the first two rockets to Mars would be Soviet and British was not such a ridiculous idea. Wyndham operates against expectations by making the Soviets his main characters, not the British. Wyndham does an excellent job of conveying the emotions and feelings of the situation, and although one might dispute the hand-waving of the "hypnotic translator" to solve the communication problem, he does have a believable scenario.

The entire novella is infused with that resignation, lack of high expectation, and yes, downright pessimism that seemed to characterize English fiction for decades after World War I. One sees a bit of this sort of attitude in "Who Goes There?", but in general American science fiction was full of amazing inventions, far-flung explorations, and success after success. This can be attributed to the fact that England had suffered the entire four years of World War I (including being bombed), while the United States had come in for only the last eighteen months. (England lost 908,000 men, or about 2% of her population to the war; the United States lost 116,000, or 0.13%.) Works such as J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" were a response to the technological, industrialized means of war in the twentieth century. "Sleepers of Mars" also looks with a critical eye on the belief of intelligent beings in technology, and the failure of that technology to improve life.

To order "Sleepers of Mars" from amazon.com, click here.


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