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John Wyndham

John Wyndham books and biography

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John Wyndham

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John Wyndham (July 10, 1903 – March 11, 1969) was the pen name used by the often post-apocalyptic British science fiction writer John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris.

In his earlier writings, Wyndham used various combinations of his names, such as John Beynon or Lucas Parkes. For one of his books, The Outward Urge, he actually used both the names "John Wyndham" and "Lucas Parkes", pretending to be two collaborating authors.

Contents

Biography

Life

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was born in the village of Knowle in Warwickshire, England, the son of George Beynon Harris, a barrister, and Gertrude Parkes, the daughter of a Birmingham ironmaster. His early childhood was spent in Edgbaston in Birmingham, but when he was 8 years old his parents separated and he and his brother, the writer Vivian Beynon Harris, spent the rest of their childhood at a number of English preparatory and boarding schools, including Blundell's School in Devon during the First World War. His longest and final stay was at Bedales in Hampshire (1918–1921) which he left at the age of 18, where he blossomed and was happy.

After leaving school, Wyndham tried several careers including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, but mostly relied on an allowance from his family. He eventually turned to writing for money in 1925, and by 1931 was selling short stories and serial fiction to American science fiction pulp magazines, most under the pen names of John Beynon or John Beynon Harris, though he also wrote some detective stories.

World War II

During the Second World War Wyndham served first as a censor in the Ministry of Information, then entered the army to serve as a Corporal cipher operator in the Royal Corps of Signals. He participated in the Normandy landings, although was not involved in the first days of the landings.

Postwar

After the war Wyndham returned to writing, inspired by the success of his brother who had had four novels published. He altered his writing style and by 1951, using the John Wyndham pen name for the first time, had had written the novel The Day of the Triffids. His prewar writing career was not mentioned in the book's publicity, and people were allowed to assume that it was a first novel from a previously unknown writer.

The book proved to be an enormous success and established Wyndham as an important exponent of science fiction. He went on to write and publish six more novels under the name John Wyndham, all of which appeared in his lifetime. In 1963 he married Grace Wilson, whom he had known for more than 20 years. He moved out of the Penn Club in London, and the couple lived near Petersfield, Hampshire, just outside the grounds of Bedales School.

He died in 1969, which enabled much of his unsold work to appear. At the same time, a lot of his early material was also reprinted.

Major works

  • The Day of the Triffids is his most famous book and gave the word "triffid" - a mobile, hunting plant with a lethal sting - to the English language.
  • The Kraken Wakes was published in the United States as Out of the Deeps.
  • The Chrysalids was published in the United States as Re-Birth, and was adapted as a BBC Radio 4 play in the early 1980s.
  • The Midwich Cuckoos has been filmed twice as Village of the Damned.
  • Trouble with Lichen
  • Chocky has been adapted as a Thames Television serial.
  • Web is a short novel that, although less well known, includes all his major themes.

The first four novels, written over a fairly short period in the 1950s, are widely regarded as the peak of his achievement.

He also wrote several short stories of variable content and quality, ranging from hard science fiction to whimsical fantasy. Of particular note are Consider Her Ways, The Wheel, Pillar to Post and Random Quest.

Style

Most of Wyndham's novels have a contemporary 1950s English setting. Brian Aldiss, another British science fiction writer, has disparagingly labelled some of them as "cosy catastrophes", especially his novel The Day of the Triffids. The critic L. J. Hurst dismissed Aldiss's accusations, pointing out that in Triffids the main character witnesses several murders, suicides, and misadventures, and is frequently in mortal danger himself.[1]

This approach by Wyndham (itself more than a little reminiscent of that taken by H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds, etc.) was a reaction against what he described as the "galactic gangsters in space opera" style of much science fiction up to then. In his longer tales he is more concerned with character development than many science fiction writers. Wyndham's science fiction may be considered trendsetting in its insistence that interplanetary catastrophes do not just happen to "other people" (e.g. those best-equipped to face them) and would in fact be extremely difficult for our delicate and highly interconnected civilisation to deal with. Similarly ahead of its time is the emphasis that Wyndham put on disruptions to the biosphere as a whole, as when the aliens in The Kraken Wakes begin to engineer our planet for their own purposes without asking us first. He consistently views man as part of the biosphere, and nature as "red in tooth and claw" (as Tennyson put it).

Perhaps a reflection of his ideas are the similar characters he uses throughout his main novels. For example, in Midwich Cuckoos, Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, the main characters are a sensible man and woman. The similarities of these characters between the novels are great; a self-made educated man, a successful woman who is headstrong yet quite dependent on the man at times. These are a reflection of Wyndham's self-described style - that of "logical science fiction". In Triffids, Kraken, and Midwich Cuckoos, the characters and settings are all very reasonable, sensible, and in some sense, properly English. This is the theme at the heart of these works: take the "sensible" and rational society we have now, and introduce one (or in the case of Triffids, two) extraordinary factors. The works then take a very analytical approach to our reactions to these situations. The results are always grim, as we rational beings, most notably in Kraken, at every step attempt to rationalize extraordinary situations into our present day view of our planet. In this sense Wyndham exposes our rationality as purely protective, and, in the end, detrimental. Only when no hope is left can we actually face facts - this is just when hope presents itself as one last flicker of the human potential.

When one considers the era in which John Wyndham was writing, he is remarkably pro-feminist, with much discussion within Trouble with Lichen of the effect of a prolonged lifespan on the gender roles. In most of his books women play a key intellectual and problem solving role, often being more practically minded than the men.

Bibliography

Novels

  • Foul Play Suspected (1935)
  • The Secret People (1935)
  • Planet Plane (also known as Stowaway to Mars, 1936)
  • The Day of the Triffids (also known as Revolt of the Triffids, 1951)
  • The Kraken Wakes (also known as Out of the Deeps, 1953)
  • The Chrysalids (also known as Re-Birth, 1955)
  • The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
  • The Outward Urge (1959)
  • Trouble with Lichen (1960)
  • Chocky (1968, made into an ITV television mini-series for children in 1985)

Posthumous novel

  • Web (1979 – published by the executors of his estate)

Collections

  • Jizzle (1954)
  • The Seeds of Time (1956)
  • Tales of Gooseflesh and Laughter (1956)
  • Consider Her Ways and Others (1961)
  • The Infinite Moment (1961)

Posthumous collections

  • Sleepers of Mars (1973)
  • The Best of John Wyndham (1973)
  • Wanderers of Time (1973)
  • Exiles on Asperus (1979)
  • No Place like Earth (2003)

Notes

  1. ^ *Essay by L.J. Hurst


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