Friday, 18 March 2011

Top Ten Favourite Books - Number 3

Nice to have a Friday off and I thought, while the missus was still asleep, that I'd take advantage of some free time and continue my list of all-time favourite books with Number 3. John Wyndham is one of my favourite writers. He was born in England in 1903 and lived until 1969. He specialized in post-apocalyptic science fiction and has written some of my favourite books of that genre. I could have picked one of two of his books for Number 3 on my list, but, in the end, I had to choose The Day of the Triffids. It's such a fantastic story.

Originally written in 1951, the basic premise is outlined as follows -

"The night the sky broke out in mysterious green flashes, all but a few people on Earth were blinded. The world went mad. Ordinary folk became animals, turning on one another in terror and desperation. Bill Masen was one of handful who struggle to make a new - and civilized - start out of the chaos. But blindness and madness soon became the least of Man's problems - the triffids were moving in! Walking plants that fed on the bodies of their human prey, they stalked the survivors, killing anyone in their path. Bill Masen had to find a way to destroy the triffids - before the triffids could take over the world."

I guess when you read the plot summary, the thought of man-eating plants sounds somewhat silly. But when you read the book, it just all makes sense. Mr. Wyndham has a way of presenting the facts that make it believable. There is something about his style, his way of making dealing with these momentous events, that draws you in to the story. This is a story of the possibility of the end of mankind, but the people dealing with it try to maintain the rationality, their sense of selves in their battle for survival. He has a low-key way of presenting their desperation and their struggles, that somehow make it seem like they are just going about their day-to-day lives. Maybe it's a 'Britishness'; sometimes I think that other writers of this genre, such as H.G. Wells and Nevil Shute do the same thing. While the world might be ending, the people still are honourable and dignified.

Anyway, it's a fascinating story, one I've read again and again and never tired of. There have been various attempts in movies and television dramas to present John Wyndham's story. The 1962 with Howard Keel based the idea on the fact that the Triffids were space invaders and, while it was a B-type movie, it still was pretty darn fun.

My personal favourite was the 1981 BBC TV mini series starring John Duttine as Bill Masen. I've watched a few times now and I highly recommend. It's quite faithful to the feel of the book and the story and is very respectful of John Wyndham's style.

There was a 2009 two part mini series as well and this was also produced by BBC. It had a much higher profile cast, with Dougray Scott playing Masen and it also starred Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson and Eddie Izzard amongst others. However, I was very disappointed with this version and could only watch part of the first chapter. I just felt that they sensationalized it too much and tried to turn it into an action movie. That is not John Wyndham's style at all. Maybe I'll try it again sometime, but it was very disappointing. I do recommend the 1981 version though.

At the beginning, I mentioned that I could have put either of two of John Wyndham's stories as Number 3 on my Top Ten List. He has written some excellent stories, but my next favourite was written in 1955, The Chrysalids. The plot outline summarizes the story as simply as -

"A world paralyzed by genetic mutation. John Wyndham takes the reader into the anguished heart of a community where the chances of breeding true are less than fifty per cent and where deviations are rooted out and destroyed as offences and abominations."

The story focuses on a group of children living in an agrarian community in Labrador in the future; a future that takes place after some man-made disaster. The community strives to drive out any form of mutation, whether plants, animals or humans. The children have a form of mutation that can be hidden as it involves telepathy. However at one point they are discovered. Now I won't go into the plot anymore that but will say that it is an excellent story; heart rending at times, tense and emotional. It's not typical of Wyndham's other post apocalyptic stories, but as good as any of them.

Interestingly as I was reading up on the story, I found out that one of Jefferson Airplane's songs was based on this book and that John Wyndham gave them permission to use some of the quotes. It turns out that I was familiar with the song, which made it that much more interesting. The song is Crown of Creation.

Others of John Wyndham's stories that I have enjoyed include The Midwich Cuckoos. It may be more familiar to some as The Village of the Damned.

"Cuckoos lay eggs in other bird's nests. The clutch that was fathered on the quiet little village of Midwich, one night in September, proved to possess a monstrous will of its own. It promised to make the human race look as dated as a dinosaur."

Written in 1957, it tells the story of the British town of Midwich. Something happens one night in September, rendering the villagers unconscious. Something also happens to the town women and in nine months, the results of this are born.

Once again a story of children, but strange, powerful children with the potential to destroy mankind. Scary, interesting and a page turner. This story was also made into a movie, well, in fact it was twice made into a movie. If you are ever tempted to watch it, ensure you see the original 1960 version of Village of the Damned starring George Sanders. It is quite faithful to the novel and has the same intensity. George Sanders stars as the doctor who tries to teach the children humanity. The later version, with Kirstie Alley and Christopher Reeve was OK, but definitely not as good as the original.

Another John Wyndham favourite is The Kraken Wakes, written in 1953, preceding The Chrysalids.

"This is the story of the awakening and rise to power of intelligible forces beneath the surface of the sea. The almost imperceptible beginnings and the cruelly terrifying consequences of this new threat to the world are seen through the eyes of a radio scriptwriter and his wife."

The story focuses on Michael Watson, a radio script writer and his wife Phyllis, two of the first people on Earth to be exposed to the undersea creatures that will form the basis of this story and change the way mankind deals with its oceans, if it wants to survive.

This is one of the more humorous Wyndham novels; or at the very least, Mr Watson has a dry way of looking at the events on which he is reporting and analyzing. It is another unique effort from Wyndham, dealing with a unique situation for its time; how would mankind travel from continent to continent if the waterways were unnavigable. There are other underlying themes in this story; alien invasion, the Cold War, the end of the British Empire. It is another of Wyndham's fascinating efforts, well worth the read.

The final book of John Wyndham's that I wanted to mention was one that I found just recently and was unaware that he had written. I had thought that I was familiar with all of his works, but I found this in my local book store, The Laughing Oyster and had to buy it.
As stated on the back jacket, Plan for Chaos, was written at the same time as The Day of the Triffids. The completed manuscript was seen by only a handful of people before Wyndham abandoned it, unpublished and overshadowed by its companion's sudden and phenomenal success. it has remained unpublished for some forty years since his death.

The story outline is as follows -

"In a city much like New York, a series of identical women are found dead in suspicious circumstances. Magazine photographer Johnny Farthing, who is reporting on the suspected murders, is chilled to discover that his fiancée looks identical to the victims too - and then she disappears. As his investigations spiral beyond his control, he finds himself at the heart of a sinister plot that uses cloning to revive the Nazi vision of a world-powerful master race....."

I haven't read this latest discover yet, but it sounds like it might be as interesting as Wyndham's others.

I hope my few thoughts on John Wyndham's works will entice you to go out to your local book store or library and check him out. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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