Author, Book review, England, Fiction, John Wyndham, Penguin, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘The Kraken Wakes’ by John Wyndham

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2008.

When I was a teenager I read all of John Wyndham’s science fiction novels, including Day of the Triffids (which was a set text at school), The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids (my favourite and one that held up especially well when I re-read it in 2009). I know I read The Kraken Wakes^ but I have absolutely no recollection of the story, so re-reading it more than 30 years later was akin to reading it for the first time.

First published in 1953, it’s a rather “traditional” story of aliens arriving on earth and posing a threat. But it’s a bit more complex than that because the aliens can only survive underwater at very great depths and under extreme pressure. No one has any clear idea what they look like — or what they are capable of.

One school of thought suggests these creatures could happily co-exist with humankind because they are colonising parts of the planet that are inhospitable, but there are others who fear the aliens are making changes under the sea that could have harmful impacts, putting all humankind at risk.

Seen through a journalist’s eyes

The story, which is divided into three parts (or phases), is told through the eyes of Mike Watson, a journalist from the English Broadcasting Commission (EBC), and his wife, Phyllis, who is also a reporter.

The couple is honeymooning on a cruise ship when they first witness the start of the alien invasion — although, at the time, no one realises this is what it is. Just a handful of people spot fireballs landing in the sea, but as more and more of these events are reported across the world, it becomes clear these “brilliantly red lights” aren’t just randomly falling into the water; there’s some kind of plan in action that suggests there is an intelligence at work.

The British are particularly worried by the potential threat this might pose and so an investigation is arranged. A bathysphere — a spherical deep-sea submersible — is sent down to the bottom of the ocean (near a known entry point) with two scientists on board. Unfortunately, the mission does not go well; the two men are killed by the aliens and war, in all but name, is declared.

But thanks to the Cold War, which is in full swing, governments on either side of the political divide are unwilling to co-operate and are blaming each other for the situation.

Sinking ships

Later, when the aliens begin sinking ships, international shipping grinds to a halt and the world economy takes a nosedive, but no one really knows how to tackle the situation beyond attack. (The Brits, for instance, drop a nuclear device underwater as if that’s going to calm the situation down.)

To make matters worse, the aliens, now known to be aquatic invertebrates a bit like a jellyfish, begin venturing onto land, arriving in “sea-tanks” to capture humans. There are terrifying scenes across the world as the aliens make their surprise attacks.

The first sea-tanks must have sent coelenterate bubbles wobbling into the air before the men realised what was happening, for presently all was cries, screams, and confusion. The sea-tanks pressed slowly forward through the fog, crunching and scraping into the narrow streets, while, behind them, still more climbed out of the water. On the waterfront there was panic. People running from one tank were as likely to run into another. Without any warning, a whip-like cilium would slash out of the fog, find its victim, and begin to contract. A little later there would be a heavy splash as it rolled with its load over the quayside, back into the water.

Eventually, the aliens begin melting the polar ice caps so that sea levels rise. Civilisation breaks down as cities flood and political and social systems collapse.

Poor old Mike and Phyllis, stalwarts that they are, continue to report on events, before their life in London is so untenable they relocate to Cornwall (via boat through a flooded interior), where they hold up in their holiday cottage that oh-so, fortunately, is built on high ground. It is here that they discover that up to one-fifth of the world’s population has died, but things are looking better: not only have the waters started to recede, but the Japanese have also created a weapon that can kill the invaders…

Call for international cooperation?

Reading this novel, I kept wondering what Wyndham might have been trying to say about the issues of the day at the time he wrote it. In the early 1950s, the aforementioned Cold War was in full swing, so perhaps he was making a statement about the need for cooperation to end it?

There’s a lot of political infighting in this novel, a lot of inaction and poor decisions based on protectionism, patriotism and “the will of the people”, and little strategic what’s-best-for-the-world-as-a-whole kind of thinking.

I underlined many paragraphs that resonated in the sense that the author could have been describing events pertaining to all kinds of current global issues, such as climate change and the covid-19 pandemic. Here’s how Phyllis, for instance, reacts to the British Government’s inaction in helping provide its citizens with weapons to defend themselves:

“[…] I get sick of putting up with all the shams and the humbug, and pretending that the lies aren’t lies, and the propaganda isn’t propaganda, and the dirt isn’t dirt. […] Don’t you sometimes wish that you had been born into the Age of Reason, instead of the Age of the Ostensible Reason? I think that they are going to let thousands of people be killed by these horrible things rather than risk giving the powerful enough weapons to defend themselves. And they’ll have rows of arguments why it is best so. What do a few thouands or a few millions of people matter? Women will just go on making the loss good.”

Lots of detail

Admittedly, I think the reason that The Kraken Wakes didn’t stick in my memory is that it’s a bit bogged down in detail. There’s a lot of back story, of providing enough scientific information to support the theories being presented, but this means it does, occasionally, drag.

I have seen reviews criticising the melodrama, but without this, the story would be exceedingly dull. You need a bit of human tension and panic and fear to make the reader want to keep turning the pages.

That said, the dialogue between Mike and Phyllis is excellent — I like that Phyllis is an independent woman, although she’s often reliant on her “feminine wiles” to get information out of contacts, which is disappointing — and the pair really do carry the story along: they become the world’s eyes and ears, and the processes they use, under strict deadlines and difficult circumstances, to report events are fascinating.

Was it worth re-reading? I’m not so sure. If you’ve not read John Wyndham before, it might not be the place to start. Go for Day of the Triffids or the Chrysalids instead.


^ In the US, the book was published under the title Out of the Deeps.

19 thoughts on “‘The Kraken Wakes’ by John Wyndham”

  1. Like you I read all of John Wyndham around the end of high school – though not as set texts that I remember, maybe in fourth or fifth form. I cannot help misremembering the title of this one as The Kraken Awaken.

    I haven’t thought about it before but I’m not sure Wyndham is reacting to the cold war and certainly not to Hiroshima in the visceral way that Ballard did. He clearly seems to be following on from HG Wells and then maybe reacting to pulp SF from the US, but I’m just guessing. It’s interesting that in his books as in Orwell and Huxley, world problems are solved in England when we all know power and relevance had moved to the US decades earlier.


  2. I bow down to your greater SF knowledge. I couldn’t find anything online to suggest what Wyndham was reacting to… not that I did a comprehensive search… so this was just me wondering out loud.

    Interestingly, not much has changed re: the British. That was the whole point of Brexit: harking back to nostalgic Empire, regaining sovereignty, “taking back control” etc etc (sigh) as if we could all go back to some blissful existence in which Britannia ruled the waves conveniently forgetting the fact that the world had moved on.

    Oh, and while I remember, Fremantle and Busselton crack a mention in this book… the sea-tanks come on shore at Busselton.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Like you, I read all if Wyndham’s work as a teenager. It looks worth revisiting on the strength of this review. But well-worth? Not so sure, said she, looking at her tottering TBR pile.


  4. I gave up on this book when I was back in my phase of reading Wyndham for the very reason you mention – the scientific info just didn’t engage me. I was never much use at science anyway in school so when I kept coming up against this in the book, I switched off.

    Love that quote from Phyllis – it does sum up the current state of affairs so well doesn’t it.


    1. It’s heavy going in place, not so much in terms of the science but just the detail and descriptions he offers, all the “backstory” about what is happening and why, but when he places the characters in the story and has them talking it is so much more compelling.


  5. I’ve only read The Day of the Triffids, not at school but because my mother liked SF (and encouraged me to read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy as well).
    I’m not likely to venture into Wyndham’s other books.


    1. I think I need to read Triffids again as I have not read it since 1984 when we studied it at school (we also studied Orwell’s 1984 in 1984, how very meta 😆)


    1. Be interested to see what you think of it if you do find time to reread it. I’m amazed that my 15 year old self had the patience to read this one.


  6. The quote from Phyllis could have been written this year, never mind almost 70 years ago!

    In defence of my fellow citizens (if defence is the right word), a maximum of 38% of people eligible to vote, and possibly not even all of them if they voted from a Marxist position, can be said to hold the belief that the world hasn’t moved on and plucky little Britain is still fighting them on the beaches. Unfortunately for the rest of the population, that 38% is also the portion of eligible voters who are most easily whipped up by cynical money-grubbing politicians and their funders to believe a pack of lies wrapped up in nostalgia for a time when whitey didn’t have to think before opening his/her mouth. I’m related to people like that. I imagine there are plenty of them in Aus, too. It’s an attitude we invested in exporting, back in the day. They probably skew the discourse on whether Australia should still have Liz as de facto boss of you all. Sorry about that.

    I think most of us on this septic isle are more realistic about Britain’s position on the world stage. 35% of us wanted to still be collaborative with other nations, while 27% were so sick of the whole mess of our alleged democracy that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote in Dave’s spurious attempt to head off the fascists.

    But hey ho, here we are doing nothing about it and embodying our reputation as winjin’ poms with a god complex. 😀👌🏻


    1. This was supposed to be in reply to a conversation further up. What I actually came here to say, before I got triggered, is that I read The Chrysalids in school and it’s my favourite, too. I’ve also read The Midwich Cuckoos and Day of the Triffids, but not The Kraken Wakes. You’ve successfully put me off bothering!


    2. My comment above was more in reference to the Tory Party and it’s Brexiteer faction rather than the electorate but you get the point. And yes, there’s plenty of right wing nut jobs in Australia but the difference is they look to the US republicans for inspiration rather than the Brits and it’s so clear (to me anyway) that they are being manipulated by forces beyond their ken (Facebook & Russian troll farms) as well as the Murdoch media. Sigh. I don’t watch commercial TV news here or read the papers because it does my head in.


      1. I do get the point. I usually talk myself down from over reacting to things not meant the way I read them, but this week I’m really tired of it all and couldn’t resist the trigger that people outside Britain seemingly perceive us as all the same. Which is rich for someone who grew up in one of the most bigoted nations in history!

        It’s the same with the right wing here – Cambridge Analytica, Russian oligarchs as Putin’s proxies, Bannon, all with a hold over the Tories. For all their trumpeting about being world leaders, the current regime is a puppet.


        1. Yes, it’s all close to the bone to me too. I’m a dual citizen and lived in the UK from 1998 to 2019. I truly thought that was where I would spend the rest of my life (I loved living and working in London and all my dear friends are British), but I decided to try repatriating when the whole Brexit shenanigans kicked off and I could feel the mood of the country shift towards xenophobia. My partner is still stuck in the UK (he’s Irish) so I’m still plugged into all the political shite there and realise how fortunate I am to now be back in Oz (which has its own faults and a PM who uses Boris Johnson as inspiration).


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