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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, John Wyndham, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, science fiction

‘The Chrysalids’ by John Wyndham


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 187 pages; 2000.

The late John Wyndham is probably best known for his science fiction classic The Day of the Triffids, a post apocalyptic novel in which the world gets overtaken by carnivorous three-legged plants. But it’s The Chrysalids, published four years later, in 1955, which most Wyndham fans say is his best.

I read all his major novels (there are seven) when I was in my teens and loved them with a kind of evangelical devotion, but how would this one stack up more than 20 years later?

Strangely enough I had forgotten so much of the detail of The Chrysalids I began to wonder whether I’d actually read it before. It felt very fresh, very new and, surprisingly, very modern.

The setting is typical Wyndham fare: a post-apocalyptic world a few thousands years in the future. But in this case society has regressed to the point of living a rather primitive frontier-like existence reminiscent of 18th century pastoral America. There is no technology here, no cars, no electricity. The houses are basic, constructed of wood with thatched roofs and whitewashed walls, and everyone works hard to provide a stable supply of stock and crops.

But all is not as it seems. This is a society obsessed with fundamental Christianity to the point where anyone not born in the true Image of God is regarded as a blasphemy to be dispatched at birth or condemned to live in the Fringes, a wild untamed area where other rejected “humans” roam. Even the crops are carefully monitored to ensure they do not deviate from the norm; whole fields are burnt if the plants do not look right. And if anyone has any doubts as to whether a particular plant or human is abnormal, there’s an inspector to play judge, jury and executioner.

The story is narrated by David, the 10-year-old son of the local religious leader, who is indoctrinated to “watch thou for the mutant!” and “keep pure the stock of the lord” amongst others. But when David befriends Sophie, a girl hiding the fact that she has six toes on each foot, he begins to question his religious upbringing.

Later, when David realises that he has a rare talent for telepathic communication with his half-cousin Rosalind and several other children, he realises that perhaps he, too, is a deviant, and is careful to hide his ability. This group manages to avoid exposure for several years, but then two factors threaten to “out” them: one of the group marries a normal person, and David’s baby sister, Petra, discovers that her telepathic ability is so strong that she can communicate with a woman from a more technologically advanced society.

I don’t want to provide any plot spoilers, so I’ll refrain from telling you any more about the narrative, but it’s an exciting one, a kind of weird blend between boy’s own adventure story and literary thriller.

Despite being written more than 50 years ago the story seems incredibly relevant to our modern-day obsession with appearance and genetic modification, although, as John Harrison points out in the introduction to this edition, it’s clearly a novel of the 1950s, when “molecular biologists were unwinding the DNA spiral; the new science of radio astronomy had filled the sky with invisible objects; quantum physicists were able to reveal that God does, after all, play dice with the universe” and everyone was living in the shadow of the hydrogen bomb.

The Chrysalids is a wonderful, intelligent read, and I’m glad I took the time to reacquaint myself with it. If you’ve not read any Wyndham before then this is the place to start…