John Wyndham either didn’t like the world much or worried about it a lot! In a previous post, I discussed his classic horror/sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids (1951), in which a meteor shower leaves most of the world blind and helpless against a horde of mobile, carnivorous plants. I recently finished reading his follow-up apocalyptic novel, The Kraken Wakes (1953), and I give a summary and some observations about the book below:
I should point out that, title and suggestive cover image notwithstanding, the novel is not about an invasion of monstrous cephalopods (at least, not overtly). The title is inspired by the sonnet The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson:
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth
The Kraken Wakes is Wyndham’s version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, with the modification that the invading forces come not from Mars, but from Jupiter (though Neptune is also suggested). The invading aliens, coming from a high gravity (and presumably high pressure) world, can only survive in the crushing depths of the deepest seas, an area off-limits to men. This complete non-intersection of territory does not, however, imply an absence of conflict.
The story is told as a memoir of journalist Mike Watson, who was present for most of the major events with his wife Phyllis by virtue of their work for the EBC (English Broadcasting Company, not the BBC: a recurring joke). They have close interactions with Professor Andrew Bocker throughout the novel, a scientist who is one of the few to anticipate the threat of the new arrivals on Earth, though he is usually unable to spur others to action.
The novel is divided into three “phases”, which represent the distinct stages of the invasion:
- Phase 1: The arrival, and initial contact. Strange red fireballs begin to land in the oceans all around the world, concentrating in areas of extreme depth such as the Cayman Trench. When the military finally sends a bathysphere down to investigate, it is destroyed, prompting a hasty undersea nuclear retaliation. Though things are quiet for a time, eventually ships crossing the surface of the deeps begin disappearing, and the world comes to realize that the deep denizens are hostile. An ‘arms race’ with the invaders begins, with the military attempting to understand the ‘xenobaths’ weaponry and counter it.
- Phase 2: Surface attack. With humanity driven from the deepest reaches of the oceans, the peoples of isolated villages along coastal areas begin to vanish without a trace. The invaders have moved to a new stage, and have devised weapons to target humanity above water. The eyewitness account of Mike at the scene of one of these attacks is the most disturbing and effective parts of the novel. I won’t spoil the surprise of the aliens’ weaponry, other than to say that it is biological in nature and leads to a particularly gruesome end for people.
- Phase 3: Climate change. When counters are found for the surface weapons, it seems that a stalemate has been reached. Professor Bocker warns that the worst is to come, however, and he is proven right when the invaders embark on a quest to melt the icecaps and drown humanity’s coastal refuges.
I don’t think revealing the climate change is much of a spoiler, as the book opens with icebergs drifting down the English Channel! Wyndham is eerily prescient of modern worries of global warming, and the possible rise of sea level by scores of feet. In The Day of the Triffids, he was also quite accurate in foreseeing the rise of WMD development, which makes me think of Wyndam as a very negative sort of futurist!
Cold War fears weigh heavily upon this book as well. Every new atrocity created by the invaders is typically viewed by the western masses as an act of Soviet aggression (and vice versa, for the Soviet masses). This attitude is clearly marked as being completely counterproductive to the defeat of the invaders and, indeed, the survival of humanity.
It seems that the battle with the invaders could also be viewed as an extended Cold War metaphor. It is suggested early on that conflict with the aliens was not inevitable — as noted, humanity and the xenobaths occupy mutually exclusive domains — but grew from a series of hostile actions and overreactions that escalated into full-scale war. This clearly mirrors the tensions between the west and the Soviets in that era. Curiously, Bocker (champion of the ‘make peace’ coalition) later acknowledges that conflict was inevitable, even if not planned by either side: two great powers (or intelligences) in such close proximity cannot live peacefully. I’m not sure whether Wyndham was arguing for the inevitability of war with the USSR, or trying to point out the fears that could make it possible.
Much of the strength in the book, as in Wyndam’s previous novel and most apocalyptic novels, is the description of humanity’s response, or lack thereof, to impending disaster. Humanity is brought to near-extinction by its inability to recognize a threat and take decisive action against it.
The Kraken Wakes marks the second book I’ve talked about here, along with They Found Atlantis, where the bathysphere, pioneered by Otis Barton and William Beebe, plays a significant role. Obviously the ability to explore the deeps of the ocean inspired the imaginations of many fiction writers of the time: I’ll talk about yet another bathysphere-centered story in a future post.
I won’t spoil the ending of the novel, other than to comment that it seems very hasty and not very well thought out. Wikipedia suggests that Wyndham may not have been certain as to how to wrap things up, and one does get that impression.
The Kraken Wakes is, however, a chilling and thrilling apocalyptic story. I actually feel that it does a better job of passing along that apocalyptic feeling than The Day of the Triffids! Fans of alien invasion stories will definitely find it enjoyable.