John Wyndham was a master of writing dystopia science fiction from the point of view of ordinary people. I think this is one of his finest, with elements which are directly applicable to our international response to climate change.
I have the paperback edition of this book by John Wyndham.
It was published in 1953 and set at that time. The protagonist Mike and his wife Phyllis work for an independent broadcasting company the EBC (English Broadcasting Company). This was two years before ITV launched, but I think it is an interesting note about the time it was set. The Cold War is in full swing, and it provides a background of distrust and suspicion to everything which is going on.
It opens with the author observing icebergs floating down the English Channel and discussing with his wife whether or not it would be worth writing up an orderly account of the whole affair from start to finish. There then follows three phases, three long chapters which cover the main phases of the invasion.
Because this is a book about alien invasion by an unseen enemy.
The phases characterise the increasing nature of the threat. In phase 1 there are curious events and the media vacillate between interest and disinterest. Reminiscent of our contemporary news cycles which are only really interested in the new, and quickly lose interest in things which don’t appear to be changing much. There are clear signs of activity beneath the ocean, and we meet the Cassandra character Bocker, a scientist who says what everyone needs to hear, but says it in a way that he and his message are readily dismissed.
Phase 2 ramps up the tension, as the strangers in the deeps start attacking shipping and then raiding the shorelines. Again the enemy is invisible and inscrutable. The impact on global shipping and economics of losing most of the shipping lanes has its effect on economies around the world, but people work around the problem the best they can. The shore raids by mysterious sea-tanks on tropical islands are a pivotal point. They come up into seaside towns and capture the inhabitants, dragging them away into the sea. Our monkey-curiosity is used against us, and the scene where Mike, Phyllis and others first encounter the sea tanks on a lazy Caribbean island is still shocking to me today.
The third phase has everything in a more desperate situation. It jumps forwards and back a little in time, as we see a flooded England and then find out about how we got to that state. The rising sea level as arctic ice melts starts off so slowly that people ignore it, and then try to defend against it - but the invaders are attacking us with a weapon which we are helpless to resist. The desolation of a flooded land, the collapse of government and every man for himself is chillingly portrayed.
There are so many things that I love about this novel.
Firstly, I think it captures the way that nations are slow to recognise threats which are not immediately obvious. The recent and ongoing experience with the Coronavirus and COVID-19 has given ample evidence that government leaders can sometimes be slow to react to invisible foes. Arguably this is even more true when it comes to climate change - a threat which is almost prophetically identified in this book. I don’t know whether or not the old adage about boiling a frog by slowly increasing the temperature is true or not, but as a metaphor it perfectly expresses the problem when dealing with a slow moving threat.
Secondly, I really like the principal characters - Mike and Phyllis. They seem very genuine to me, and they are the kind of people that I would like to know. I love the relationship they have between them. Phyllis in particular I feel is well written, with foresight and intuition which was a delight to see.
Thirdly, whether it is the palpable terror of the encounter with the sea-tanks in phase 2 (which gave me nightmares after I first read it as a teen) or the creeping desolation of phase 3, the writing really pulls me into the moment. In addition, the characters don’t magically get over the trauma they experience; especially Mike who doesn’t think that he is suffering from after effects but yes, yes he is.
Some science fiction from the 50’s and 60’s hasn’t aged very well at all, but the essential humanity of this novel (humanity at its best and its worst) lifts this above others of its generation. Even now, I think it is definitely worth a read and a place on your bookshelf.
Thanks for reading!