The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (1953) 240 p.
This is the second of John Wyndham’s excellent four-book stretch of science fiction novels, and I recall it generally being my favourite. It followed his hugely successful novel The Day of the Triffids, and repeats the theme of human society collapsing in the face of an alien intelligence.
Obviously there are a number of differences between the two novels, but from the viewpoint of a post-apocalyptic fiction fan, the key difference is timing. The Day of Triffids follows an apocalypse that occurs literally overnight, whereas The Kraken Wakes takes place over many years. The novel follows journalist Mike Watson and his wife Phyllis as they investigate mysterious fireballs that have begun descending from the sky and landing in the deepest parts of the Earth’s ocean. A British bathyscope expedition investigating this phenomenon has its cables cut,and responds imprudently with nuclear depth charges. Before long ships mysteriously begin to sink. Further nuclear bombs dropped into the deepest trenchs and chasms of the ocean in retaliation don’t always go off. Sediment and ooze are showing up in ocean currents, suggesting mining activity on the seabed. The attacks on ships expand until virtually the entire ocean is a danger zone. Something is down there. What are we going to do about it?
Wyndham handles the gradual emergence of the threat masterfully, creating a profoundly disturbing menace that is never seen, lurking in the dark and pressure-crushing depths of the ocean – the only place on the planet we cannot venture. Human society thus grapples with a completely unbelievable threat. All throughout the book, action by government leaders and military figures and ordinary citizens is hampered by denialism, partisan poilitics, worries about the stock market, suspicion of the Soviet Union, media sensationalism and accusations of alarmism. It’s a strong and depressingly realistic portrayal of people bickering and squabbling in the face of a looming threat, too caught up in their petty pre-existing issue to face it down properly. Wyndham delivers some scathing critiques of many aspects of human society and the human mindset, but as a natural writer he lampoons the media best. In one example, Mike and Phyliss discover that following the unexplained sinking of a ship, every newspaper has independently decided to compare it to the Marie Celeste.
“Wasn’t the whole point about the Mary Celeste that she didn’t sink?”
“Roughly – yes, darling.”
“Well, then what is all this about her for?”
“It is what is known as an “angle,” darling. It means in translation that nobody has a ghost of an idea why the Yatsushiro sank. Consequently she has been classified as a Mystery-of-the-Sea. This gives her a natural affinity with other Mysteries-of-the-Sea, and the Marie Celeste was the only other M-of-the-S that anyone could call to mind in the white heat of composition. In other words, they are completely stumped.”
She nodded, and we went on working through the pile, learning a lot more about the Marie Celeste than we did about the Yatsushiro.
In addition to realistically portraying how mankind reacts when faced with gradual threats, The Kraken Wakes has some truly creepy and disturbing moments – not just the unknown and unseen creatures lurking below human reach, but also with a number of other scenes, particularly a Brazilian navy party encountering a deserted island. The novel’s final third is a devastating climax to all that comes before it, but I don’t want to give anything away.
As with The Day of the Triffids, the book is remarkably well-aged, but Wyndham still shows his upbringing – the Soviet Union is unfailingly portrayed as a nation of stupid, one-track mind paranoiacs, while the United States is a nation of trigger-happy cowboys. And, like The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes has a sudden and optimistic ending which comes out of nowhere and seems rather tacked on. Nonetheless, mankind is in a pretty sorry state at this point, and The Kraken Wakes does a marvellous job of showing denialism, rash decisions and vested interests preventing people from tackling a challenge until it’s almost destroyed them. Written in the early1950s, I’m sure the specific example Wyndham had in mind was the Appeasement of Hitler (one character even draws this comparison), but I’m sure the savvy reader might think of a contemporary example – particularly as they reach the final third of the book.
In any case, The Kraken Wakes is a brilliant classic science fiction novel, my favourite John Wyndham book, and probably in my top ten favourite books of all time. Read it.