The “Reds” in John Wyndham’s Literary Works sample essay
The Cold War was a (mostly) peaceful conflict lasting from 1947 to 1990, “fought” between two superpowers, each supporting their own ideology; in the West, there were the United States of America with its capitalism, while in the East the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) lurked with its communism. Having started soon after the Second World War, and ending with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990, the Cold War spanned 43 years.
Coinciding with this “war” was John Wyndham`s career of being a writer of full-fledged literature. In those days, every news outlet ranging from television to radio broadcast, from printed media like newspapers to simple word-of-mouth, reported the latest antics of the two ideological blocks. The East was impregnating its citizens with the idea that communism, or socialism in general, was a valid and effect way of ruling a country, and ranted about how evil and corrupted the capitalists were, who in turn were warning everyone who wanted to listen about the dangers hidden behind the iron curtain. While the Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the most famous aspect of this timeframe, conflicts like the Korean War (started in 1953, and is currently in a state of cease fire) and the war in Vietnam kept the world on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.
In these eventful days, Wyndham, like most other well-known writers of his time, resided in the West, living and writing with little of the restrictions that were imposed in the USSR. As such, it was almost inevitable that the ever-present Cold War would seep into both the fiction and non-fiction written in the time.
Arguably the most famous example is George Orwell`s 1984, a story that mocked just about every aspect of the USSR. In later generations the book was better remembered for its love story and dark portrayal of life in a country ruled with an iron fist, rather than the political message Orwell, a socialist himself, tried to convey, namely that Stalin (the then leader of the Soviet Union) was being far to radical with the implementation of communism in Russia and the other USSR-members.
But 1984 wasn`t the only book to be affected and/or inspired by the Cold War; Wyndham`s literary works, with the exception of The Chyrsalids, contained a fair share of criticism directed at the USSR as well. And even the aforementioned odd one out of Wyndham`s books implied that the Soviets had ruined the world by triggering a nuclear holocaust, thousands of years prior to the book’s events.
Though Wyndham never elaborated on what his position in the political spectrum was, both his apparent dislike of the Russians seen in The Day of The Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Midwich Cuckoos, as well as the portrayal of the socialist political parties in Britain in Trouble with Lichen seemed to imply that he was a man with a conservative nature.
In this chapter, the various points of criticism levied at the Soviets by Wyndham will be described and analyzed, to try and create a synopsis of how Wyndham viewed the largest communist state to have ever existed, and to reveal how integral the roles of the Russian in the books were.
The Day of The Triffids
While the book featured quite a smaller amount of lectures and speeches than, say, The Midwich Cuckoos, Wyndham did insinuate that the origin of the Triffids (the book’s monster of the week) was within the borders of the Soviet Union;
Fedor`s story was that he had been employed in the first experimental Triffid station in the district of Elovsk in Kamchatka. There, a fellow employee going by the name of Tovarich Nikolai Alexandrovich Baltinoff made him an offer, backed by several thousand Russian Roubles.
All Fedor has to do was remove a box of sorted fertile Triffid seeds from its rack and substitute a similar box of infertile seeds. The purloined box was left at a certain place at a certain time. Furthermore, he had to see to it that a pattern of lights was laid out on a large field a mile or two from the plantation. He was to be there himself on a certain night. He would hear an aeroplane flying directly above. He would switch on the lights. The plane would land.
The plane, however, was never heard of again, after Fedor realised it was being chased by Russian fighter jets.
It is my guess that over the Pacific Ocean, somewhere high up in the stratosphere, Umberto and Comrade Baltinoff found themselves attacked by the planes Fedor had heard in pursuit. It may be that the first the knew of it was when cannon-shells from Russian fighters started to break up the craft.
And I think, too, that one of those shells blew a certain twelve-inch cube of plywood in which, according to Fedor, the seeds were packed. Perhaps Umberto`s plane exploded, perhaps it just fell to pieces. Whichever it was, I am sure that when the fragments began their long, long fall towards the seas they left behind them something which looked at first like a white vapour.
It was not vapour. It was a cloud of seeds, floating, so infinitely light they were, even in the rarefied air. Millions of gossamer-slung Triffid seeds, free now to drift wherever the winds of the world should take them….
-The Day of The Triffids, page 43
As one can deduce from the above segment taken from the book, Wyndham seemed to leave the blame of the creation of the Triffids in the hands of the Russians. Of course, such a short fragment in and of itself would never stand as conclusive evidence in any non-corrupt court, but the fact that the origin of the Triffids was never elaborated upon in the rest of the book makes it the most likely possibility.
The Day of The Triffids wasn`t the first work of fiction to (possibly) feature the Russians meddling with bioengineering. Alexander Bogdanov already toyed with the idea in his novel Red Star, released in 1908, and its prequel Engineer Menni, released in 1913, and Ian Fleming explored such antics too in Octopussy.
They certainly weren’t the last to use this motif too, as the 2010 video game Singularity had the Soviets develop devices to forward and play back time through bioorganic parts, while the game Call of Duty; Black Ops (also released in 2010) saw them develop highly efficient nerve gas through plants.
But apart from in The Day of The Triffids, the Soviets never developed something quite like the Triffids; walking, semi-sentient man-eating plants. Both in fiction and real life. Well, as far as is known….
The Kraken Wakes
Once the book established that the Semi-Coelenterates were indeed a thread, it showcased the stubbornness of the Soviets, both in clinging to their political and patriotical believes, as well as in refusing to cooperate with the much hated capitalists.
The West had called for a meeting between representatives of the world`s most influential nations, to try and pool resources together to try and develop a weapon against the sea dwellers.
The Russian delegates demurred. Remote control of missiles, they pointed out, was of course a Russian invention in any case. Moreover, Russian scientists, zealous in the fight for peace, had already developed such control to a degree greatly in advance of that achieved by the capitalist-ridden science of the West. It could scarcely be expected of the Soviets that they should make a present of their discoveries to warmongers.
The Western spokesman replied that, while respecting the intensity of the fight and the fervor with which it was being carried on in every department of Soviet science except, of course, the biological, the West would remind the Soviets that this was a conference of people faced by a common danger and resolved to meet it by cooperation.
The Russian leader responded frankly, that he doubted whether, the West had happened to possess a means of controlling a submerged missile by radio, such as had been invented by Russian engineers, they would care to share such knowledge with the Soviet people. The Western spokesman assured the Soviet representative that since the West had called the conference for the purpose of co-operation, it felt in duty bound to state that it had indeed perfected a means of control as the Soviet delegate had mentioned.
Following a hurried consultation, the Russian delegate announced that if he believed such a claim to be true, he would also know that it could only have come about through theft of the work of Soviet scientists by capitalist hirelings. And since neither a lying claim, nor the admission of successful espionage showed that disinterest in national advantage which the conference had professed, his delegation was left with no alternative but to withdraw.
This action, with its reassuring ring of normality, exerted a valuable tranquilizing influence.
– The Kraken Wakes, page 67-68
As can be seen from the above fragment, Wyndham portrayed the Soviets, or at least their leaders, as hugely delusional people, trapped in a vicious circle of denial. Even faced with extinction, a very likely prospect as long as the Semi-Coelenterates were around, they did not falter to uphold both their ideological and nationalistic values.
This time around, it was almost completely out of the question whether Russia had created the threat, as the Semi-Coelenterates arrived from outside the atmosphere, which was in that time confirmed to still be devoid of Soviet presence. But they did not want to be part of the solution, a weapon developed by all of mankind as opposed to every country creating their own devices, which soon enough made them part of the problem, when the creatures from the deeps began to melt the ice caps, resulting in floodings across the globe.
Wyndham gave the USSR their just desserts in the later stages of the book, by establishing that a large amount of its landmass was lost to the sea, and implying that with help of the Soviets, a weapon capable of killing the Semi-Coelenterates would have been developed much faster, and in time to prevent them flooding continents. Instead, America and Japan managed to finish the weapon when 80% of the Earth`s population was already dead.
The Chrysalids really is the standout book of Wyndham`s oeuvre; not because its much higher or lower quality than the others, but because it inverted almost everything that made the other books recognizable. The setting, the characters, the timeframe, the society, everything was different, apart from the fact that the origin of its apocalypse, “Tribulation”, was left unexplained.
Because the story was told through the eyes of a simple civilian, David Strorm, the reader did not find out more about the world than the characters in the book did. However, through various topographical hints, it was established that the book took place on the island of Labrador, near Newfoundland. As to the origin of the “Tribulation”, only the local Reverend of Labrador had elaborated a bit;
According to the Reverend, the Old People had magical powers. Their horseless carriages crossed the lands, while the iron birds they had built pierced the heavens. But with all this power at their fingertips, the Old People turned into heretics. They believed that God was not as almighty as they used to think. They foolishly believed that He had no part in their success.
In light of this heretic behavior, God sent Tribulation to the Earth. It started far to the East of our peaceful land, but soon spread to envelope every soul that hid from the justice that was to be exacted. However, God, in his eternal wisdom and kindness, decided to spare our ancestors, for which we should repay him with our trust and admiration.
Otherwise, we will befall the same fate that the Old People in the West, South, and East had brought upon themselves.
– The Chrysalids, page 53.
This particular fragment provides a valuable insight into what might have started the Tribulation. Labrador is an island in the Atlantic Ocean, with its Western coastline close to Northern Canada, while to the Southwest the United States of America are located.
And indeed, to the East of Labrador, there where the Tribulation was said to originate from, across the Atlantic, are Scandinavia and the countries which used to make up the Soviet Union.
Later in the book, the land to the Southeast of Labrador is described. Its soil was black, with ruins that looked like they used to be buildings, and without any life whatsoever in sight. Furthermore, everything seemed to be radiating a faint green colour, and sailors that ventured too close to the shores became sick and died.
This description, apart from the green colour, which was very often used during the Cold War to imply that the object emanating it was radioactive, perfectly matches the state of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few months after being hit with atomic bombs, as well as Bikini Atoll, a test site for nuclear bombs from 1946 to 1956.
This is enough evidence to make it a credible suggestion that Tribulation was, in fact, a nuclear holocaust, caused by either a war between the United States and the Soviet Union, or a cataclysmic event in Russia, possibly caused by a failed weapon test. Wyndham may have drawn inspiration from the Tunguska Event, on the 30th of June 1908, when a meteorite exploded above a forlorn Russian region. However, this was only confirmed in 1980, 14 years after Wyndham`s death. Prior to this becoming known, many people hypothesized that the Soviet military had carried out a nuclear test. Wyndham might have taken inspiration from these stories, turning it up to eleven to create the world shown in The Chrysalids.
The Midwich Cuckoos
During the crisis over the Children holding the town hostage, one of the military’s higher ranking officers gave the other characters a valuable insight into the action taken by the Soviets, when faced with immediate danger beyond anything they could imagine, like a colony of Children in their territory, more precisely, in the Siberian town of Gizhinsk;
‘The Far East army’ he said slowly ‘has recently been equipped with a new medium-type atomic cannon, believed to have a range of between fifty and sixty miles. Last week they carried out the first live tests with it. The town of Gizhinsk no longer exists….’
‘You mean – everybody there?’
‘Everybody. The entire place. No one there could have been warned without the Children getting to know of it. Besides, the way it was done could be officially attributed to an error in calculation – or, possibly to sabotage.’
‘Officially,’ he repeated ‘and for home and general consumption. We have, however, received a carefully channeled observation from Russian sources. It is rather guarded on details and particulars, but there is no doubt that it refers to Gizhinsk, and was probably released simultaneously with the action taken there. It doesn’t directly refer to Midwich, either, but what it does do, is to put out a most forcefully expressed warning. After a description which fits the Children exactly, it speaks of them as groups which present not just a national danger, wherever they exist, but a racial danger of a most urgent kind. It calls upon all governments everywhere to “neutralize” any such known groups with the least possible delay. It does this most emphatically, with almost a note of panic, at times. It insists, over and over again, even with a touch of pleading, that this should be done swiftly, not just for the sake of nations, or of continents, but because these Children are a threat to the whole human race.
– The Midwich Cuckoos, page 191 – 192
This marks a rather abrupt change in the behavior of the Russians in Wyndham`s books. As one might recall from The Kraken Wakes, the Soviet delegates were absolutely appalled by the idea of working alongside non-communistic nations to develop a weapon that would rid them of the danger the Semi-Coelenterates posed.
Yet, in The Midwich Cuckoos, they rush at the chance to warn other countries, their supposed enemies, about the impending danger the Children represent, going as far as suggesting wiping everything and anything that looks like the Children off the face of the Earth.
The actions of the Soviets in this book also contradict what they supposedly did in The Day of The Triffids and The Chrysalids. While being most likely the cause of the catastrophe that killed most of humanity in those two books, the Soviets seem rather keen on saving their more capitalistic-minded kin in The Midwich Cuckoos.
One explanation might be that this time around, the Soviets had the chance to carefully study the anomaly thrown into their hands. It is pretty obvious that their leaders would take an above average interest in a town where every woman became pregnant at the same time, namely when the town and its surroundings were shut off by a force field.
But unlike the Triffids, which carried multifunctional oil, the Children did not have anything that could give the Soviets the thing they lusted after so much; an advantage over the capitalists. The Children, with their enormous psychic powers and monstrous will, posed more of a threat, and at one point the communists had apparently seen enough, and ordered the destruction of Gizhinsk.
Trouble with Lichen
While most information about the Russians came from word-of-mouth, factual recounts, or news stories, Trouble with Lichen featured a propaganda message, thinly veiled as a news article, transmitted by the Russians.
The message tried to instill a sense of superiority in Soviet citizens, and inferiority in Westerners, by claiming that communist scientists had discovered the age-retarding drug “Lichenin” made from the titular lichen, long before research on it began in Britain;
‘This is Radio Moscow.
‘Referring to reports in the London papers, the Moscow newspaper Izvestia states today;
‘The British press announcements of the discovery of a drug that will extend the normal expectation of life does not come as any great surprise to the well-informed citizens of the People’s Republic of the U.S.S.R. The Russian people are well-acquainted with the pioneer work in this field of the Geriatrics Department at the State Clinic at Komsk under the direction of Hero of Soviet Science Comrade Doctor A. B. Krystanovitch.
Scientists in the U.S.S.R. are little impressed by the unproved claims made in London. They point out that this development, based no doubt on the work of A. B. Krystanovitch, is being exploited in England by capitalist interests, and that the claims made can therefore be considered to be exaggerated from motives of private profit.
‘Thus there is demonstrated once again, in the work of A. B. Krystanovitch the lead that is constantly being given to the rest of the world by the swift progress of Soviet Science…’
It is quite telling that none of the book’s characters, those responsible for creating the drug, actually react to this. Propaganda like the above fragment was actually spread during the Cold War, and was usually preceded by a noteworthy achievement of Westerners. Thus, after decades of such claims, people grew to dismiss them the moment they were released, since in not a single case did the Soviets actually supply any evidence that would give credibility to whatever they had to say.
When America released news of technological advancements, the Soviets were always quick to point out that they had already fully perfected the technology involved. A famous example is the message the Soviets sent out on the 28th of January, 1967, the day after the death of the Apollo I astronauts due to suffocation caused by a fire in the cockpit. Soviet officials stated that they were already far ahead of the Americans in the Space Race, and that they had already carried out tests that did not involve dead astronauts. They conveniently failed to mention that on the 23d of March, 1961, they had lost a pilot in a similar experiment.
Wyndham cleverly mimicked this in Trouble with Lichen with the Soviets desperately trying to take credit for the discovery of Lichenin, despite having nothing to back up their claim. A scene quite reminiscent of the conference held in The Kraken Wakes to get the USSR to help with developing a weapon capable of killing the Semi-Coelenterates, only to be used by the Soviet delegates to express purported disgust at the apparent theft of missile guidance equipment by the Americans. A claim they once again did not back up with any credible evidence.
The roles of the Russians in Wyndham`s books can be divided in two groups;
– The most likely cause of the terrors haunting the Earth (The Day of The Triffids, The Chrysalids) – A passive entity, only spurred into action when it is already too late (The Kraken Wakes, The Midwich Cuckoos, Trouble with Lichen, and perhaps even The Day of The Triffids)
The first group portrays the Russians as the cause of the horrible events in its books
In The Day of The Triffids, the Soviet Union is singled out as the most likely origin of the Triffids, based on the fact that the government had quite a large plethora of bioengineering projects in its grasp, and that the West was only able to breed Triffids when spores of the species landed on its soil, due to a failed attempt to steal them from the Soviets.
While in The Chrysalids, it is implied through topographical hints that the Tribulation, the nuclear holocaust-esque event that sent humanity back to the societal state it was in during early medieval times, originated on Russian territory. While the Tribulation may have been triggered by the Americans, due to the nature of the Russians in the rest of Wyndham`s books, it is highly likely that the Russians were at fault.
The actions of the Soviets in the books of the second group hold a cleverly hidden implication. Namely that they are too dense to recognize danger until it is literally running rampant under their noses.
In The Day of The Triffids, they did not think of bioengineering the Triffids to such a degree that they were completely harmless, or in other words, without a taste for human flesh, a horrifyingly potent venom which they could inject over a long distance with their whips, the ability of walking around, and having seemingly enough intelligence to be able to lure humans into traps.
While in The Kraken Wakes, the Soviets refused to combat the Semi-Coelenterates together with the capitalists, which really was the only chance humanity had at effectively combating the invaders, until half of Russia was beneath the sharply risen sea level.
And in The Midwich Cuckoos, they did not take any action against the Children, until they were so scared of them, that they just wiped them, along with a good amount of Russian civilians, off the face of the Earth. Though, admittedly, the British government was also quite passive in its studies of the Children, but it was not driven to a point where an entire village would have to be sacrificed to guarantee the safety of the rest of the country.
While in Trouble with Lichen, the Soviet Union quite desperately tried to save face when the West confronted it with the discovery of age retarding drugs, a scientific breakthrough which, as one of the characters modestly remarked, “is in the Megaton range”.
With these various portrayals of the communistic Russians, Wyndham sculpted a rather potent and believable version of the view on Russia that many Western citizens had during the Cold War. Not based on conclusive evidence, but merely on bias and paranoia.
Neither the West, nor the East, knew a lot about the other during the Cold War. This led to a lot of speculative fiction, wherein one of the sides brandished one or more hitherto unknown weapons. This and the villainous depiction of the Soviets defined the literature of the time.
Ian Fleming often had the Soviets feature as the main antagonists, like in Colonel Sun, Moonraker, and For Your Eyes Only. Ayn Rand made a lifestyle out of hating communists, with their often bleak depictions in We The Living and Atlas Shrugs. And Orwell’s treatment of the communist state in 1984 can not be forgotten either.
In the world of cinematography, the Russian were popular villains too. Like in Rambo II and Rambo III, which had much more obvious political tones than the first movie. And in Red Dawn, the quintessential anti-communism movie of the 1980`s, which portrayed the communists as radical in their actions as The Midwich Cuckoos, but also as proud/dense as in The Kraken Wakes.
The bioengineering and scientific departments of the Soviets, briefly seen in The Day of The Triffids, had central roles in the 2004 videogame Metal Gear Solid 3, while the state of the world in the videogame series Fallout was due to a war reminiscent of The Chrysalid’s Tribulation.
While Wyndham pioneered on the subject of monsters, he merely followed the trend as far as the Russians were concerned. He wrote during the years where the “Red Scare” (fear of the Soviet Union and everything it stood for) was at its height, so his books were one of the many, many works of fiction to feature communistic Russians in mostly negative roles.
He did, however, manage to avoid the archetypical role the Russians mostly played; that of full-blown antagonist. Instead, he forged them into a third party, playing a small role besides the first party (the protagonists and the Western nations) and the second party (the monsters). This relationship was reminiscent of an unholy alliance, especially in The Midwich Cuckoos where the communists made a U-turn to warn the capitalists, after supposedly witnessing the Children’s true power first hand. But more importantly, almost non-existent in literature and movies of the time. Russia going out of its way to warn the West for impending danger was frankly unthinkable, in the minds of many Westerners
With that in mind, it can be said that John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris pioneered in more fields than just that of monsters. The Midwich Cuckoos was one of the earliest works of fiction to explore the notion of Russia calling upon the rest of the world to help combat their common enemy, and it will forever be a shame that Wyndham could not finish the sequel before his untimely death in 1966. It could have delved deeper into the two ideological blocks of the Cold War working side-by-side against a common enemy. Of course, many movies and books explored this idea in later years, but what makes Wyndham`s treatment of it special, is that The Midwich Cuckoos was written at the height of the Cold War, a time in which the relationship between West and East was still strenuous at best.
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