What if the world’s oceans somehow turned against us? What if we found it suddenly unsafe to be anywhere out in the sea, if humanity were forced to send bombs into the ocean depths in an attempt to destroy something that might be alive, intelligent, targeting us?
And if something did live in the ocean, something alive and intelligent, how did it get there…and who sent it?
John Wyndham sent it.
Wyndham published The Kraken Wakes 60 years ago, two years after his 1951 sci-fi classic debut novel The Day of the Triffids. At a time when Cold War nuclear threats raged and the world stood divided and vulnerable, his series of post-apocalyptic novels unsettled readers. At the same time, Wyndham’s books left fans ravenously curious, pulled them in and never let go until the end.
As with Triffids, Wyndham portrays in Kraken a human race on the brink of destruction. We follow journalists (and married couple) Mike and Phyllis Watson’s version of events, from Mike’s perspective.
He begins portentously, telling Phyllis he will write a book about everything that has happened. They agree on a starting point…and the story explodes.
“Phase One,” second of four sections, takes us back many years, to the first contributing event of the whole catastrophe. We’re in sci-fi heaven—fireballs plummet from the sky.
Mike writes: “Even now, years later, though I am certain enough in my own mind that this was the beginning, I can still offer no proof that it was not an unrelated phenomenon. What the end that will eventually follow this beginning may be, I prefer not to think too closely: I would also prefer not to dream about it, either, if dreams were within my control.”
Dreams aren’t the only thing not within Mike’s control.
Soon after the fireballs stop falling, ships begin mysteriously to sink. Later, “sea tanks” resembling giant tentacles emerge from the water to snatch people and pull them in.
It quickly becomes evident why Wyndham chose journalists as main characters. Their eyes give us, for the most part, a coolly assessing view as they discuss the calamities with a variety of professionals, including a scientist who goes by Bocker.
Phyllis wields a powerful influence. Mike prefers not to dwell on bad thoughts (What will humanity might be like in years ahead?), focusing instead on work, logic, sensibility, control of his own emotions. Phyllis, though, finds it difficult to distance herself at all from the crumbling world. Until she points out how bleak things have become, Mike fails to grasp it. Her moral compass keeps the couple on track and, through her tough moments, this unusually strong 1950s female character guides Mike to new realizations about himself and their changing world.
I recently spoke to a friend and fellow Wyndham fan, who remarked that one of the most notable things in Wyndham’s novels, considering the era in which they were written, remains the strong female characters. Phyllis exhibits a real human presence otherwise lacking in your run-of-the-mill post-kraken chaos. Even better, she actually does know more than Mike on some subjects.
Wyndham met—and passed with tremendous success—the challenge of the time in having a female character who feels absolutely necessary to the story but who doesn’t steal the spotlight of the pro forma first-person male narrator. Phyllis avoids all the female stereotypes. She contributes to the story as an intelligent, self-sufficient woman—Mike’s equal.
Still, the couple’s male/female, yin/yang fundamental differences do exist…to the benefit of the novel. The duality gives readers some of the best moments of inner monologue.
Here’s a sample. Phyllis and Mike see a ship sink right before their eyes. She sits fixated, horrified, empathetic, picturing herself as one of those on board. He, wired as the 1950s male, doesn’t suffer much mental and emotional hardship. Mike writes, “I am thankful that such imagination as I, myself, have is more prosaic, and seated further from the heart.”
Bleak moments and all, The Kraken Wakes remains a fairly hopeful novel. We can thank, in large part, the scientist Bocker for this. He quells the fears of Mike and Phyllis more than once, suggesting limits to how far things can ultimately go before the unknown force in the ocean relents. He also helps shed light on reaction by the rest of the world and he offers opinions on how to stop this danger and protect mankind. He serves as a means for Mike and Phyllis to ask all the questions readers would ask, given the chance.
Perhaps wisest of any character in the novel, Bocker goes from public perception as a lunatic to that of a sage, a man begged for his thoughts and predictions. Wyndham needs a voice of reason in the world of chaos he invents. Bocker shares information we need to hear as readers. He benefits from Mike’s story-telling. A third-person telling could be drastically different…Bocker could easily become more mad scientist than magus.
Wyndham, born and raised in England, began writing short stories in 1925 while still in his early twenties. After years of using his own name and a pen name, John Beynon, he went off to World War II, first as a censor in the Ministry of Information, then as a cipher operator. Returning from conflict, he learned that his brother had published four novels. In true sibling rivalry, he put pen to paper and produced a string of fantastic post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories that remain popular today.
An especially relevant aspect of Kraken comes in Wyndham’s choice of the world’s mothering oceans as a source of disaster. The idea still holds water, so to speak. Who can really say how soon humanity will be in a better position to handle oceanic disaster, maybe in the form of ecological collapse, compared to 60 years ago?
Another element ahead of its time: Wyndham’s kraken. We’ve seen these myth-based giant squid-like sea creatures in various movies and TV shows for the last few decades. Most of us have a general personal idea of how they must look and act. Wyndham shatters these preconceptions—his version of the kraken grows truly horrifying as a creature controlled by someone (or as something) with significant intelligence.
It takes a remarkable novel to still hit as hard as Kraken. Though the Cold War no longer looms, many of the world’s species go extinct each day, and the state of the planet continues to deteriorate under stresses caused by population and development.
It turns out we may be our own kraken.
Carlo Sobral is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and frequent Paste contributor.