fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Kraken Wakes by John WyndhamThe Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

At this point, only the most obstinate of naysayers would ever deny the alarming evidence regarding global warming, the shrinking of the ozone layer, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the rising of the Earth’s ocean levels. Indeed, just recently, the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite revealed that Greenland and Antarctica are, together, losing their millennia-old ice caps at the rate of some 500 cubic kilometers per year! But over 60 years ago, British sci-fi author John Wyndham presented to his readers an even scarier proposition than Man’s unwitting destruction of his environment, in his 1953 offering The Kraken Wakes (released in the U.S. under the title Out of the Deeps); namely, the deliberate destruction of the polar ice caps, with its concomitant worldwide coastal floodings, brought about by alien invaders!

Kraken was the author’s second sci-fi novel under the “John Wyndham” byline (he was born in 1903 with the unwieldy handle John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, and passed away in ’69), following his more well-known novel The Day of the Triffids (1951) and prior to his classic The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). Both of those other “cozy disaster” novels were famously filmed (Cuckoos in 1960 under the title Village of the Damnedhere’s an old review of mine for the film — and Triffids in 1963), and it seems to me that Kraken might have served as even better film material than those other two. The novel is certainly more spectacular than those two books, and is a tense, realistic, exciting and elegantly written piece of work overall. It was turned into a BBC radio show in 1954, but still, what a film this could be … with the requisite $200 million, of course!

The book is narrated by Mike Watson, a reporter for the EBC (the English Broadcasting Corp.; NOT the BBC, as he is required to explain numerous times during the course of his tale), and is divided into three “phases.” In the first phase, mysterious fireballs are seen descending all over the globe, always crash-landing into the sea; Watson and his new bride, Phyllis, a fellow EBC reporter, see several crash into the Atlantic while on their own honeymoon cruise. Bathyspheres sent down to investigate are destroyed, and before long, ships are being sunk as well, wreaking havoc on the global economy. In phase two, the sea-dwelling aliens begin to send out tanks to invade coastal communities, and, with their levitating, jellyfishlike assistants (Dr. Alastair Bocker, the book’s only other central character, and the only man in the world who divines the precise nature of the underwater menace, refers to these creatures as “millebrachiate pseudocoelenterates,” and to the aliens themselves as “xenobathetic”), start a campaign of kidnapping humans. Things turn even more dire in phase three, however, when those ice caps begin to melt, the Thames bursts its banks, and a goodly chunk of London is submerged!

The Kraken Wakes evinces great detail in its presentation, in both the action and day-to-day departments. Wyndham takes care to show us how the escalating crisis impacts the international political situation (naturally, the U.S.S.R. and the West are quick to blame one another at first, in typical Cold War fashion, and there are numerous digs at the slow-moving pols), how it is covered by the press (a largely cynical and disbelieving lot), and how it is perceived by the public (unimpressed, for the most part … until those floating jellyfish start snatching them!). Wyndham’s descriptions of the submerged London are fairly journalistic and matter-of-fact in nature; not at all like the hallucinatory images given us by J.G. Ballard in his masterful 1962 novel The Drowned World, in which solar flares melt the ice caps and turn London into a phantasmagorical lagoon.

The Kraken Wakes gives us a man and wife, the Watsons, who are very much equals; refreshingly so, for ‘50s sci-fi. Indeed, Phyllis shows herself to be cooler, more resourceful and a better planner than her husband, several times during the course of Mike’s narrative. And the book features any number of stupendous action scenes. The one in which the alien tanks make their appearance on (the fictitious Cayman Island) Escondida is absolutely thrilling, and equally suspenseful is the sequence in which an American destroyer in the Caribbean is sunk with an A-bomb on board; a pressure-sensitive A-bomb, that will detonate after reaching a depth of two miles! I might add that a world atlas and a street map of London proved of great assistance to me as I tore through Wyndham’s novel, and unless you know where Amboina, Godthaab, Santander, the Lea Valley, Harrogate, Barnes and Deptford are, you might find one handy, too!

Truth to tell, as good as Wyndham’s novel is (and if I haven’t made it clear thus far, let me plainly state that it is a very involving, credible and intelligent affair), there are a few slight problems that might crop up for some readers. For one thing, we never do get a look at the invading aliens, although their pseudocoelenterates might give us a clue as to their appearance. Similarly, we never learn their motives for landing on Earth, kidnapping our people and melting our ice caps. But as Bocker at one point says, “…this ‘Why’ business is a waste of breath.” In truth, the lack of alien description and motivation did not bother me; it only adds to the air of cosmic mystery in the novel. A bit more problematic is the datedness of the Cold War milieu, only heightened by the mention of both Life and Collier’s magazines, and by Phyllis (an extremely intelligent woman, mind you) remarking, “…they’ve been blaming the bombs for upsetting the ecology, whatever that is…” Is it possible that the word “ecology” was such an abstruse term in 1953? Wyndham also makes the terrible boo-boo of referring to the subsea Guatemala Trench as the “Guatemala Basin,” which is a completely different geographical area entirely. Still, these are relatively minor matters when stacked against the book’s abundant great merits. Readers who thrilled to the ambulatory deadly plants of Triffids and the golden-eyed children of The Midwich Cuckoos should just love the maritime disasters, alien attacks and environmental apocalypse that Kraken dishes out. As John Wyndham demonstrated half a century before the actuality, melting ice caps are no picnic!


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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