William Gibson said that the future isn’t distributed equally: the same can be said for the literature of the future, science fiction. Genre literature appears all over the world, but it seems to be primarily the product of industrialized cultures like the United States and United Kingdom, while other, smaller pockets appeared around the world throughout the 20th century. That’s a broad generalization, of course, but it bears looking into: how did science fiction spread across the world and how did it change as it did so? One author to look at as an example is John Wyndham, author of such books as The Kraken Wakes and The Day of the Triffids.

Born John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris on July 10, 1903, in Warwickshire, England, to a middle-class family, his parents divorced when he was 8 years old. He read widely as a child, particularly H.G. Wells, and wrote his own fantastic tales while he was away at boarding school. Following school, Harris first attempted to find work in a variety of fields, such as farming, law and advertising, but an allowance from his parents allowed him to write his own stories.

According to Sam Moskowitz in his genre history Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction, "The turning point in his writing career came in 1929, when he happened to pick up a copy of the American magazine, Amazing Stories, which had been left in a London hotel lounge. He was fascinated by the believability of the stories and searched out others." The American science-fiction market grew exceptionally well during the 1930s, with magazines such as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories publishing a wide range of fiction and attracting tens of thousands of readers. Many of these American magazines were exported to the U.K. and other parts of the world, where a new generation of readers fell in love with their stories, including Harris.

As he began to write his own science-fiction stories, the discovered that the only outlets generally open to writers were American, and so he dutifully mailed his stories overseas. His first published story was “Worlds to Barter” under the name John Beynon Harris in Hugo Gernsback's magazine Wonder Stories in May 1931. After that initial publication, he continued to publish in similar pulp magazines throughout the remainder of the 1930s, including Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories and others. He also wrote a pair of novels under the name John Beynon: The Secret People in 1935 and Planet Plane in 1936 (later republished as Stowaway to Mars as John Wyndham). As the science-fiction genre took off in the United States, new markets appeared in the United Kingdom as well, and Harris began to appear there, placing stories in Tales of Wonder and Fantasy. John Clute, writing in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, notes that the first phase of Harris' career can be described as "Space Operas leavened with the occasional witty aside or passage," but that "None of this work stood out in particular." Harris was part of the pulp market, writing adventures set in space or elsewhere along with many numerous colleagues.

Continue reading >


 

Harris' writing career was largely put on hold as Europe erupted into warfare. As Britain entered World War II, Harris became involved in his country’s war effort, first working for the Ministry of Information as a censor before joining the British Army. There, he worked in the Royal Corps of Signals as a Corporal cipher operator, participating in the D-Day operations at Normandy beach in the immediate aftermath of the invasion in June 1944. The war had a particular effect on Harris, who noted that "I had the constant feeling I was there by mistake, possibly that was because I had spent much of my schooldays expecting in due course to be in the Kaiser's war, though it ended when I was still too young. Nevertheless, I could not get rid of the feeling that that had been my war, and now I had somehow got into the wrong one. It produced odd moods of spectatorship, shot with flashes of déjà vu."

When Harris was discharged from the Army in 1946, the science-fiction genre had changed in England and around the world. The war exacted a toll on the country, and paper rationing had crippled numerous publishing operations. After some attempts to publish as a fantasy author, Harris gave up and returned to science fiction. According to critic John Scarborough, "One might have expected him to return to his tried-and-true formulas in science fiction after the war, but in The Day of The Triffids, published under the name John Wyndham, he revealed a new style and some subtle shifts in his outlook."

Published in 1951, The Day of the Triffids marked the start of the second phase of Harris's career and was heavily inspired by H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. He showed the novel to his agent, Frederic Pohl, who was able to immediately sell the book to Doubleday, only to turn around and ask them to delay the novel's publication: "Doubleday snapped it up, but I had to ask them to hold off publication because Collier's also loved it, and Collier's love expressed itself in the biggest check I had ever seen, five figures worth of fondness," writes Pohl in his memoir The Way the Future Was.Tiffids

Colliers serialized a condensed version of the novel beginning in the January 6, 1951 issue under the title Revolt of the Triffids. The remaining installments appeared weekly, on January 13, 20, 27, and February 3, 1951. This was a post-apocalyptic story, following Bill Masden, a biologist who studies Triffids, a carnivorous and intelligent plant with some valuable properties. He awakes in a hospital only to find that everyone in London has been blinded by a strange meteor shower. Joining forces with survivors, he attempts to leave the city, which is made all the more difficult by the dangerous Triffids.

The book was incredibly popular upon publication, and was widely characterized by reviewers as a catastrophe novel. According to critic Brian Aldiss, the novel was "totally devoid of ideas, but read smoothly, and thus reached a maximum audience, which enjoyed cosy disasters," while Christopher Priest described Wyndham as "the master of the middle-class catastrophe." Mike Ashley, in his book Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950-1970, notes that the advantage to Harris having a long name allowed him to adopt numerous identities throughout his career. “As Wyndham he created a new persona which virtually blanked out the past and allowed him to develop in the mainstream without the ‘stigma’ of the sf magazines.” With his mainstream success as Wyndham, Harris continued to publish in genre magazines, but largely focused on the English marketplace, placing stories in Argosy and Suspense: “he wrote the occasional short story more out of recreation than need and did not aim them at the sf readership.”

This characterization is an interesting one, and it marks a major departure from Harris' earlier works. Specifically, the limited access to science-fiction genre magazines drove a number of British authors to focus on mainstream markets. “Until 1950, British writers had to rely on American markets to become established. This was especially true of Arthur C. Clarke, Eric Frank Russell, John Beynon Harris and John Christopher...with the exception of Russell, these writers succeeded in establishing themselves in the mainstream and this lured them away from the genre magazines,” Ashley writes. While the genre market place in the United States was about to undergo its own transition from monthly magazines to novels, the U.K. was seeing different sorts of stories created. Harris' Triffids appearing in 1951 perfectly captured the anxieties of a population worried that they might face annihilation in a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In his introduction to the 2003 edition of the novel, historian Edmund Morris notes that "Before this appeared, novelists seeking to agitate readers with a sense of alien threat had used the hoary device of extraterrestrials invading the planet....Wyndham's stroke of genius was to invent the triffid, a killer plant that is inscrutable in its malevolence, yet so ordinary, even uninteresting on first acquaintance." The threat of nuclear destruction came not from external factors, but from us, and from a source that both threatened our destruction through bombs, or technological salvation by the harnessing of the atom.Wyndham

While critic Brian Aldiss was dismissive of Harris' commercial nature, it's clear that his stories captured the public's imagination in a way that genre fiction couldn't, or reached readers genre fiction typically didn't. Harris' first career phase was firmly set in genre circles, while his second saw his own escape, writing stories about monsters and the end of the world. The Day of the Triffids is far different from its American Golden Age counterparts: it was less technological and scientific, and more interested in a larger allegory and its characters. In his intro, Edmund Morris describes the book as having a reputation "of being the one science fiction book you must read, even if you don't read science fiction."

In many ways, mainstream readers (that is, everyone else outside of genre circles), were already becoming well-exposed to the concepts of science fiction. Stories about technology and apocalyptic events had long been the stuff of science fiction, but audiences seemed as though they were ready to accept some of the tropes which had largely been confined to genre circles. The massive industrialization which sustained the Allied efforts during World War II certainly played a role in this, introducing the U.S. and the U.K. to atomic power, new technologies and a higher standard of living. The art and literature worlds would catch up with these changes quickly, and throughout the latter half of the 20th century, science-fiction communities grappled with the idea of definitions, and defining just what is and isn’t science fiction. Harris and his later readers don’t seem to have cared about the definitions: he was writing stories which were broadly appealing.

The Day of the Triffids has remained exceptionally popular throughout the world, where Triffid is an identifiable phrase, even among nongenre readers. In 1962, the novel was adapted into a film by the same name, and it underwent a handful of radio and television adaptations as well. Harris died on March 11th, 1969, after adding a number of other highly regarded novels to Wyndam's name: The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids, the Midwich Cuckoos, The Trouble with Lichen, and Chocky. Two posthumous novels, Web and Plan for Chaos, have also since appeared. Harris/Wyndham's works continue to exert their influence on modern writers, especially as genre tropes make their way to mainstream novels and audiences. 

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found online at his site and on Twitter @andrewliptak.