|John Wyndham: The unread bestseller |
Perennially popular, his science fiction is a great deal more nuanced than generally recognised
One of the drawbacks of being a bestselling author is that no one reads you properly. Sure they read you, but do they really read you? I've been thinking about this because Nicola Swords and I have just made a documentary for Radio 4 about John Wyndham. Wyndham is probably the most successful British science fiction writer after HG Wells, and his books have never been out of print. He continues to haunt the public imagination – either through adaptations of his own work (last Christmas gave us a new Day of the Triffids on the BBC) or through thinly disguised homages (witness the opening of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, which almost exactly resembles the first chapters of The Day of the Triffids, and is in its turn parodied in the opening of Shaun of the Dead). But because his books are so familiar, maybe we don't look too closely at them.
I read a lot of Wyndham when I was a teenager. Then, a few years ago, when I was looking around for books to adapt as a Radio 4 "classic serial", I thought of The Midwich Cuckoos. Rereading it, I was startled to find a searching novel of moral ambiguities where once I'd seen only an inventive but simple SF thriller. If you don't know the story, the village of Midwich is visited by aliens who put the whole place to sleep for 24 hours and depart; some weeks later all the women of childbearing age find they are pregnant, and give birth to golden-eyed telepathic children whose powers are soon turned against the village and the world.