Two by John Wyndham: Re-Birth and The Secret People
I’ve gone up and down with John Wyndham. A couple of his books – The Midwich Cuckoos and Day of the Triffids – are outstanding; Chocky was just okay. Generally I like his storytelling, and his ideas are wonderful; but they can’t all be gems, no matter who the author is. No problem. Really, this fits in nicely to the Golden Age of Science Fiction, where Wyndham deserves a place, since even Heinlein and Asimov wrote some stinkers. I like Wyndham, though, and I like that I keep finding his books in cheap paperback editions from the 60’s and 70’s with interesting cover art. That cover art was what made me pick both of these.
So I had two of his novels to read, and once I read them, well – to be honest, my opinion of Wyndham went down. This has been mitigated now by the fact that one of these two, The Secret People, was one of his earliest works, written in 1935; my first book isn’t very good, either. But that’s not enough: because this book wasn’t just “not very good.” It’s a stack of crap in a cover.
We’ll start with the good one, though. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Re-Birth, from 1955, (Published in Wyndham’s native UK as The Chrysalids, which is a way better title but I assumed they changed it because the American public’s response was overwhelmingly, “Wut’s in tarnation’s a chrysalid?”) is a great book in two ways: it has a post-apocalyptic setting fully as interesting and disturbing as A Handmaid’s Tale, with the same kind of theocratic hypocrisy in full bloom. Told from the point of view of a young boy whose father is a pillar of the community, it has that excellent innocent perspective that makes social commentary novels genuinely effective, from The Giver to To Kill a Mockingbird. We learn how screwed up the society is as the protagonist does, and it works extremely well. There’s a nice twist, too: because we find out that the main character, David, is actually one of the forbidden people, one of the untouchables, as it were, but in a way that enables him to hide it. So we get the view of the society from both a child’s perspective and an outsider’s perspective, and it’s very well done.
The society is an agrarian theocracy after the world-shattering nuclear war; it is probably somewhere in Greenland, though that isn’t entirely clear. (That maybe my poor grasp on world geography – or, honestly, it’s been a couple of months since I read it; I may just not remember.) The society has an absolute rule against genetic mutations, which are more common because of the radiation; anyone who is born with any king of imperfection is essentially exposed to the elements. (Turns out they don’t always die, but that’s not for the society’s lack of trying.) David is a genetic mutation, but not with any physical alteration, and so he slips through the net, and eventually finds several others who are like him.
I don’t want to spoil it any more than that, because it is essentially worth reading. I didn’t really like the ending, though. We get two glimpses into other societies, one of the outcast genetic mutations who have survived on the fringes of the theocratic society, and one highly advanced society from another part of the world; and frankly, both suck. The book as a whole just made me dislike people. Which, I mean, that’s fair, but it’s not always the kind of book I want to read; I also felt that this one didn’t hold out any real hope for a better world or better people. I guess there’s a small chance that David and his friends are the hope, but they continue to be a part of the crappy societies, so I don’t really see it.
But I did like the characters a lot, and I thought the society and the central conflict over genetic “perfection,” with the underlying theme of questioning that very concept – what exactly is the “correct” genotype? Or more importantly, the correct phenotype? At what point does variation become too far from the “norm?” – all that was great. If you’re a Wyndham fan, go ahead and read this one.
Don’t read The Secret People. Not anyone, not for any reason – not even for that epically bizarre cover. Because the cover is a lie! There aren’t any weird dirt-people with mushroom horns! They’re just short! I wanted freaky gnomes and dwarves and stuff, but what I got was – crap. Racist crap.
So The Secret People, originally published in 1935, is a lot like an H. Rider Haggard novel, except Wyndham wasn’t as good a writer. And they both had crap ideas. This book starts with a couple of poorly explained technological advances to get us in the sci-fi mood; the main character is an international playboy with his own jet plane – and I mean, it’s a rocket ship with a cabin and everything, that flies in atmosphere – and at one point, he picks up his newest Bond Girl and flies over the inland sea that is being made where the Sahara used to be. Sadly, they crash into the water, and through a series of mishaps, they find themselves in an underground world peopled by strange beings! Living under the Sahara! SO WEIRD!
Except they’re not. They’re Pygmies, from Africa, who apparently wandered into underground caves centuries ago, and just kept wandering. And just like Haggard, who had a serious case of TheWhiteManIsTheRightMan-itis, Wyndham describes these “secret people” as essentially savages who have been unable to advance their civilization in any way past their original stone-tool-and-superstition society. The modern Eurotrash heroes get chucked into a prison cavern with all the other surface dwellers who have found their way underground now that the inland-sea-over-the-Sahara project has compromised the Secret People’s secrecy, and then they have to find their way out and back to the jet plane, which is their only hope of surviving. Because, you see, the inland sea has started leaking into this vast underground cavern world, and the whole place is going to drown.
But that doesn’t matter! What matters is who gets to the plane first: the heroes, our playboy and his Bond Girl, or the sinister criminal element, who were already in the cavern when our heroes arrive, and who are both rapey and swarthy – an unforgivable combination. But that’s okay, because they’re also stupid and cowardly and everything else you would expect from a swarthy criminal type, and so yes, our heroes are the ones who make it out alive before all of the Secret People drown. Which, y’know, is a happy ending.
Terrible book. Don’t read it. Go for Re-Birth/The Chrysalids – or even better, read The Midwich Cuckoos.