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Wyndham, John

Entry updated 8 April 2024. Tagged: Author.

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That portion of his full name used by UK author John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (?1903-1969) after World War Two, and by far his best-known byline; before World War Two, he had published work as John Beynon Harris, John Beynon, Wyndham Parkes, Lucas Parkes and Johnson Harris. As well as changing names with frequency, and, according to an intensely argued speculation by David Ketterer, obscuring the fact that he was born out of wedlock precisely a year earlier than his official date of birth in 1903, Wyndham often revised – or allowed others to revise – works from early in his working life; at times this led [see Checklist below] to an excessive number of versions of unimportant titles.

As a whole, Wyndham's career broke into two parts: before World War Two, and after it, when he became Wyndham almost exclusively. He began publishing work of genre interest with "Worlds to Barter" as by John Beynon Harris in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories for May 1931, contributing several more tales to that market through the early 1930s. Some of this early work was assembled as Wanderers of Time (coll 1973) as John Wyndham, the title story having been reprinted earlier as Love in Time (March 1933 Wonder Stories as "Wanderers of Time" as John B Harris; 1945 chap) as Johnson Harris; most of the contents of Exiles on Asperus (coll 1979) as John Wyndham writing as John Beynon were also pre-World War Two. None of this work stood out in particular. His first novel, The Secret People (20 July-14 September 1935 The Passing Show; 1935) as John Beynon [for full vts and name changes throughout, see Checklist below], was a juvenile sf adventure set in Near Future North Africa, where a degenerated Lost Race (see Devolution) is discovered Underground amid plans to transform the Sahara into a lake for irrigation purposes; these plans may reflect a similar project in Jules Verne's Invasion of the Sea (1904).

The somewhat more impressive Stowaway to Mars sequence – comprising Planet Plane (2 May-20 June 1936 The Passing Show as "Stowaway to Mars"; full text 1936) as John Beynon, plus the title novella assembled in Sleepers of Mars (coll 1973) as John Wyndham writing as John Beynon Harris by John Beynon – was a rather well told, though only intermittently subtle, narrative of humanity's first space flight to Mars, where Vaygan the Martian and the machines destined to succeed his dying species deal swiftly with three competing sets of Earthlings who have landed almost simultaneously. Vaygan himself impregnates Joan, the stowaway of the magazine title; given the strictures about Sex then applying, particularly to magazine fiction, this seems modestly daring, though the author ensures that she dies in childbirth and that her child is deemed illegitimate. The sequel deals merely with some stranded Russians, not with the miscegenate offspring. In his memoir Bound to be Read (1975), Sir Robert Lusty – who ran Michael Joseph during the period it was publishing Wyndham's most important work – described the John Beynon Harris of these years as a rather diffident, obscure, lounging individual at the fringes of the literary and social world; though this description has been disputed, there was clearly no great reason to suppose he would ever erupt into fame.

World War Two not only interrupted Beynon Harris's writing career but shaped all his subsequent important work, which can be seen as a series of efforts to tell stories amenable to a people – the United Kingdom suffered severely over the decade after its economically pyrrhic victory in 1945 – in need of more uplift than George Orwell was likely to supply. Where most of his pre-World War Two tales were Space Operas leavened with the occasional witty aside or passage, for at least a decade from about 1950 his novels can properly be thought in terms of the Scientific Romance as initially shaped by H G Wells, whose influence on Wyndham was strong and acknowledged, though he himself preferred for his post-War novels the unhelpful (and typically evasive) term "logical fantasy". These tales eloquently sanction a post-trauma middle-class UK style of response to the theme of Disaster, whether caused by the forces of Nature, alien Invasions, Evolution or Man's own nuclear warfare (see World War Three). Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for-disaster, or what Brian W Aldiss has called the Cosy Catastrophe, for this had reached mature form as early as 1885, with the publication of Richard Jefferies's retrospective After London, or Wild England, and the techniques for giving actuality to the moment of crisis had been thoroughly established well before World War One; but he effectively domesticated some of its defining patterns: the city (usually London) depopulated by the catastrophe; the exodus, with its scenes of panic and bravery; and the ensuring focus on a small but growing nucleus of survivors who reach some kind of sanctuary in the country and prepare to re-establish Man's shaken dominion. In the UK, though not in America, he was marketed as a middlebrow writer of non-generic work, and was not strongly identified with sf. Writers as diverse as John Christopher, Aldiss, M John Harrison and ChristopherPriest were influenced, not always willingly, by his example.

After "Jizzle" (January 1949 Collier's Weekly), a neat Apes as Human tale initially signed John Beynon, and Plan for Chaos (written circa 1950; 2009; rev 2010), a Near Future thriller set in New York where Nazis are plotting to create a race of conquering Clones, the first of Wyndham's central novels is The Day of the Triffids (6 January-3 February 1951 Collier's Weekly as "Revolt of the Triffids"; 1951; rev 1951), filmed as The Day of the Triffids (1963) whose eponymous Monsters (see Triffids) gave a word to our language. With surprising plausibility, the tale combines a succession of calamities: (one) the revolt of the mobile Triffids, a vegetable form (or species) which may be of Alien origin, or possibly a Mutation caused by radiation from nuclear bombs, and which have been exploited for their oil (see Imperialism); (two) the sudden blinding of the human race by Rays from something like a meteor shower (or human action in space), except for those whose eyes were not exposed, like the protagonist, who joins a rural commune just before Disaster number three, a planet-wide Pandemic, eliminates most of the human race. After at least six years, he eventually earns safe haven in the Isle of Wight. (In the American Collier's version, rewritten by its editors and cut by some 40%, the Triffids come from Venus, exculpating Homo sapiens from any responsibility for its near destruction; the "full" US novel is still about 12% shorter than the original [for exhaustive details of the differences between the UK and US novels see "The Reader's Guide to The Day of the Triffids" under links below].)

In The Kraken Wakes (1952-1953 Everybody's as "The Things from the Deep"; 1953; cut vt Out of the Deeps 1953), Aliens are colonizing Earth Under the Sea and it is only their artefacts that are described; the text focuses vividly on the flooding of London and other events as the Invasion proceeds. Re-Birth (1955; rev vt The Chrysalids 1955) may be Wyndham's most wholly-realized and successful story. It is set in a Ruined Earth region of Labrador that has warmed as a consequence of the long-ago World War Three, in a repressive culture governed by a fundamentalist fear of mutations. The Mutant Telepathic Children who serve as protagonists must initially survive, but need eventually to escape the harsh trap of home, and succeed; as they fly towards a clement City where those like them may flourish, the tale closes with a Slingshot Ending that has the effect of Conceptual Breakthrough. These three novels were later assembled as The John Wyndham Omnibus (omni 1964).

Three considerably overlapping story collections assembled shorter material produced during this productive time: Jizzle (coll 1954), Tales of Gooseflesh and Laughter (coll 1956) and The Seeds of Time (coll 1956). In stories like "The Chronoclasm" (in Star Science Fiction Stories, anth 1953, edited by Frederik Pohl), a sophisticated exercise in Time Travel, or in "Compassion Circuit" (December 1954 Fantastic Universe), which incorporates a mature treatment of Robots, Wyndham again demonstrated his skill at translating sf situations into tales of comfortingly realized character, however prickly their subject matter might be.

The Midwich Cuckoos (1957; rev 1958; vt Village of the Damned 1960) – filmed as Village of the Damned (1960) and as Children of the Damned (1963); televised as The Midwich Cuckoos (2022 7 episodes), created and produced by David Farr – which may now be his best known single, Wyndham returns to the incursion of Aliens as unqualifiedly inimical: the invaders who inseminate the women of the village of Midwich, and the consequent very effectively spooky offspring with their mind-controlling Psi Powers, mark a decided inturning from the more copious world of a few years earlier. Later novels, like Trouble with Lichen (1960; rev 1960) with its anti-ageing Drug, are conspicuous for their facetious unease, and it might be suggested that the potency of Wyndham's impulse to convey some comfort may well have derived from some profound cultural and/or personal insecurity he was unable to articulate directly – though indeed it is always presumptuous to personalize the traumas felt by anyone who has experienced war (Wyndham was in active service). But he wrote effectively for a specific British market at a specific point in time – the period of recuperation that followed World War Two – and he will be remembered for the half decade or so during which he was able to express in telling images the hopes, fears and resurgent hopefulness of a readership that recognized a kindred spirit. During that period, in the UK and Australia at least, he was probably more read than any other sf author. As late as 1992, his books appeared regularly on school syllabuses in the UK.

A further sf novel published posthumously is Web (1979), evoking something of the quiet menace of H G Wells's "Empire of the Ants" (December 1905 Strand Magazine) but with spiders in place of ants.

Under a short form of his legal name, John Beynon Harris, Wyndham was one of the founding directors in 1948 of John Carnell's Nova Publications, established to publish New Worlds on a professional basis; he was chairman of directors until 1954 and remained on the board until Nova Publications was finally dissolved in June 1964. [JC]

see also: Boys' Papers; Clichés; Climate Change; Feminism; Gothic SF; History of SF; Holocaust; Immortality; Mainstream Writers of SF; Post-Holocaust; Publishing; Race in SF; Radio; SF Music; Time Viewer; UFOs.

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris

born Knowle, Warwickshire: 10 July ?1903

died Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: 11 March 1969


Because Harris (whose surname is also given as Beynon Harris) frequently changed the use of his names, all versions are, contrary to usual practice in this encyclopedia, registered below, whether or not they are accompanied by textual or title changes.


Stowaway to Mars

  • Planet Plane (London: George Newnes, 1936) as John Beynon [early version first appeared 2 May-20 June 1936 The Passing Show as "Stowaway to Mars": Stowaway to Mars: hb/S Drigin]
    • "The Space Machine" (22 May-17 July 1937 Modern Wonder) as John Beynon [cut vt of the above: no book publication known: Stowaway to Mars: mag/]
    • Stowaway to Mars (London: Nova Publications, 1953) as John Beynon [cut vt of the above: not the same cut as "The Space Machine": Stowaway to Mars: pb/Gordon Hutchings]
    • Stowaway to Mars (London: Coronet, 1972) as John Wyndham writing as John Beynon [original text restored: Stowaway to Mars: pb/Chris Foss]
  • Sleepers of Mars (London: Coronet, 1973) as John Wyndham writing as John Beynon Harris [coll: title novella first appeared March 1938 Tales of Wonder as John Beynon: title novella is part of Stowaway to Mars: pb/Chris Foss]

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