I was in the mood for a really good science fiction novel. One I hadn’t read before. My hunger was for the kind of science fiction that excited me as a kid, so it might need to be old, but it could be new. I find a lot of modern science fiction is often set too far away from now or reality, making them not relevant. I like science fiction when it’s meaningful and not just some fun fantasy. I found the perfect book to satisfy all those desires, The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. That novel was first published in 1953, but still impressively relevant in 2022.
I stumbled onto The Kraken Wakes when I glanced at “The First Climate Fiction Masterpiece: On John Wyndham’s 1953 Novel ‘The Kraken Wakes’” from the LA Review of Books. But I just barely looked at that review because I didn’t want any spoilers. I did read that review after reading the novel and it does a thorough job of explaining why the novel is great, however, it does so with many many spoilers. I’ve reached a stage in life when I don’t want to encounter any spoilers for the fiction I read. I’ve come to admire how writers unfold a story, letting us readers absorb what we need to know step-by-step. Too often reviewers ruin that process.
However, not telling what a book is about, makes it hard to review fiction. The Kraken Wakes wowed me. But will knowing that convince you to read it? Most readers like to read certain kinds of novels about certain kinds of subjects. That means I need to tell you just enough to hook you but not enough to spoil any of the fun John Wyndham intended.
Have you ever read The War of the Worlds? I don’t mean seeing any of the movies but actually reading what H. G. Wells wrote. Wells’s writing was excellent. Both books share many similarities, and The Kraken Wakes is a kind of literary reply to that classic novel. However, Wyndham adds a good bit of humor. The story is told from the point-of-view of a very charming young married couple, John and Phyllis Watson. That aspect reminds me of certain movies from the 1940s which featured delightful married couples. The charm and humor are used sparingly because this is a grim tale.
The plot is about an alien invasion but it’s not like American movies about alien invasions. What impressed me was Wyndham’s political and social awareness savviness. This 1953 novel is about science denialism, conspiracy theories, how fake news travels, the ways media shapes a news story, and many other ideas that resonate with today’s world. I don’t know if Wyndham was being satirical or just matter-of-fact about human nature, but he shows more maturity than most SF writers from that era.
I was thoroughly delighted by the novel, and grateful to find there are still science fiction classics from the past I haven’t read. I have read Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Chrysalids (1955), The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), and Chocky (1968), so I knew the odds were good I’d love The Kraken Wakes.
The Kraken Wakes was retitled for American readers as Out of the Deeps, and I’ve learned this morning it was significantly changed for American readers. I find that fascinating. Mark R. Kelly has written about the differences at Black Gate. You’ll want to read that after you’ve read the novel. I listened to the Audible edition read by John Sackville, who does a fantastic job of dramatizing the story. Audible Studies has new editions of many of Wyndham’s famous novels. Modern Library also has new editions, and I’m hoping they are the same, but the audiobook did not include the forward that’s in the Modern Library edition.
There have been several radio versions of the story produced over the years, as well as a video game.
James Wallace Harris, 10/20/22
10 thoughts on “The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham”
I read it twice, and thoroughly enjoyed it both times — even more than his Day of the Triffids. The only other novel of his I’ve read is Stowaway to Mars, written in the 30s as Planet Plane. Don’t remember much about it, except that I it didn’t appeal to me.
Wyndham, like many English authors, has a knack for spinning very readable tales of world catastrophe. Kraken reads easily and moves quickly. It would make a great movie in the hands of the right director who kept to the book.
I just picked up Wyndham’s The Outward Urge, which looks like a series of short stories tracing the evolution of space exploration. Looking forward to starting that this weekend.
And it’s encouraging to see that there are still classic gems out there waiting to be rediscovered.
I think I need to read more English SF writers. Aldiss and Ballard are obvious choices but I believe there are many British SF writers I don’t even know at all.
I’ve been looking at the early Ace Specials edited by Terry Carr. There are many in that series I have read.
John Christopher, another English author with disaster themes, is also very good (The Long Winter, No Blade of Grass).
I really liked The Death of Grass which I read a couple years ago. I keep seeing recommendations for his Tripod series.
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Thanks. A great discussion without spoilers! I don’t remember if I’ve read this or not, so I’ll add it to my TBR. Did you read/listen to the US version or the UK version? Did it make any difference to you?
I had the English edition. I think all the editions in recent decades have been the English edition.
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Judging from the two British booktubers I watch, Britain does seem to have its own SF scene. While the big names make it across the pond both ways, it still seems quite different. The YouTube channel the Outlaw Bookseller gets pretty deeply into SF and British SF.
I subscribed to the Outlaw Bookseller, what was the other YouTuber that covered British SF?
It’s funny you bring this up because after writing the review of The Kraken Wakes I went looking for some more British SF to listen to. I wanted something else from the 1950s or 1960s and decided I would listen to something by Brian Aldiss. I wanted Greybeard or The Dark Lightyears, which I haven’t read, or to reread Hothouse. But I want to hear it. Kraken was so well produced on audio.
Well, there was no Aldiss at all from Audible except for foreign language editions. But checking Amazon UK I saw there were quite a number of Aldiss books on their UK Audible. Plus, they had his collected stories for the Kindle, something else I’ve been wanting. But they aren’t available in the U.S.
Brian Stableford has a 4-volume series called New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance that focuses on early British science fiction. He claims the U.S. and Great Britain took diverging paths regarding science fiction. I think he’s right because now that I’m discovering British SF late in life, it does feel different.
The other one is Media Death Cult, which I think I discovered in one of your posts.
I have to admit that I missed a lot of SF from the 70’s on, but I do feel like a stranger in a strange land when hearing these guys talk about SF. Arthur C Clarke was my British SF author, and while I heard of some of the others back in the day, they never much appealed to me. I gather that a lot of the authors had US editions, but I wonder how much traction they got. Luckily I enjoy learning about books that I know I’ll never read.
It is funny that Amazon UK will sell and send (paper) books here, but not audio books.