The First Climate Fiction Masterpiece: On John Wyndham’s 1953 Novel “The Kraken Wakes”
By Matthew James SeidelOctober 15, 2022
The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
Given the personal and political anxiety brought on by climate change, it’s natural that climate fiction has grown into a robust genre of its own. Well-established and new writers alike have extrapolated from the threats we face today to imagine grim futures that sometimes feel inevitable. But as compelling as recent climate fiction can feel, there is one novel, The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham, that is often neglected. Published in 1953, it is arguably the first work of climate fiction, and it predicts the effects of climate change we are facing today with an alarming degree of accuracy.
Reading The Kraken Wakes is an unsettling experience. Wyndham accomplished much more than simply predicting specific events that were over half a century away; he anticipated how political gridlock would frustrate necessary action, how the erosion of trust in the media would create the perfect environment for conspiracy theories to thrive, and how rejecting scientific evidence would only make real solutions more difficult to achieve. And he managed to do all this while crafting a compelling narrative with truly weird and frightening moments.
Recently reissued by the Modern Library — along with a number of Wyndham’s other eerily prescient works — The Kraken Wakes is just as riveting and important for its uncanny parallels to the present as for what it may portend about our future. At a time when truth is often stranger than fiction, this is the perfect time to rediscover a writer whose vision has never been more relevant.
On the surface, The Kraken Wakes seems to have nothing to do with climate change. It’s about an alien invasion (which might put off readers who associate 1950s sci-fi with corny monsters like the giant, flesh-eating ants from Them! — which was released a year after The Kraken Wakes). Yet the menace in Wyndham’s novel is far more sinister; the aliens spend the entirety of the novel in the deepest parts of the ocean, inaccessible and unseen. Characters are only made painfully aware of their existence by the results of their actions long after their plans have already been put into motion. This escalating danger arrives in the form of disparate events across the globe over the course of years — even decades — and this, in many ways, reflects the unfolding of our current climate crisis. Just as there is never one single alien attack in Wyndham’s novel, climate change will never entirely occur in one single catastrophe. It is, therefore, easy for Wyndham’s characters to initially dismiss the aliens’ various activities as unrelated with a combination of wishful thinking and xenophobia.
In fact, the vast majority of the population simply refuses to accept the psychologically destabilizing idea that there even are aliens. Those who do recognize the reality of the situation early on are dismissed as alarmists, communist agents, or lunatics. This refusal to face facts continues long into the book because “this was not at all the way anyone had expected an interplanetary war to be; so, quite possibly, it was not an interplanetary war after all.” It is impossible not to think of the denialism that has permeated discourse around climate change since the 1970s when reading these sections of the novel.
With the government denying the existence of the aliens, people take refuge in conspiracy theories. These may not be based on evidence, but they offer comfort by fitting familiar narratives. With the Cold War raging, the most popular put the blame squarely on the Russians. One character captures the general mood when she complains that she can’t understand how the scientist who first warned about the aliens hasn’t been arrested. “I happen to know,” she claims, “from somebody who used to know him that he joined the Party when he first went up to the University, and of course he’s been working for them ever since.”
Here we have a character ready to arrest a scientist for speaking out, to put her faith in rumors, and to blame Russians because of political propaganda. The prevalence of conspiracy theories in The Kraken Wakes, unfortunately, finds many parallels in our post-truth world. And with the invasion of Ukraine, there is renewed suspicion of everything Russian. This has sometimes veered into the absurd, like when Russian dog owners were banned from a major British dog pageant and Bicocca University in Milan considered removing a course on 19th-century world literature classics because it centered on the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. As if all this weren’t enough, the media in Wyndham’s novel is just as reticent to discuss the alien threat as the real media has been to confront climate change.
In addition to conspiracy theories and widespread denial, another way The Kraken Wakes reflects our contemporary world is how, even when faced with a rapidly closing window of time in which to act, governments with the most power do nothing. There are speeches and assurances and bombastic shows of military strength, but one character, Phyllis, sees what is really going on:
Nobody’s really doing anything. There’s no realization, no genuine attempt to change the pattern to meet it. […] They say: “Dear, dear! Such a loss of trade,” and they talk and talk and talk as if it’ll all come right in the end if only they can keep on talking long enough. When anybody […] suggests doing something [they’re] just howled down and called a sensationalist, or an alarmist. How many people do they regard as the proper wastage before they must do anything?
We could ask ourselves the same question, but the answer would likely be the same. In the case of The Kraken Wakes, massive death tolls are tolerated when they are limited to poorer nations. It is only once Europe begins to suffer directly that any action at all is taken. While reading the novel, it is easy to condemn the callousness of these characters. But climate change has been ravaging the Global South since long before England’s roads began to melt. Furthermore, when we consider how victims of past epidemics have been treated, let alone all those more recently killed by COVID-19, it’s clear the public can, indeed, be made to accept a significant death toll if the alternative is radical political change and international cooperation.
Finally, The Kraken Wakes parallels our precarious present in how both the aliens and climate change affect the planet. The parallels are so striking that there are times when the novel moves from metaphor to outright prophecy. The aliens come to realize they are at a disadvantage on land. To solve this problem, they begin warming the Arctic. This causes the ice caps to melt and the sea level to rise. The consequences for Wyndham’s characters are all too familiar, as we ourselves melt the Arctic. There is even a moment when wasteful, short-term solutions like sea walls are put in place in the novel, which has literally already happened. Sections of the southern United States may not be underwater, but when we read lines like “Across in Texas a large tract of land north of Brownsville was gradually disappearing beneath the water” and “Still worse hit were Louisiana, and the Delta,” it’s hard not to feel like one is reading future headlines.
Part of the reason The Kraken Wakes resonates so deeply is due to Wyndham’s extensive research into everything from oceanography to geology to applications of atomic fission. There’s a reason David Mitchell described him as “William Blake with a science doctorate.” This obsessive attention to detail makes even the most fantastic and grotesque moments feel chillingly realistic.
Wyndham’s attention to detail is not limited to the scientific aspects. In addition to the physical impact the aliens have on the planet and their victims, the narrator of The Kraken Wakes explains the indirect, ever-changing impact they have on the world economy and international relations. This concern with how different systems interact is evident even in his earlier novel, The Day of the Triffids. Yes, flesh-eating plants play a prominent role, but before society breaks down, they are incorporated into neoliberal capitalism because their oil proves to be a valuable product. It may sound strange to imagine such plants being treated like farm animals, but Wyndham makes his case so logically that, in the end, it is hard to imagine any other scenario unfolding.
Wyndham speculates on political, social, and philosophical issues without ever coming off as pedantic. His dialogue always serves the plot, but many scenes also can be read independently as fascinating thought experiments. Sometimes entire novels function as opposite answers to the same question. For example, both The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos (known better as The Village of the Damned) concern the issue of an evolutionary difference disrupting the social order. The key difference: The Chrysalids is told from the perspective of those who are different whereas The Midwich Cuckoos frames the conflict from the perspective of the threatened society. The conflict in The Kraken Wakes is quite different, but it too concerns humanity facing an unprecedented change and whether humanity can, in response, change itself when the alternative is unthinkable.
As the world of The Kraken Wakes plunges into disorder, plot elements may feel familiar, like the fracturing of humanity into isolated factions, the return to primitivism, and the rise of petty despots. But that is only because this is such a foundational text for the cli-fi genre. Elements of the novel have become staples of cli-fi, and science fiction more generally, that seek to seriously engage with what the future may bring. The novel’s profound influence is all the more remarkable considering that it is a relatively obscure novel by an already obscure author.
The Kraken Wakes is precisely the kind of climate fiction we need right now (even if the author lived before climate change was part of the popular conversation). It is imaginative, thought-provoking, and clear in its message without ever succumbing to despair. Wyndham clearly believes it is never too late to mitigate the damage brought on by an unprecedented challenge. But he also understands the tragic repercussions of denial and procrastination. The characters in The Kraken Wakes wait until it is too late to avoid the worst. We can make different choices. And if nothing else, reading Wyndham’s novel makes it abundantly clear that we must make the right ones. Soon.
Matthew James Seidel is a musician and writer currently based in Rochester, New York.
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