'Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepth....'
BY THE 1950s Wyndham wished to distance himself from the wealth of aliens present in the countless books and B Movies of the time, and this is well illustrated by the enemy in The Kraken Wakes. The aliens have some lateral tactics and remain unseen throughout. All the reader knows is that the ‘Krakens’ or ‘Xenobathites’ came from above (via crafts that resemble fireballs), take up residence below our waves, and clearly share with humans the ability to justify any action in the name of survival. The narrator is journalist Mike Watson whose role at first is one of observer as he charts the alien invasion from its arrival, to what may be the conclusion. In his wife Phyllis, Mike has a typical Wyndham heroine, comely, blonde and bright.
The tension ratchets up throughout the opening phases of the novel, as the two foes wage an increasingly bitter war. Both sides have their different methods and weapons, so Earthlings and Xenobathites alike are dealing with a mysterious enemy deploying unfamiliar technology. Without wishing to spoil the plot too much (it is hinted at in the opening 'flashforward'), the ever prescient Wyndham then brings ice-cap melting into the scenario, which does not bode well for mankind. Climate-Change sceptics remember this was written over half a century ago, so just enjoy the innovative story. The title Kraken Wakes is a reference to the poetry of Tennyson, and also invokes an ancient fear of sea monsters, along side the hidden aliens. Disappointingly, the book was retitled Out of the Depths in the North American market.
Personal View: Beware includes spoilers
The Kraken Wakes is perhaps Wyndham's most political work, as he takes swipes at Communism, Conservatism, and the Media. The author clearly has a disdain for the Soviet approach to diplomacy, but also observes that the effect on international commerce is one of the most persuasive arguments for action. It is also interesting to note that until two nuclear-carrying British Naval vessels are lost, the average Joe Soap is not entirely convinced that there really is an underwater alien presence, with the Soviets hitherto being blamed for the loss of shipping. Throughout the predictions of Doctor Bocker, an academic who has intuitive opinions on the Xenobathites, are met with derision.
In The Day of the Triffids narrator Bill Masen mentions that in some respects the catastrophe was made better by the fact so many people had died. Had 10-15% of the population survived then mob rule would have ensued. In this novel Wyndham explores this further, though Government does not disappear entirely, much of the country descends into a tribal state. There is also an enormous refugee crisis to face as London, East Anglia and lowland regions are submerged. After successive wretched winters and huge flooding about a tenth of Britons have survived. However the final cause of most people's deaths was that of pneumonia. Boats have become a vital commodity even in upland areas.
Wyndham's climate change is more dramatic than the one discussed today, as the ice-caps are melted over the course of a few years. Global Warming was not envisaged, but Wyndham does give great thought to the challanges of rising sea-levels. The Kraken Wakes showcases first-class storytelling, though the ending is slightly anti-climatic, or at least the marvellous Phase Three could have been expanded just a little more. I especially liked the sudden manner in which the semi-apocalypse is introduced.
The author does not give much detail to the Japanese breakthrough which signals a hopeful end to the book (although in the US version a lenghtier explanation is given in a differently-worded ending; see paragraph below). It is just met with surprise by the characters. Yet he was never tempted to write very long books, preferring to leave questions in the reader's mind. Perhaps Wyndham was predicting the rise of Japan as a technological power, when the story was penned in 1953 this would not have been an obvious development.
As with The Midwich Cuckoo, the aliens are made interesting as much by what's not revealed about them. Are the Krakens desperately fleeing from some troubled or conquered planet, or is this normal behaviour for them? Are they singular in purpose, or wracked by the same devisive politics as humanity? Do the ocean deeps offer the aliens their last chance to avoid extinction? The enemy is literally unfathomable. Mike Watson is not even one hundred percent certain that the fireballs witnessed at the start are actually alien craft.
Alternative Endings: Beware includes spoilers
Surprisingly there are two alternative endings in publication worldwide, divulging in two ways. Firstly, in the UK version, the Watsons are contacted by a local Cornishman who rows over to their sanctum, and relays the news that they are considered to be important enough to feature in the Government's plans to rebuild the nation. The US edition sees Doctor Bocker himself leading the search, and descending from a helicopter. There are shades of Triffids with the chopper breaking the isolation, and indeed in the battle scene in Chrysalids. The appearance of a rowing boat is perhaps a touch more sombre, and indicative of a society in greater turmoil.
The other main difference is that, and here the US version surely wins out, a few more paragraphs are dedicated to an explanation of the ultrasonic super weapon developed by the Japanese (Wyndham doesn't go as far as to describe them as Nips, but Japs still seems a trifle derogatory). The fact that less than a decade had passed between the end of the Second World War, and the Kraken's publication explains the tone of grudging respect.
'But now the Japs seem to have found the answer. A very ingenious people, the Japs; and, in their more sociable moments, a credit to science. So far, we have only had a general description by radio of their device, but it seems to be a type of self-propelled sphere which cruises slowly along, emitting ultrasonic waves of great intensity. But the really clever thing about it is this: it not only produces lethal waves, but makes use of them itself, on the principle of an echo sounder, and steers by them. That is to say, you can fix it to sheer off from any obstacle when it receives an echo from it at a given distance.'
'You see the idea? Set a flock of these things for a clearance of, say, two hundred feet, and start 'em going at the end of a narrow Deep. Then they'll cruise along, keeping two hundred feet from the bottom, two hundred feet from the sides of the Deep, two hundred feet from any obstruction, two hundred feet clear of one another, and turning out a lethal ultrasonic wave as they go. That's just the simple principle of the things - the Japs real triumph has been not only in being able to build them, but to have built them tough enough to stand the pressure.'
An Excerpt from The Kraken Wakes
Wyndham uses the device of eavesdropping a considerable amount in Kraken Wakes from naval radio recordings, to the following overheard pub conversation:
When we arrived at the flat, and switched on the radio, we were just in time to hear of the sinkings of the aircraft-carrier Meritorious, and the liner Carib Princess.....
....In a pub off Oxford Street I happened across the whole thing condensed. A medium-built man who might have been a salesman in one of the large stores was putting his views to a few acquaintances.
'All right,' he said, 'say for the sake of argument they're right, say there are these whatsits at the bottom of the sea: then what I want to know is why we're not getting after 'em right away? What do we pay a navy for? And we've got atom bombs, haven't we? Well, why don't we go out to bomb 'em to hell before they get up to more trouble? Sitting down here and letting 'em think they can do as they like isn't going to help. Show 'em, is what I say, show 'em quick, and show 'em proper. Oh, thanks; mine's a light ale.'
Somebody raised the question of poisoning the ocean.
'Well, damn it, the sea's big enough. It'll get over it. Anyway, you could use H.E., too, 'he suggested.
Somebody else agreed that the size of the sea was a point: indeed, there was an awful lot of it for games of blind man's bluff. The first man wouldn't have that.
'They said the Deeps,' he pointed out. 'They've kept on talking about the Deeps. Then, for God's sake why don't they get cracking right away, and sock the Deeps, and sock the Deeps good and hard. They do know where they are, anyway. Who bought this one? here's luck.'
'I'll tell you why, chum,' said his neighbour, 'if you want to know. It's because the whole thing's a lot of bloody eyewash, that's why. Things in the frickin' Deeps, for crysake! Look, tell me this: we lose ships, the Yanks lose ships, the Japs lose ships - but do the Russians lose ships? Do they hell - and I'd like to know why not.'
Somebody suggested that it might be because the Russians hadn't many ships, anyway.
Somebody else remembered that away back at the time when the Keweenaw was lost the Russian had lost a ship, and not quietly, either.
'Ah,' said the complainant, but where are the independent witnesses? That's just the kind of camouflage you could expect from them.'
The feeling of the meeting, however, was not with him. But neither was it altogether with the first speaker. A third man seemed to talk for most of them when he said:
'You got to plan for it, like for anything else, I s'pose; but I must say - well, thanks, old man, just one for the road - I must say it'd make you feel easier to know somebody was really doing something about it.'
2016 BBC Radio Four Adaptation
The first radio adaptation came in 1954 just a year after the original print publication. These were followed by a 1998 working, later released as an audiobook, and a 2004 production for BBC Radio Seven. The most recent radio version came in May 2016 courtesy of BBC Radio Four, the corporation's most high-brow station. Val McDermid's interpretation is updated to the second decade of this century, and not surprisingly focuses on the global warming element. Twitter and the Internet also play their part in disseminating information and misinformation.
This ambitious project was recorded live in two parts (the book is divided into three), and features Tamsin Greig and Paul Higgons, known respectively to British comedy fans for their roles in Channel Four's sublime Green Wing, and the BBC's political satire In The Thick of It. They are accompanied by Richard Harrington, better known for dramatic offerings such as Lark Rise to Candleford, Silent Witness, Dalziel and Pascoe, and the famous long-running soap Coronation Street.
Unlike the last Beeb reworking of Wyndham, the criminal butchering of Triffids, the plot keeps to the general flow of the original. Yet there are several changes. The honeymoon cruise begins in the Arctic not the Caribbean, possibly a nod to the Scandinavian folkloric title. Harrogate is also replaced by the far more populous Birmingham as the main city of post-cataclysmic England. Another geographical change is that Mike and Phyliss's holiday cottage moves from Cornwall to the Scottish Borders, perhaps due to Higgin's Scots accent. Putin's Russia naturally replaces the USSR as the wrongfully accused enemy. Whereas no credit is given to the Japanese for the efforts to counter the Xenobaths. The ending also has shades of DOTT with the helicopter entrance of messengers from the vestiges of civilisation. One rather pointless change is turning Doctor Bocker into Dr. Becker.
Arguably the most interesting innovation was the cameo appearance of Nicola Sturgeon, whose voice transmits from the headquarters of the skeletal Scottish government. For those unfamiliar with Scoto-British politics, Sturgeon is the First Minister of Scotland (an autonomous constituent country still legally within the United Kingdom's constitutional framework), though she carries the gravitas of a full-blown Head-of-State in this tale.
It is interesting to note that the BBC, with a certain degree of hubris, claimed the journalistic protagonists to be their own employees. They even had the brass neck to name-check Radio Four's The Today Programme. In fact Wyndham had his central characters reporting to the fictional English Broadcasting Corporation, an independent rival.
Above all though, it is the orchestral accompaniment that marks out this production. Although certainly melodramatic at times, classical music and the ocean depths do seem to make for natural bedfellows. On the whole this is decent attempt at bringing this 1950s apocalypse to a contemporary audience.
1965 CBC Radio Adaptation
Broadcast from Vancouver in 1965, the Canadian radio play is an entirely worthwhile addition to the oeuvre. It has a contemporary feel, featuring charming Sixties Sci-fi sound effects, and stays very close to the original storyline, though another episode giving more detail to the great flood would not have gone amiss. The Canuck actors do manage convincing English accents, with only the occasional word pronounced with a North American twang. Currently the five part series (just under two and a half hours in total) is available for free download.
The Big Flood
In a case of life imitating art, or perhaps vice-versa, Britain experienced the worst floods in living memory in January 1953 as Wyndham was writing Kraken Wakes. The North Sea Flood, known colloquially as 'The Big Flood' occurred when a storm surge broke coastal defences across eastern Britain causing many counties to be inundated with waters up to five metres above ground level. Rivers spated by the January rains added to the chaos. The cost to British infrastructure is estimated to be over a billion pounds in today's money; more seriously 307 people lost their lives. Sadly the effects on the lowlands of the Netherlands were even more deadly with around 1,800 Dutch fatalities. Doubtless the sombre event gave Wyndham much to ruminate on.
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