Mere curiosities mar decent human introspection (3/5)
I remember reading Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) three years ago and finding an unsettled balance between cheekiness and seriousness. Perhaps the curious sensation of mistaking an honest attempt or horror and science for comedy and slapstick, and vice versa, is a symptom of the ages; some science fiction from bygone years have a similar feel: florid and friendly Venus, flying through the air causes clothes to burn or manifested and monstrous mutations caused The Bomb, to name a few. With The Day of the Triffids, I felt teetered upon the same fulcrum—should I take this seriously or casually? In the end, due to the rather horrific elements and struggle for survival, I found purchase with the serious side of The Day of the Triffids. Even when reading his short story collection here, I sometimes find it hard to choose between Wyndham humorously miming reality or heuristicly mimicking reality.
The Best of John Wyndham (1973), first published by Sphere with 318 pages, was later released by the same publisher in two parts: first in 1975 with The Best of John Wyndham 1932-1949 with 170 pages and later in 1977 with The Best of John Wyndham 1951-1960 with 159 pages. My copy, however, is a pirated EPUB edition with 210 “pages”. I generally condone downloading books because new books feel so good and old books smell so nice… but I’m ravenous for short story collections as my library is nearly bare of single-author collections. This John Wyndham collection fit its niche, but I no less intend to purchase a physical copy of it to line my 500+ book shelves.
The Lost Machine (1932, novelette) – 5/5 – Stranded on the planet Earth, a Martian scout robot unwillingly examines the rustic life of the circus and the simple lives of the villagers. Too smart for its own good, the robot, Zat, seeks out some form of intelligence to relay his story.
The Man from Beyond (1934, novelette) – 4/5 – Venusians gawk at the flora and fauna of its long history thanks to a natural gas which suspends all animation. One odd exhibit features a caged biped from the third planet. His attempts at communication reveal a troubled past with two of Earth’s biggest corporations, which is actually an old matter.
The Perfect Creature (1937, novelette) – 3/5 – In Membury, the Society for the Suppression of the Maltreatment of Animals gets a call regarding two odd turtle-like creatures in the town’s center. Their investigation leads them to the plush mansion of Doctor Dixon. The Doctor’s most recent experiment of artificial life wreaks his home and chases his guests.
The Trojan Beam (1939, novelette) – 3/5 – George is a double agent acting as a spy between the Chinese and Japanese armies in the future war of 1965. The Chinese have developed a magnetic beam which easily defeats the Japanese, but the Chinese emperor willingly divulges the information to the spy for his own ends, which George can’t fathom.
Vengeance by Proxy (1940, shortstory) – 3/5 – A number of telegraph, post, and telephone communications outline a curious incident just outside of Belgrade in which an injured man in the middle of a snowy road seems to transfer his personality to the Englishwoman named Elaine. The doctors in the correspondence debate personality transfers.
Adaptation (1949, shortstory) – 3/5 – The conditions of Mars barely suit the colonists. After eighteen years, Dr. Forbes treats the psyche of Franklyn whose wife Annie and daughter Janessa had gone missing some years ago. Meanwhile, Janessa complains of her difference from others and soon plans an unscheduled trip back to Earth.
Pawley’s Peepholes (1951, shortstory) – 4/5 – Disembodied limbs begin to appear in ceilings, walls and even in the streets but only to suddenly disappear without a trace. Leaning towards a logical explanation, Jerry and Jimmy bat around ideas but only the truth is stranger than their own—soon platforms cycle through town, as worrisome as they as spectral.
The Red Stuff (1951, shortstory) – 2/5 – Clarke Lunar Station is soon to be quarantined. The ships Annabelle and Circe fly out to the asteroid belt to respond to a curious incident involving a red rock and some red jelly-like substance. The jelly attacks their hull yet they’re still able to scamper back to the unsuspecting moonbase.
And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1951, shortstory) – 4/5 – Ignorant of the humans’ ways, a colony of transparent silicate aliens meet hostile resistance in their approach but find respite in the vacant expanse of a desert. There, they try to understand Earthly ways while behind their glass dome. From cars to guns to microphones, the aliens are dumbstruck at the humans’ complexity and frequencies.
Dumb Martian (1952, novelette) – 3/5 – With five years of solitude expected while on a mood of Jupiter, Duncan splashes £2,360 for a Martian bride to bide his time with. However, her dimwittedness and despondent stare aggravates him soon after landing. A visiting geologist teaches Lellie, the Martian, to read and she soon voraciously digests the library, to Duncan’s displeasure.
Close Behind Him (1953, shortstory) – 2/5 – Spotty and Smudger burgle a house with curious, ornate fixtures and make off with an impressive loot, yet six feet behind their car are trailing footprints. Unable to rid himself of the prints through various at misleading the footsteps, Smudger grudgingly awaits the approaching footsteps as they draw nearer to his heel day by day.
The Emptiness of Space (1960, shortstory) – 3/5 – David’s on leave from being a spacepilot and spending his quiet time on Lahua in the Pacific. There, he meets George who has a defeated demeanor and soulless outlook. The locals fill in the gaps of George’s story, but David connects the dots of why such a young man is able to have a granddaughter.
The two best stories in the lot are “The Lost Machine” and “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down”, both of which feature an alien intelligence trying to understand the backwater ways of the common Earthling. I’m a sucker for this kind of story, so my bias shows. It’s rare this—a subjectively alien perspective on common things including dogs, cars, speaking and limbs. It’s fun to get into the mind of an alien and witness ourselves as the alien.
Three other stories are memorable: (a) “The Man From Beyond” is a borderline sarcastic/serious look at corporate competition and alien zoology, (b) “The Trojan Beam” is a straight shooter about tactics in war and the cleverness of those who create first, and (c) “Pawley’s Peepholes” is an obviously silly story where time travelers are able to be seen but not heard or interacted with. The rest of the stories either have a predictable plot course and ending (“Adaptation”), a gimmick which is tiresome or non-sci-fi (“Close Behind Him”) or simply a plot which falls dud at your feet (“The Red Stuff”).
I doubt this is the “best” of John Wyndham’s collection from 1931 to 1960. Wyndham as about eight other collections which feature selections of his shortstories, novelettes, and novellas, from 1954’s Jizzle to 1979’s Exiles on Asperus. Regardless of which collection you pick up, all stories will have been published between 1931 and 1968, a short career for an author with glimpses of genuine talent.