This week I’ve been reading some short sci-fi stories from the 1930s, by John Beynon. If he doesn’t sound familiar, maybe you’d recognise him as John Wyndham. Under that name, he wrote seven novels between 1951 and 1968.
I own six. All have the kind of dog-eared covers that might suggest I’ve picked them up cheaply: certainly that they’ve been well-read.
Last year, I included one, The Day of The Triffids, in a course called Reading 1951, partly because I wanted a contrast in tone to my other two novels, by female authors, but also because I knew Wyndham was an easy read. Triffids is around 90,000 words, and a page-turner. I was sure it would make a quick introduction to best-seller genre-fiction.
It did that and more. There were subtleties, for instance in the way it engages with the politics of its publication period, that I’d missed when reading only for entertainment. Sharing ideas brought fresh perspectives to my interpretation, as well as that of the group.
A couple of months later I was offered some unwanted books, and there were two collections of Wyndham’s early short fiction. I couldn’t resist, though I’d no idea when I’d get around to reading them.
I don’t think I’m alone in noticing that the last few weeks have been a godsend when it comes to dealing with the less-likely books on my shelves. It’s not just that I’ve more time, or that I’m less focused in the way I consume, it’s perhaps that being so confined, I need to range more widely in my reading.
In the last few days, I’ve been on three trips around our solar system. Since each journey was imagined in the 1930s, some of the science has felt a little dated. Sleepers of Mars, for instance, has Russia and Britain each sending manned rockets to claim Mars, in 1981.
There was a moment where I hesitated, wondering what something so far from accurate could offer. The opening two pages are scene-setting, and includes some soap-boxing.
But, after all, just what is meant by life? It is a pretty piece of vanity for us to assume that it is only something on a carbon basis needing oxygen for its existence. for there were things on the deserts, things in the cities and things moving in the papery bushes which suffered no inconvenience from the thinning of the air.
Then I had a problem with the ‘story hook’.
These two great rockets from Earth were not wanted on Mars, and their departure was being arranged for them. It was not, however the callous Martian intention to drive them at random into space. The decision that they must leave held no animosity, and the activity about the flanges showed that care was being taken that both vessels should have the best possible chance of making the return to Earth safely.
There are Martians! Put that with twenty-first century Mars explorations, and I’m faced with a paradoxical reading situation.
There are stories that have a short shelf-life. Sometimes I read them as ‘period-pieces’, for insight into the writers and readers of the time. That wasn’t the kind of reading I wanted.
As I wavered, murmuring, ‘What about Mars Rover?’ another question overrode it: ‘What could Beynon possibly do with the rockets, other than send them home?’ It didn’t seem much to build a story from.
One of the many good things about short fiction, is that if you don’t like what you’re reading, finishing it doesn’t cost much in energy or time, and you can always abandon the rest of the volume. I read on.
Actually, Sleepers of Mars turned out to be more of a novella. It had nine chapters, which meant plenty of room for character and plot developments. Mars was not simply a dying world, it had a complex history that was gradually revealed in a sub-plot that impacted on the human characters, and, this reader. Yes, I became involved.
Even in his early days, Beynon, it seems, knew how to hold his reader. Science is not the focus of these stories, intrinsic as it is to plot developments. As in his novels, the real story lies in the facets and flaws of human nature, and the vulnerability of an environment to exploitation.
I’m inclined to suggest that what Beynon/Beynon Harris/Wyndham wrote were timeless parables. The other four equally chilling stories, consider the potential exploitations inherent in developing time-travel; weapons of mass-destruction; the impact of big-businesses on our environment, or short-term thinking when exploring.
Each drew me in by focusing on characters placed in jeopardy. All left me thinking about the ways we live, and should live.
I’m happy to call these timeless writing, which is pretty impressive when you think they were published before space travel became reality.