Book review: The Kraken Wakes

John Wyndham’s 1953 novel The Kraken Wakes is at times quaintly British and outdated but still an intriguing portrayal of a truly alien attack on Earth.

Telling the story from the first person perspective of Mike Watson, a reporter with EBC, a fictional competitor to the BBC, the novel chronicles three phases of an alien invasion that starts with red meteors plunging into the deepest parts of the world’s oceans–a frontier that no human had visited back then (and few have visited since). For a time there is no immediate connection between the meteors and any kind of alien incursion. This changes when great quantities of sludge churn up from the deeps, suggesting an intelligence at work.

Investigation leads to unseen retaliation, as a bathysphere sent down to investigate is compromised and its crew of two killed. Britain responds by dropping a nuke into the deep but they have no way of knowing what happens. The aliens then disrupt shipping with unknown weapons that shatter ships apart in moments and follow by sending remote-controlled and/or organic “sea tanks” to attack coastal populations, snaring people and dragging them back to the ocean depths for unknown purposes (food? entertainment? both?) The tanks are discovered to be very vulnerable to explosives and are for the most part repelled.

This leads to the third and final phase, with the aliens warming the ocean’s waters, causing a precipitous rise in sea levels across the globe. The aliens clearly don’t want to share their new home with landlubbers.

The main characters of Mike and his co-worker and wife Phyllis, are witness to several events directly and their employer the EBC uses them to present stories covering the drawn-out invasion. The meat of the story takes the form of long monologues by characters recounting incidents or expounding on what can or must be done. This creates a bit of a distancing effect, in spite of the husband and wife team being intimately involved or witness to much of the action. It does allow Wyndham to recount various opinion pieces and the prevailing mood of the public and government, which lends a journalistic “witness to history” feel that somewhat compensates for the distancing effect of the monologues. A large part of the novel details the reaction of the world to the years-long invasion events, with public interest waxing and waning with activity and governments generally disinclined to take more decisive action. It’s somewhat depressing in how authentic the reactions and actions feel. Basically humanity waits until it’s too late.

The science is kept fairly low key and holds up credibly due to the vagueness–and the fact that nukes are the answer used most often. The most outdated part of the novel is the still-entertaining back and forth between the West and the Soviets, with the Soviets playing up the rhetoric against the fascist, capitalist West (and trying to blame every alien attack on them, while they only wish to preserve Peace with a capital “p”).

Perhaps my least favorite part of the novel comes right at the end. Wyndham paints an increasingly bleak picture of a world greatly depopulated and only just hanging on above the rising water and appears about to end the story on this depressing and uncertain note. Instead, a person delivers a message to Mike and Phyllis on their newly-made island refuge that the Japanese have created a sound-based weapon that kills the aliens dead and everything will be peachy after all (apart from the depopulation and newly terrible climate, that is). The revelation comes so late in the story that it feels like a deus ex machina, a happy face sticker to make the reader feel better about things.

Still, it’s not enough to detract from the overall story and it is clear the surviving people still have a long struggle ahead of them to restore society to something that doesn’t get regularly eaten by possibbly jelly-like beings living five miles below the ocean surface.

Also I don’t think I’ve read a novel where two characters refer to each other as “darling” more than this one. Maybe it was the style (of writing) at the time.

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