Date finished: January 27th 2016
Ordinarily, Speculative Fiction is an umbrella term for anything vaguely fanciful, lying outside the realms of possibility – whether it be sci-fi, horror, fantasy, alternative history, magical realism or a whole host of other genres which venture beyond the confines of the world we’re familiar with.
I suppose it’s futile to posit my own narrow definition of what speculative fiction is when it’s completely different to everyone else’s, but the term, to me, has always meant a kind of grounded-in-reality science-fiction. I suppose I view speculative fiction to be an opposite number to high science-fiction. Rather than lofty space operas, speculative fiction – to me – means novels like The Man in the High Castle, 1984, Fahrenheit 451. That’s not to say exclusively dystopian novels, although those examples all fit that bill, but the sort of books in which the world is recognisably our own, but the events within it are beyond the pale.
The writer who really epitomises this style (for me) is John Wyndham of The Day of the Triffids fame. His books explore, in sprawling detail, the social, economic, political and personal effects of what are quite absurd sci-fi phenomena on our world with an almost paradoxical attention to science fact.
This is exactly what he does in The Kraken Wakes, which recounts the tale of how an insidious intelligence from the depths of the sea begins to make its presence known to the human race and how we respond in turn.
Mike and Phyllis Watson, husband and wife journalists, are researching the strange phenomena of fireballs raining from the sky and landing in the areas of the ocean that run deepest. A causation link is never proven, but some time after this, ships begin to go missing in the depths and there is a strange amount of deep sea “ooze” in high-water currents. The events are strange, but the ravings of a Dr Bocker about deep-sea intelligences from the fireballs are ignored. Slowly the sea activity becomes more alarming, as submarines and boats are inexplicably sunk, and a ban on shipping is advised. At this point, years into the activity, “sea tanks” rise out of the ocean, attacking coastal towns and villages across the globe and taking the inhabitants back to the depths. Finally, sea levels begin to rise…
It sounds like a run-of-the-mill battle for earth albeit with the danger coming from below rather than above. But the trick is in the way he tells ’em, and Wyndham – who called his genre ‘logical fantasy’ – shines in the way he tells a story. He does his best to pull together all the implications of this disaster: from the effects of a shipping ban on the economy, to the personal stresses that the protagonists suffer while investigating the strange events, to the action and inaction of governments both on a domestic and global scale in response to the unprecedented occurrences. What Wyndham tries, and often succeeds, to do is make the reader feel as though the events in the novel could truly take place. The idea is fanciful, but the way its explored is entirely believable, and this is what separates Wyndham from other science fiction authors. This is why I use the term speculative fiction: because Wyndham speculates as to what we might do in a given situation, and he does it with a nuanced realism that is often missing in our explosion-and-plot-twist-demanding society.
The Kraken Wakes is by turns a gripping, comprehensive, and thought-provoking look at how our race approaches the threat from a rival intelligence we know nothing about, and a chilling portrait of humanity pushed to the brink. We should be lucky to ever endure an apocalypse as tantalising as a Wyndham novel.