‘Ingenious you certainly were – like monkeys. But you neglected your philosophers – to your own ruin. Each new discovery was a toy. You never considered its true worth. You just pushed it into your system – a system already suffering from hardening of the arteries. And you were a greedy people. You took each discovery as if it were a bright new garment, but when you put it on you wore it over your old, verminous rags. You had grave need of disinfectants.’ – Pillar to Post, John Wyndham.
A time for firsts. First book down for 2015, the first from my BookRiot Read Harder Challenge (this is the short story collection), and the first of the seventy books I am trying to read this year as part of the GoodReads challenge (I got sixty seven last year, so a small increase only). It is also my first attempt at a book review. I’m not really sure how to do these, so any comments you may have, positive or negative, would be appreciated. By way of background, my personal 5 star ranking system* is as follows:
5 stars – Brilliant. I would recommend this to everyone, and it is very likely I will re-read it in the future (possibly many times).
4 stars – Very good. Would happily recommend to others, this will be a welcome addition to my bookshelf.
3 stars – Good. Solid writing, solid story, no major flaws. Might also have some exceptional parts offset by weaker components.
2 stars – Ordinary. Generally means that the weaknesses (story, style, theme etc.) outweigh the positives.
1 star – Not good. Avoid.
*It should be acknowledged that I am a bit of a Santa Claus as far as reviewing anything goes – so to get only 1 star a book it must be truly awful, or offensive, and I am not easily offended. The only book I can think of that I would certainly give a ‘1 star’ to is ‘Mercenaries of Gor’.
The Seeds of Time – 3 out of 5 stars
I’ll be upfront – I am a long time fan of John Wyndham. Indeed I was a fan before I knew who it was I was a fan of. I have fond memories of watching Chocky as a part of my afternoon kids TV viewing, then staying up waaay past my bed time to watch the old BBC ‘Day of the Triffids’ series (much to my parent’s chagrin), but if you had asked me who had written these stories I would not have known. I read Web in High School, and The Trouble with Lichen at University. In 2014 I finally read Day of the Triffids, and was exceptionally impressed with The Kraken Wakes (heads up – if you want to read an excellent invasion of Earth story, don’t just hit War of the Worlds – be sure to head to The Kraken Wakes – I felt Wyndham nailed this one). As such, I was thrilled to find this anthology of short stories in a dingy second hand book store. Did it stack up to expectations? …mostly. Like most anthologies of short stories, there are always some stories that you will enjoy more than others. Of this collection, most were solid, a few stood head and shoulders above the others, and a few let the book down. I probably won’t re-read this whole book again – rather, I will simply visit those few excellent stories.
The best & the worst
Best and worst is of course terribly subjective, but hell, this is my blog, I’ll be arbitrary if I want to. In my view, John Wyndham is at his best here when the going gets brutal;
- Survival is a grim story of a space accident stranding fifteen men and one woman in a small ship for several months waiting for rescue, with a particularly dark twist at the end (this actually reminded me strongly of Arthur C Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust).
- Dumb Martian is a clear analogy for racism, but is effectively told for all its heavy handedness. Watching the thuggish and mean narrator buying then abusing his Martian ‘wife’ (slave) in preparation for a five-year period of isolated duty in space keeps you reading as you wait for this ugly character to get his comeuppance.
The weakest stories (in my view of course):
- Opposite number – Almost the Gwyenth Paltrow ‘Sliding Doors’ of the set, this one seemed out of place to me. Wyndham doesn’t normally deal in tech explanations – he tells us a technology does something, then leaves it with us to believe it – there is normally little pseudo-technical discussion justifying how it ‘works’. So when a character described the theory of dealing with parallel dimensions and how each decision creates a new one ad infinitum… It just seemed off. It also looked like he didn’t really know how to finish it – the last few paragraphs all end with trailing ellipses that go nowhere…
- Meteor – An interesting idea, where humans encounter aliens, but because of a difference in scale, the humans never actually realise it. This one just didn’t pull me in, I think the main issue is that I guessed the ending very early on, it was like the author ‘showed his hand’ too soon. Of course this could be because I was reminded of the Vl’hurgs and G’gugvunts war from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
In the foreword, Wyndham himself describes the stories in this book as being experiments of style, a rebellion against the action-packed space operas that apparently dominated publishing at the time. These stories are accordingly quite eclectic and had no unifying theme I could identify (of course, there could be an overarching theme, I just might be too dumb to see it). That said, the stories in Seeds do hit some broad commonalities:
- As might be suggested by title of the book, time travel is a recurring motif, with three of the ten stories involving body swapping time travelling in Pillar to Post (a concept I found reminiscent of HP Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Out Of Time‘), causality paradoxes in Chronoclasm, or the amusing results of time travelling tourism in Pawley’s Peepholes.
- Aliens and culture shock come to the fore with Dumb Martian, Meteor (both discussed above) and Time to Rest. Time to Rest is a more sombre, reflective take on science fiction tropes of isolation and aliens with an Earthman touring the backwaters of Mars, struggling to come to terms with the unexpected loss of his home.
- Techno-fear rounds out the last two stories Compassion Circuit and Wild Flower. Compassion Circuit is the better of the two although neither were amazing – Wild Flower seemed undeveloped, and the Compassion Circuit didn’t hold many surprises.
Wyndham’s wonderful dry British humour is present throughout this anthology, his style or voice carries all of these stories – this book, whether you’re reading the stronger or weaker stories, is a real pleasure. It is a lesson to a beginning writer on the importance of developing a suitable voice – one that fits naturally, but also one that is appealing on the page. The other thing I liked about these stories is that they were incredibly tight. None were over thirty pages long, and Wyndham used every word incredibly efficiently to get his point across and then get out of there. It’s a bit counter intuitive, but I think that many short stories suffer from being too long – they are ‘bloated’ unnecessarily with details that the author thinks are cool, but that don’t progress the point of the story. This was a master class in efficiency of writing – he was economical with his words, but lost none of the nuance or substance of the tale. Of course, it should be mentioned that this was first published in 1956, and casual sexism is almost a given. Space is apparently no place for a woman, and men dominate the unpleasant jobs being done on other planets – accompanying women are viewed as an oddity, if not a liability. BUT… I’m almost ready to give Wyndham a free kick on this issue, as I am not sure whether the sexism is casual at all, and instead whether the sexist views of some characters is planned by the author to highlight its ridiculousness. In every instance where a character states ‘she shouldn’t be here, this is no place for a woman, she’ll be hysterical’ etc. that woman ends up carrying the story, resolving the issue, and otherwise showing the speaker to be wrong. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, maybe I’m being too forgiving of a favourite author. Who knows. If you have contrary view, I’d love to hear about it.
I enjoyed the short stories overall, but there were some clangers in amongst the gold. I’d recommend checking it out of the library or picking it up on the cheap like I did – its a quick read and worth a shot. However, if you haven’t read any Wyndham, don’t start here – grab Triffids or Kraken first. Longer form stories, and a superior experience.
So, what did you think of my first book review – too long? Too rambling? Not enough detail? Let me know in the comments. Cheers KT