On 'Vrilism' and genocidal science fiction (2)


But perhaps the outstanding writer of genocidal science-fiction was John Wyndham.

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was born in 1903 and would have been at an impressionable age during the Great War.  He was a pathologically negative person—an oddly common condition among British SF writers, for some reason.  But he had some positive ideas to go with the negativism, and these were often much worse.  His short novel Consider Her Ways is the most bigotedly nasty work ever to be written against female equality, imagining a future world in which a disease killed all the men and the women constitute themselves as an ant-like society.  But Wyndham’s more general theme is genocide, with different breeds of humans fighting a life-or-death struggle, or else humans and aliens doing so.  As a sub-theme, the retreat of the superior breed to an island refuge is quite common.

His most famous work is The Midwich Cuckoos, in which some strange-looking children are born in a little English village.  The book’s main characters gradually deduce that these are human-like creatures placed in women’s wombs, much like a cuckoo laying its egg in another bird’s nest.  The question of whether these new arrivals could or would interbreed with existing humans is never examined.  Instead, in best Vrilist fashion, a struggle to the death is assumed:

"Each species must strive to survive, and that it will do, by every means in its power, however foul—unless the instinct to survive is weakened by conflict with another instinct."

Now this is garbage.  A species does not have a collective will.  Only a tiny minority of biological species have members that might be self-aware enough to have any concept of survival, and it is personal.  Humans, along with other mammals and also birds and some reptiles, have two separate sets of instincts, sexual and parental. Neither are wholly in harmony with what a species would will if the species could will.

Sexual feelings are not rational from a species-survival point of view.  They are most commonly directed towards the opposite sex, but not always.  Mostly towards someone reproductively suitable, but again not always.  Humans can and do choose to be celibate, and some married couples choose not to have children, while others are unable to do so.  Parental feelings can apply to unrelated children, to animals, to dolls or to fictional inventions.  This tells you nothing more than that Natural Selection is a rather random process, not deserving to by hyped as Dawkins and others have hyped it.  The hype is in fact a product of the culture, attitudes that biologists share with other members of their culture who may be ignorant of biology or else scornful of the standard biological picture of the world.

As for cuckoos, they exploit other bird species, and are parasites in the strict biological sense of living at the expense of another organism.  Like most parasites, they have no interest in driving their host species to extinction: this would doom them as well, unless they could switch to another victim.  If one were to put it in human-criminal terms, they are burglars rather than murderers.  But while burglaries are far more common than murders, crime dramas are almost always about murder or grand larceny.  Likewise it is hard to make a good drama out of ordinary biology; you need to jazz it up with some improbably aggression of one species against another.

In Midwich Cuckoos, children similar to those born at Midwich have been placed elsewhere, several where the fair-haired golden-eyed children are so obviously changelings that they get killed at once.  This is extremely puzzling behaviour by super-aliens: real cuckoos have eggs that are a wonderfully good match for the parasitised species.  Most birds are very selective about eggs and will throw out any that look wrong.  Hair and eye colour are superficial features and aliens sophisticated enough to do the rest could easily produce a match.  One suspects that Wyndham was more of a racist than could be expressed openly in 1957, when the book was published.

Commentators have noted that in most of Wyndham’s books, there is a nice but confused protagonist and a wise-voice advisor who feeds in a correct viewpoint, the Wyndhamite idea of wisdom.  In Chapter 20 of Midwich Cuckoo, the wise-voice character answers the confused protagonist: doubts evolution while affirming racial conflict.

"'We evolved here - but where did the Children come from?'

"'Aren't you taking a theory for an established fact, my dear fellow?  It is widely supposed that we evolved here, and to support that supposition it is supposed that there once existed a creature who was the ancestor of ourselves, and of the apes--what our grandfathers used to call 'the missing link'. But there has never been any satisfactory proof that such a creature existed...  Can you see the whole diversity of races evolving from this one link...  At first sight, climate might have some effect - until one considers the Mongolian characteristics apparently indigenous from the equator to the North Pole...  Think of the number of generations we should have to go back to trace the blacks, the whites, the reds, and the yellows to a common ancestor."

In 1957, we already had numerous specimens of the species we now call Australopithecus and Homo Erectus, creatures with a mix of ape and human characteristics, plus Ramapithicus, a more ancient ape that was then believed to be a remote human ancestor.  We have since found many more hominids, including older and more ape-like Australopithecines and the ancient Homo Habilis that coexisted with Australopithecines without any sign of conflict.  'Mongolian characteristics' are thought to have originated among a branch of humanity that reached East Asia from Africa via Siberia.  Flatter faces and narrow eyes probably originated as adaptations to the cold, much worse 25,000 years ago in the Ice Age, but have been retained by these same peoples as they moved south (well south of the equator in the case of the Native Americans).  Racial differences are much more superficial than Wyndham supposes. The 'white' or European population is a mix of African and Asian elements, people who replaced the not-quite-human Neanderthals.

The wise-voice character, whose name is Zellaby, believes that such difference are probably due to alien experimenters:

"It is, for instance, disquieting for a good rationalist, such as myself, to find himself wondering whether perhaps there is not some Outside Power arranging things here.  When I look round the world, it does sometimes seem to hold a suggestion of a rather disorderly testing-ground.  The sort of place where someone might let loose a new strain now and then, and see how it will make out in the rough and tumble.  Fascinating for an inventor to watch his creations acquitting themselves, don't you think?...  I don't necessarily mean an individual, of course. More probably a team.  It seems to me that if a team of our own biologists and geneticists were to take a remote island for their testing-ground they would find great interest and instruction in observing their specimens there in ecological conflict.   And, after all, what is a planet but an island in space?'"

When it comes to killing off the newly introduced humans, Mr Zellaby explains:

"'We are presented with a moral dilemma of some niceness.  On the one hand, it is our duty to our race and culture to liquidate the Children, for it is clear that if we do not we shall, at best, be completely dominated by them, and their culture, whatever it may turn out to be, will extinguish ours.

"'On the other hand, it is our culture that gives us scruples about the ruthless liquidation of unarmed minorities, not to mention the practical obstacles to such a solution...  the Children ought to be eliminated at the least possible cost, with the least possible delay.  I am sorry to have to arrive at that conclusion.  In nine years I have grown rather fond of them." 

Most of Wyndham’s major books are variants on the same theme: an unavoidable racial war with extinction for the loser.  In Midwich Cuckoos, the children are planning to withdraw to a small island when Zellaby manages to kill them and himself with a bomb he has smuggled in—the original Suicide Bomber?  In The Kraken Wakes, coexistence with an alien race who live in the deep oceans is deemed impossible.  In Day Of The Triffids, intelligent plants are a vicious irrational enemy.  And the protagonists are part of a group that withdraws to a small island, callously abandoning the majority of fellow-Britons who have been struck blind by a weapons system that somehow went out of control.  A rival faction who try to keep the blind majority alive within a crude authoritarian system are rejected as bad people.

In The Chrysalids, the viewpoint is that of the ‘New Humans’, telepaths appearing after a nuclear war who have mostly retreated to New Zealand.  Most of the book follows a group of telepaths born of non-telepathic parents.  They are rescued by sophisticated telepaths of 'Sealand', who drop a kind of web that entangles their attackers.  But something that might have been humane and defensive had been made lethal, the threads contract.  This is claimed as "more merciful than your arrows and spears", which sounds unlikely.

Much stranger is the justification:

“‘It is not pleasant to kill any creature’ she agreed ‘but to pretend that one can live without doing so is self-deception. There has to be meat in the dish, there have to be vegetables forbidden to flower, seeds forbidden to germinate... we have to preserve our species against other species that wish to destroy it - or else fail in our trust...

“‘There have been lords of life before, you know. Did you ever hear of the great lizards?  When the time came for them to be superseded they had to pass away...

“‘In loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.

“‘For ours is a superior variant, and we are only just beginning.  We are able to think-together... apply the composite team-mind to a problem.’"

The story is almost the inverse of the Midwich Cuckoo situation, though these telepaths do not seem as integrated into group-beings and also lack coercive powers.  The Chrysalids also features unrelated mutations in all organisms resultant from a nuclear war.  The community into which the telepaths are born have had a policy of killing visible mutants. In the case of human mutants, they have changed this to sterilisation and exile to the Fringes. But these Fringe people then become dangerous bandits: implicitly the policy of mercy has been an error.  And the civilised sophisticated telepaths of New Zealand have decided that their long-term goal is to exterminate the standard humans, much like Baron Lytton’s Vril-ya.  

None of Wyndham’s work has caused controversy among Britons; quite the reverse.  The best SF reference is the Nicholls Encyclopaedia of SF, which says

"He will be remembered mainly for a brief moment in which he expressed English hopes, fears and complacency to a readership that recognised a kindred spirit... To this day his books regularly appear on school syllabuses in the UK, in part, perhaps, because they are so 'safe'."  (1979 edition.)

‘Safe’ means without a hint of sex, I suppose.  The man was narrowly English, pessimistic and rather malignant.  Typical of a breed of Englishman who is often in error, but never in doubt.  These characters can sound more impressive than someone who thinks about what they are saying.  But England produces no more like that, thankfully—at least none with Wyndham’s powers of storytelling.  Even Wyndham mellowed a little in his last major works, Trouble With Lichen and Chockey.  I haven't read everything he wrote, but I do believe that 'Chockey' is the one and only friendly alien in his entire SF output.

SF writer Brian Aldiss's term for Wyndham’s work is ‘cosy catastrophie’.  Genocide and the extermination of intelligent aliens is cosy, so long as it’s nothing to do with Nazism or anti-Semitism?  That seems to be the logic, because looked at properly, Wyndham’s work express a cold callousness that was indeed very British.  He was just a writer, but his ideas reflect what the British ruling class had been doing in Ireland and in the British Empire over the previous 150 years.  Aldiss couldn't write such stuff: he has a kind of species war in his Helliconia novels, but without any clear outcome or any indication of what he thinks about it.  The man belongs to the Post-Coherent phase of mainstream British culture: people who no longer believes in the old values, but also cannot think beyond that context.

As far as I remember, Wyndham says nothing at all about Jews in any of his books.  Quite possibly Zellaby is supposed to be Jewish: this is in line with normal British racism, where Jews were normally included as part of the superior white race. Dennis Wheatley was expressing a fairly standard view when he included an heroic British Jew among the recurring characters in his occult novels.  Wheatley was a deeply racist writer, but racism of the British sort rather than borrowed from foreign sources.  Likewise Wyndham is recognised as home-grown and is acceptable.  If there had been a Johann Von Wyndham who had written such stuff for a German audience, I am sure it would have been treated quite differently in Anglo culture

Wyndham’s recurrent theme of small-superior-group-retreating-to-an-island may have been a borrowing from another Briton, Olaf Stapleton.  Most notably his book Odd John, in which a group of super-humans born of ‘normals’ get together on an island refuge after talking the natives into committing mass suicide to clear the ground (could genocide ever be cosier than that?).  The super-humans do also consider mass extermination of the ‘normals’, but decide it would be too traumatic and so allow their own extermination instead.