This exhibition consists largely of material from the Estate Collection of John Wyndham, whose science fiction novels are among the most potent descriptions of the collective unconscious of 1950s Britain. In his four major novels The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) the seductive dread of invasion is present in different forms. Whether it be from carnivorous plants, aliens from the ocean depths, post-atomic war mutants or children with paranormal powers, the threat to a normality so painfully won after the Second World War is as much from social change as from invading monsters. The shadows of the Cold War and Britain's loss of Empire creep fitfully though his fictions as his characters find their stability undermined and their moral values questioned.
Science fiction is speculative fiction. If the speculation is often focused upon technology and "big" ideas such as space travel, it just as often examines the social nature of our changing times. Once the future was little different from the past: now our world is regularly transformed. If we do not live in the glossy art-deco world of the sf magazines of the twenties and thirties, we live in a world equally distant from that era's everyday "normality". The atomic bomb, the home computer, industrial robots, virtual reality, the collapse of entire economic systems: all these are implied by science fiction and in some cases shaped by it. This exhibition therefore also contains material from the Science Fiction Foundation Collection, the largest and most important collection of science fiction in the European Union, deposited with the University of Liverpool Library in 1993, and other deposits such as the Olaf Stapledon and Eric Frank Russell archives. It has been selected to show aspects of science fiction over time and and something of its international nature: a body of literature whose roots lie in British, French, Czech, Russian and American fiction, which was crystallised by a Luxembourg immigrant to the USA and whose greatest figure during the 1930s (and possibly most influential ever) was a philosopher from Liverpool.
The Wyndham Archive contains original manuscripts/typescripts of most of his major works, as well as drafts, outlines, and so far unpublished material. It contains several thousand pages of letters, to and from publishers, editors, and fans, as well as a unique collection of letters written to Grace Wilson (later his wife) between 1939 and 1945, which shed light both on his own thoughts and the events of the War years. What is on display can only be selective, but it is hoped that it shows a picture of the field through the work of one of its greatest exponents and demonstrates the value of the science fiction collections in the Special Collections and Archives department of the University Library. Within a number of days following its acquisition it was used in research. We hope, therefore, that the "return of the triffids" to public view will encourage further use.Back to Exhibitions index
We are actively seeking further funding for cataloguing and preserving this valuable material and would be happy to discuss our plans.
The Archive was obtained through a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We would also like to thank the Friends of the University of Liverpool, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Iain M. Banks, the 1997 World Fantasy Convention, and other individuals and groups who contributed towards the purchase of this collection. For their help in presenting and hosting this exhibition, we thank Ian Qualtrough (Graphics Unit) and the staff of the University Art Gallery, Ann Compton, Matthew Clough and Carol Clarke. We are also happy to acknowledge the support given by Blackwell's University Bookshop.
Andy Sawyer Science Fiction Collections Librarian
Dr Maureen M. Watry Head of Special Collections and Archives
Few writers coin words which become part of the language. The Czech playwright Karel Capek, in 1922, used the word "robot": in 1984 William Gibson referred to "cyberspace". John Wyndham's contribution to the language is perhaps rarer: a symbolic rather than actual noun. There is nothing we can actually identify as a triffid. But since 1951, when The Day of the Triffids was first published, people have been heard pointing to huge menacing plants and saying half-jokingly "That looks like a triffid." There were no robots in 1922, nor for decades afterwards. Plant geneticists have so far not succeeded in developing a triffid.
"A modified form of what is unhappily called 'science fiction'" is how The Day of the Triffids is described within the Penguin editions of John Wyndham's books. This description - probably Wyndham's own - is misleading on a number of counts, although in a perverse way it is logical enough. In fact, Triffids was certainly a significant enough change from Wyndham's pre-War writing to be seen as a new departure, but its achievement was as much as a breakthrough into a new, mass market as a modification of what he had been writing since the early 'thirties. Following World War Two, however, he found himself looking for a new market. Increasingly dissatisfied by what he saw as the gadgetry and pulpish writing of the American magazines, and perhaps spurred by his brother Vivian's success in achieving publication of his light comedy thrillers, he turned to the more upmarket Colliers Magazine for "Revolt of the Triffids". It was an instant success, published in hardback by Michael Joseph and in paperback by Penguin, two publishers not known for their science fiction lines. Triffids and succeeding novels made Wyndham a household name: perhaps the first science fiction writer since H.G. Wells to become so.
The Day of the Triffids is one of the best-known science fiction novels in the English language. Filmed, televised, adapted for radio and translated into numerous languages, it reached far beyond the traditional audience for sf. The claim that it was "a modified form" reassured a mass market that this was nothing to do with skimpily-clad damsels menaced by bug-eyed monsters. It also annoyed a few sf fans who felt that their genre had been slighted. In fact, Wyndham's "modifications" were a return to the cooler, more thoughtful style of science fiction in the traditions of H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon and Sydney Fowler Wright rather than the "gosh-wow!" fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs or E.E. Smith. Wyndham's approach also reflected the concerns of a new, post-War era of Cold War and (in Britain) Imperial decline.
Triffids thrilled its readership with its picture of a world overcome by mobile, flesh-eating plants. In fact, Wyndham enriched the traditional "disaster" scenario by having his killer plants safely under control until a second change kicks in: the blinding of the human race by a meteorite shower which (it is hinted) is the result of an accident in a satellite defence system. It is also hinted that the triffids, farmed for their oil, are the result of biological manipulation behind the Iron Curtain: a scenario rich in images of paranoia. The novel soon became a bestseller and was translated into numerous languages. The Science Fiction Foundation Collection holds copies in French, German, Danish, Japanese, Hungarian, and other languages, many from Wyndham's own personal collection.
Broadcast on BBC Radio in 1957, it was filmed by Steve Sekely in 1963. Criticised now for its "men in brocolli suits" approach to special effects, it was received better at the time, with praise from John Carnell, editor of New Worlds magazine and Wyndham himself. Although the subplot involving Janette Scott and Keiron Moore stranded in a lighthouse until they discover that the triffids are vulnerable to sea water is remarkably weak, some of the early scenes of people reacting to their sudden blindness are both terrifying and moving. A superior BBC TV serial in 1981 kept more closely to the plot and introduced organically creepy triffids. The novel remains popular today: the illustrations by botanical artist Bryan Poole for the short-lived part-work Science Fiction Classics (1998) suggest a realistic biology for these walking plants.
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969) was a popular if minor science fiction writer, a reliable provider of stories to British and American magazines. As "John Beynon" or "John Beynon Harris" or any of several variants of his names, he was known in the field of science fiction during the 1930s but hardly a significant figure outside it. Attempting to rebuild his writing career after World War Two he hit upon the idea of combining two "disaster" scenarios which, together captured the unease of post-War Britain: a sudden blindness (possibly caused by the failure of a satellite defence system) resulting in the helplessness of humanity in the face of a species of biologically engineered carnivorous plants.
First published under the name "John Wyndham" as Revolt of the Triffids in Colliers Weekly, Jan 6 1951  this new novel developed a sense of unease right from the confusion of time in the first sentence - which does not appear in such uncanny form in typescript . The Archive also contains a draft of the novel in the authors hand in which the published opening appears , but much discussion between the characters concerning the nature of the new society which will arise from the old is eventually deleted from the published version.
The Day of the Triffids became one of best-known science fiction novels of all time, a Penguin book  and adapted for radio, film  and television. Although criticised today for its irrelevant sub-plot and absurd ending, it was well-reviewed in the influential New Worlds magazine  and contains a number of remarkable scenes of suspense and horror. Wyndham's "triffids" (described ) clearly struck a chord with the reading public. The novel is still in print today (it will be reissued later in the year as a Penguin Modern Classic) and the word "triffid" can still be heard in garden centres as people contemplate huge plants. Botanical illustrator Bryan Poole is one of a number of people who have speculated on what the biology of such a plant might be .
T he success of The Day of the Triffids resulted in a number of letters from appreciators of his work, asking questions about it or begging for a sequel. The Archive contains an exchange of correspondence between Wyndham and Margaret Lowe , an enthusiastic and perceptive fan of his novels who herself published stories in the magazine Science Fantasy (May 1954 and September 1957), while A. Bertram Chandler  was one of a number of science fiction writers who wrote appreciative letters. Wyndham's own letter  to film director Steve Sekely sheds light on his reaction to the 1963 film, while his exchange of correspondence with Lionel Gough of Marlborough College  is not only evidence of the attraction this "modified form of what is unhappily called 'science fiction'" had to a more middle-class audience but shows Wyndham's reluctance to write sequels. Reviews kept in Wyndham's scrap-book  - including one from the Liverpool Daily Post - show the enthusiastic reaction to what was thought by many to be a newcomer's first novel. The Day of the Triffids has been translated into numerous foreign languages [6 - 11].
John Wyndham was a new name but by no means a new author. John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was born in 1903. His father was a barrister and his mother the daughter of a Birmingham ironmaster. Following his parents' separation when he was eight, Wyndham spent three years at various schools before entering Bedales, where he remained until he was 18. Various unsuccessful attempts at a career - farming, law, advertising - followed, and he began to write for various periodicals. As John Beynon or John Beynon Harris he had published fiction in the American sf magazines since 1931. His first appearance was a slogan: the winning entry in the competition to devise a catchy phrase for the cover of Air Wonder Stories.  Wyndham's slogan ("Future Flying Fiction") was actually published in its sister magazine Wonder Stories in September 1930: the competition had come too late to revive AWS's fortunes. His first story, "Worlds to Barter" was also published in Wonder Stories  and numerous others followed. The Secret People, [3 - 4] first serialised in the magazine The Passing Show, was published in 1935, followed by another science fiction story, Stowaway to Mars, which was published as Planet Plane in 1936. Foul Play Suspected, a detective story, reflected his experiences in the advertising world.  By 1937 he was already described in a British fanzine  as "the best of our modern science fiction authors". John Beynon Harris was a well-known name to readers of the British sf magazine Tales of Wonder (1937-1942) and had two stories (under different pseudonyms) in the final issue of the short-lived Fantasy . One of these was "Child of Power", an early variant of his later use in novels like The Chrysalids or Chocky of the theme of a child with unusual powers of esp: in this case, the power to "see" radio waves. An early draft of this story bears the title "Frustrate Glimpse". 
Recent research has suggested that Plan for Chaos  (which also exists in the Archive as Fury of Creation) may have been written between 1945 and the publication of The Day of the Triffids, but it was never published. A number of highly successful novels followed Triffids. Among Wyndham's other novels were The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)  filmed as Village of the Damned in 1960, and Chocky (1968) ,  and . Both feature children with "powers". Midwich, the story of a sleepy English village where all the adult females are impregnated by an alien visitation is sometimes seen as a foreshadowing of the coming generational conflicts of the sixties. The bleakness of the Darwinian conflict between the hybrid "Children", powerful but few, and the weaker but enormously numerous human race is summed up in the dilemma: "You cannot afford not to kill us, for if you don't, you are finished. " Chocky is a more benign alien visitation, but the moral warning is still there.
Numerous unpublished and uncompleted, or later reworked, stories feature in the Archive. Much work remains to be done on them. An untitled "atom war" story  appears in several drafts. Six chapters of an unfinished novel called Midwich Main appear in the Archive . It seems that Wyndham was asked to write this in connection with a sequel to the 1960 film Village of the Damned which eventually became Children of the Damned (1963). Other unpublished material and alternative drafts exist in the Archive, including a chapter and draft outline for a novel which eventually mutated into The Chrysalids (1955)  and . Two sentences from The Chrysalids  expressed a similar deep unease with social competition as would be found in Midwich: "In loyalty to their kind, they cannot tolerate our rise. In loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction." Slightly reworded, they appear in the counter-culture rock band Jefferson Airplane's 1968 song "Crown of Creation".
Other novels include The Outward Urge (1959) - written in "collaboration" with Lucas Parkes, two more of Wyndham's string of names, and Trouble with Lichen (1960).
The Kraken Wakes was another invasion story  and  but this time from the ocean deeps. Wyndham's gift for writing verse enabled him to produce the "Xenobathite Song"  as an example of the mindless frivolity with which people may cope with conditions of utmost terror.
By the time of Wyndham's death in 1969 his essentially English, middle-class science fiction had been overtaken by the "New Wave" and a much more experimental style of writing. Yet he as much as anyone else had attempted to bring sf back towards the literary mainstream in which authors like H. G. Wells had worked. Newspaper reactions to his death , including a typescript copy of the Times obituary of March 12 1997  were saved by his brother Vivian Beynon Harris.
The Archive of Liverpool writer Eric Frank Russell contains a letter to him  from fellow sf writer Sam Youd, who as "John Christopher" is sometimes seen as Wyndham's rival and successor in the 1950s/60s disaster novel. Russell himself was the first British writer to win a "Hugo" award, presented annually by the World Science Fiction Convention in a number of categories. Russell's Hugo  (the award is named after Hugo Gernsback, who founded the first American magazine dedicated to science fiction) was for the short story "Allamagoosa", a satire on military bureaucracy published in Astounding, May 1955. 
During the War, Wyndham served as a censor and then in the Royal Corps of Signals. A collection of letters written to Grace Wilson, whom he married on her retirement from schoolteaching in 1963, survive as part of the Wyndham Archive. Beginning in 1939, on hearing the declaration of war,  and ending in 1945, they contain vivid descriptions of air-raids in wartime London and express Wyndham's emotional turmoil during the war years. In many ways, they form the transition between "John Beynon Harris" and "John Wyndham".
The selection of letters presented here offers an account of Vivian Beynon Harris's report of the bombing of Coventry , a description of an air raid while Wyndham was on firewatching duty , an encounter with bureaucracy while on firewatch  and Wyndham's despair on facing a world wrecked by war, "a cross between a preparatory school and a lunatic asylum" . Also presented are examples of the poems Wyndham wrote to Grace Wilson on occasions such as birthday and Valentine's Day  and . These very private productions - often handmade - show his love of language and his sometimes ironic and insecure sense of humour.
The size of the University's collections of science fiction depends on the definition of "science fiction". Perhaps the biggest influence on science fiction writer after H.G. Wells was the philosopher Olaf Stapledon, author of an epic future-historywhich explored social, political, and biological evolution over millions of years  and . Stapledon, whose archive is held in the Sydney Jones Library, did not see himself as a "science fiction writer". Neither, we can assume, did John Wilkins, formerly Bishop of Chester, although his 17th Century suggestion that there may be life on other worlds  is one which is central to the form. (Other such speculations, such as J. P. Joule's "The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds", a paper delivered to the Birkenhead Literary and Scientific Society in 1860) can be found in the Special Collections & Archives Department, Sydney Jones Library.) Robert Cromie's A Plunge into Space  is one of a number of fictional speculations of interplanetary travel written during the late Nineteenth century.
The first "dedicated" American magazine of science fiction was Amazing Stories edited by Hugo Gernsback, first published April 1926. Gernsback's belief that "scientifiction" was an instructive form of literature which offered "charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision" is illustrated by early issues such as the August 1927 number  which featured reprints by Wells (The War of the Worlds) and the biologist Julian Huxley ("The Tissue-Culture King": a tale of bio-engineering which influenced The Day of the Triffids). The cover of the September 1928 number  illustrates how Gernsback thought science fiction worked: fact and theory combined by the author's pen inspired by a cosmic imagination. The speculations of the French illustrator/writer Albert Robida , first published in 1882, offer an amused and amusing slant on the history of the coming century.
The importance of the Science Fiction Collections at Liverpool go beyond the book and magazine collections. Fanzines (magazines published by fans for fans) are an important part of the history of science fiction, often containing records of the early writings of its major figures. Zenith 4 (February 1942)  features the cover illustration of co-editor Harry Turner and contains the short story "The Awakening" by Arthur C. Clarke. The usefulness of his post-war idea of radio/television broadcast using satellites was confirmed when he was received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Liverpool . The "samizdat" copy of Harry Harrison's "Deathworld" novels  dates from a time when Western science fiction was hard to come by behind the Iron Curtain. It is one of a number of sf books translated, typed up and circulated by individuals or fan groups which are now part of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection. It was donated by the Moscow University Science Fiction Society as an example of these historic documents, which are part of the story of social and political dissidence in Eastern Europe.
The term "cosy catastrophe" has often been used to describe Wyndham's fiction, implying, perhaps, a kind of disaster fiction which is not too threatening, which induces anxiety rather than terror and which allows the reader to revel in end-of-the-world fantasies in which we, of course, are the survivors and can do what we want in a world open to our looting. While this is a powerful element in Wyndham, and certainly one which created his success with an audience unfamiliar with the analytical and subversive (rather than escapist) elements of science fiction, it can be stressed too much. Recent writing on Wyndham has emphasised the ambiguity of his reaction to the break-up of the established order and the sense of social and perhaps even personal estrangement in his fiction. Although much of the "New wave" science fiction of the 1960s can be seen as a reaction to an old-fashioned "middle-brow and middle-class" element with which Wyndham can be identified, with the benefit of hindsight we can see much more challenging elements which scarcely allow for a neat, happy-ever-after re-establishment of the old social order. Brian Aldiss, in Trillion Year Spree, wisely reminds us that, in The Day of the Triffids, "everything goes to pot with no possibility of a subsequent cleaning up. The map has been irrevocably changed."
As Maureen Speller suggests in her article cited below, Wyndham is a writer many of us encountered in childhood and may not have re-read since. This -- and his association with science fiction -- is perhaps one of the reasons why Wyndham has rarely received critical attention, even within the science fiction field. One of the best analyses of his work is still that by the Australian writer Owen Webster, written in 1959 but only published in a 1975 fanzine. It was not until Thomas and Alice Clareson and Rowland Wymer turned their attention to his writings in the early 1990s that a significant revaluation was begun. Now, we can see that Wyndham marks an important place between the technophiliac space opera of the 1930s and the ironical, socially-oriented science fiction of the late 1960s. He was by no means the only writer to explore these areas of anxiety, but he was one of the very few to achieve an audience outside those who knew and understood that what they were reading was "science fiction".
Following Wyndham's death in 1969 much of his pre-War sf was collected and Web -- a novel he worked on for some years before his death -- was published in 1979. Although Wyndham's reputation largely rests upon The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids, much of the rest of his work explores -- in a tone varying from whimsy to outright despair -- the social and technological changes of the society he lived in. In this (though lacking his political involvement and utopianism) he was very much in the tradition of H.G. Wells. Like Wells, he was able to develop scenarios which, though not original in idea were fresh in treatment. Brian Aldiss again, writing on Wyndham in the Dictionary of National Biography, says that "Wyndham's importance in the rebirth of British science fiction after the war of 1939 - 1945 was second to none." As a writer who linked sf with the mass mainstream of popular fiction to examine the imaginative truth of the changing world he lived in, he still has much to offer today.
For more information contact Andy Sawyer, Science Fiction Foundation Collection, University of Liverpool Library, P.O. Box 123 Liverpool L69 3DA, UK . firstname.lastname@example.org