Review: The Kraken Wakes
I’m discovering new authors all the time, whether they’re recent or going back many decades. Over the years I have accumulated a worrying amount of books and reached the stage where I can’t remember what I own. From a select pile of books on my bedside table I plucked John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes that Mrs B assured me would be a good read. It sounded interesting from the summary on the back but how did the novel fare?
Comparable to Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, Wyndham’s novel, though partly science fiction, conveys a vision of the world which still resonates in the present. The central characters are two journalists, Mike and Phyllis Watson, who are among the first witnesses of fireballs, descending from the sky and striking the ocean, while they’re on a honeymoon cruise. What follows is years of uncertainty as the world faces new threats to its existence, ones they must fight for survival, if only they can stop fighting amongst themselves.
The Kraken Wakes is divided into three phases and told from the perspective of Mike Watson though his wife, Phyllis, is always nearby. The fireballs that begin the world crisis cause much confusion and speculation amongst the world’s nations. Published in 1953, Wyndham would have been writing the novel at the time of the Cold War (1947 – 1991) and the novel’s depiction of a strained relationship between the West and Russia is highly appropriate. Rather than question whether the frequent fireballs are a phenomenon from outer space, the rival nations accuse each other of causing the fiery downpour and the ensuing consequences.
It soon becomes apparent that something very strange is going on in The Kraken Wakes. After the fireballs land in seemingly strategic points in the ocean – in the deepest trenches beyond easy reach – a new event rocks the world. Ships start to disappear, quickly dragged beneath the waves and never seen again. Few of their crews live to tell the tale and those that do are unable to explain what became of their vessels. The ocean becomes a forbidden zone for mankind with ships remaining close to shore rather than trying to cross long stretches, particularly the deep trenches.
With mastery of the sea seemingly taken away, mankind face an even bigger threat from the water. Beginning on an isolated island, sea tanks emerge from the waters and begin abducting people, leaving a trail of vile slime in their wake. Once again the tanks are believed to be technology originating in Russia and only the outspoken Bocker, a regular character in the novel, seems to be the one trying to logically explain what is going on, though his ideas are dismissed as folly.
Though the fireballs had me intrigued from the start the novel improves greatly with the disappearing ships and the mysterious appearance of the sea tanks. Seemingly impossible to stop, they abduct people without mercy before disappearing quickly beneath the waves. They are never described in great detail so the mystery of what they are and where they come from continues into the latter stages of the novel. The concluding segment is the best of all with the sea tank assaults becoming less frequent but in their place the ocean rises and wipes out the majority of the world population. The idea of the government in Westminster having to relocate to Harrogate, Yorkshire, made me smile but this section also reflects the brutality of a population on the brink of death and fighting one another for the last scraps of food.
Though The Kraken Wakes does delve into science fiction the idea of the ocean rising and putting the world population under threat is not farfetched. The pressure on the Ice Caps, flooding in recent years in New Orleans and now Pakistan, and the ongoing debate about global warming made the latter stages of Wyndham’s book a frightening prospect indeed. The ending feels a bit rushed and the conclusion more a passing reference than a detailed explanation but it still works well, particularly in leaving the final outcome for the world on a knife edge.
Mrs B is a good judge of books and I’m pleased to say she was not wrong in recommending The Kraken Wakes. It builds slowly during phase one but once the sea tanks emerge from the ocean it becomes a gripping read. The final moments where the world has flooded is hard-hitting but completely apt when faced with our own reality. Written over 50 years ago, The Kraken Wakes is a brilliant depiction of a world crisis and the impractical way mankind responds to such a threat.
(Book source: reviewer’s own copy)