The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

Down in the deeps…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When strange fireballs are seen crashing into the oceans, there are many theories. In the world of the Cold War, most people are convinced it’s the Russians, or maybe the Chinese, testing some new weapon. But after a while, the fireballs stop and people gradually lose interest. A few scientists go on investigating though, especially Professor Bocker, who is convinced the fireballs originated from somewhere much further away than Russia. And then strange things begin to happen in the ocean deeps…

Our narrator is Mike Watson who, along with his wife Phyllis, makes radio documentaries for the EBC – the English Broadcasting Corporation. They see some of the fireballs themselves while on a cruise for their honeymoon and by reporting on this, they find themselves in the position of being the ECB’s “experts” on the subject. The story happens in several distinct phases, covering a period of years. At first, the Watsons accompany the scientists on their initial investigations into what’s happening in the deeps, and then they become the main supporters for Professor Bocker, as he is ridiculed in the press for his suggestion that there may be aliens down there. Gradually, as man’s weapons prove ineffective, the world becomes apocalyptic and we follow the Watsons as they struggle for survival.

Mike and Phyllis are very well drawn, likeable characters and their strong, loving partnership provides much of the warmth in the book, and also a considerable amount of humour. Wyndham really does female characters exceptionally well for this period in science (or speculative) fiction – Phyllis is at least as intelligent and resilient as Mike and each is a support to the other at different points in the book. Although they do get involved in action on occasion, their role is really to observe and describe, which they do very well. However, for me, this is the book’s major weakness – for much of the time, they learn things at second hand, meaning the reader is told about events rather than being present for them; and in the latter stages when they are in survival mode, they don’t know what’s happening in the wider world and therefore nor do we. The ending, when it comes, happens off stage, with us being told about it in what amounts almost to a postscript. After such a strong start, it feels as if it ends “not with a bang, but a whimper”.


The BBC’s idea of what the Kraken may have looked like – but not mine…

The journey is enjoyable though and, being Wyndham, well and entertainingly written. Reading it so soon after reading The Day of the Triffids made it impossible for me to avoid comparisons, and that didn’t work to this one’s advantage. There isn’t the depth of themes of that one, perhaps because Triffids is about what humanity does to itself, whereas this is a more straightforward man v. aliens story.

However, Wyndham raises a couple of interesting topics along the way, which still feel very relevant today. He shows the paranoia of the Cold War period and how all threatening occurrences are automatically attributed by all sides to “the enemy” even when evidence shows the contrary. He discusses how the unknown causes a different kind of fear – how can one begin to beat an enemy when one doesn’t understand how they think or what they want, or even how they look. And going on from that, he suggests that peace is impossible between two such different species – the survival of each is dependent on it controlling all the resources of the planet, hence somehow one species has to utterly annihilate the other. That too could be read in terms of the Cold War – thankfully, the world dodged the total annihilation bullet during that one, but it was a serious fear at the time, and sadly is a fear that could very easily recur if we continue to allow power-crazed egomaniacs to have control of the nuclear button.

John Wyndham

So plenty to think about and enjoy, but the distancing from the action undoubtedly slows the pace and leads to something of a sense of detachment. Much though I enjoyed the company of Mike and Phyllis, I spent a good deal of time wishing I was with Professor Bocker and the scientists as they tried to find a solution, or even with the government as they struggled to maintain order. And while I felt the effectiveness of the aliens remaining an enigma, I longed to know what they looked like, wanted, ate – how they lived. A mixed bag for me then – I enjoyed it, but I wanted more from it than I got in the end.

* * * * *

I listened to the audiobook version with Alex Jennings narrating and he does a first-class job. He differentiates beautifully between each character, giving each a distinctive and convincing voice, and brings out all the emotion, the humour and the horror. The book has the occasional speech from the unnamed Prime Minister of the day, who was Churchill in real life, and Jennings does a great Churchill impersonation! I thoroughly enjoyed the listening experience.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

My brother and I had a heated debate over the pronunciation. Clearly, it rhymes with cake, bake and wake, no matter what he says…

44 thoughts on “The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

  1. It’s a long time since I read any Wyndham- probably forty years but in my memory I always felt that The Kraken Wakes was one of the weaker novels. My own favourite is the Crysalids which I must get round to re-reading at some point.

    • It’s years since I read them too and my general memory is of liking them all but not really remembering specifics, though I feel Chocky and Triffids were two of my favourites. I seem to be working my way back through them now without really having planned to, so hopefully I’ll get to The Chrysalids soonish…

  2. Interesting premise, FictionFan. And, as ever, it sounds as though these events are seen through the eyes of real people – and that’s what makes a story appealing. You make an interesting point, too, about the sort of paranoia that we still see today. I like it when a story touches on those themes that resonate, even years after the book was written. I don’t usually go as much for spec. fic., but this one sounds interesting.

    • Yes, even when Wyndham is writing about alien invasion he’s really looking at humanity, and that’s the kind of speculative fiction I enjoy. It’s always intriguing to see how little the world has changed in some ways – “the enemy” might change over time, but the paranoia seems to remain the same! I definitely find with both Wells and Wyndham that they’re the kind of sci-fi that is likely to appeal to people who’d usually run a mile from the genre… 🙂

    • He’s such a good writer and storyteller that his books are always a good read. I found myself being more critical of this one because I’d been so blown away by Triffids – if I hadn’t read it so recently, I’d probably have been praising this one more highly…

  3. It’s kraken – as in cake! I don’t know why I think that, but I’ve been pronouncing it that way for 50+ years and I’m not changing now.

  4. Haven’t read this one, but I feel I might come away with the same reaction you have. Most of us want to be right there when the protagonist learns/experiences something relevant, and not knowing the whole of the story must feel like a let-down. Well, glad you found parts of it enjoyable anyway.

    • Yes, I don’t think this telling a story at second-hand is ever going to have the same impact as putting the reader right there in the middle of the action. But it’s a mark of the quality of his storytelling that I still enjoyed it anyway…

  5. Hmm.. firstly I would never have rhymed that with cake so I fear I might be with your brother on this one.
    Although it didn’t compare particularly well with the Triffids it does sound like that it was certainly well worth a listen and I do like a good Churchill impression.

    • I read them mostly in my teens (back in the Dark Ages) and remembered enjoying them, but I’ve been getting much more out of them on my recent re-reads. I think back then I just read for the story, whereas now I’m more likely to understand the themes…

  6. Did your brother say Kraken rhymes with smackin’ because if he did, I’m Team Brother. Sorry!

    I was surprised you listened to this book, based on my impression of that first image, but the more I read the review, the more I realized this book is in the same general area of the Barsoom books and HG Wells, which you do enjoy!

    • No, you can’t agree with him!! What about the sisterhood??? Gender traitor!!!

      Yeah, I love the older sci-fi writers back when they didn’t feel the need to be bound by actual science! These are deeper than the Barsoom books and everybody keeps their clothes on… 😂

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