I’ve been sick as two dogs. I won’t bore with the symptoms, especially since I’m now just sick as a dog, which is half-way back I guess. Anyway, one side-effect of being off work and unable to sleep properly was getting a fair bit of reading done.

James Bradley’s recent article about John Wyndham in the Australian generated a whim to pluck the nest of his bedraggled Penguins from the back of my shelf: Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chysalids. I’d read a couple of them before but this was different, a real Wyndham bender.

The end of the world always looms in Wyndham’s best books. Of course almost 60 years has passed and it is mostly his world ending, not ours anymore. Arguably this loss of immediacy has diminished the horror and tension that made these books bestsellers, but Wyndham is such a graceful and interesting writer that it hardly matters.

Almost all negative critics of his books exhibit reverse-snob prejudice against his characters – mostly tweedy, well-educated middle-class Brits (how dare he!) – or blame him for reflecting some of his era’s social mores. The dated aspect that most jumps out at me is how readily the media assist authorities in suppressing information in Kraken and Cuckoos. It wouldn’t happen today (not nohow!) but the past is another country and all that.

The Kraken Wakes and Midwich Cuckoos are superior alien invasion tales, going far beyond that simple premise in presentation and plausibility. Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids pose post-nuclear problems, albeit in totally different ways. Or to group them another way, Cuckoos and Chrysalids both concern children with impossibly advanced mental powers; in Triffids and Kraken, society faces rapid disintegration from extraterrestrial sources – a meteor shower triggering orbital nukes in the former, unseen sea monsters in the latter.

The Midwich Cuckoos filmed as Village Of The Damned (1960)

The Triffids – fictional plant-monsters so superbly realised that the word long ago entered English dictionaries – have their ‘day’ when a planetary disaster makes them fitter to survive than blinded, beleagured humanity.

The Kraken Wakes has ‘bathies’, cryptic killers who land in the oceanic abyss, possibly from Jupiter, and move to wipe us out.

The Midwich Cuckoos, famously filmed as Village of the Damned, posits alien invasion via human wombs. All kinds of ethical dilemmas arise about dealing with the lethal offspring. The motivations behind these incursions remain obscure; as for the triffids, well, they’re just doing what comes naturally – our mistake was to unwittingly create an environment they could dominate. Plot and ideas are paramount over character; the first-person protagonist in all of them could just about be the same man, and I do tend to picture them all as Wyndham himself.

John Wyndham

These three books are often condemned as ‘cosy catastrophes’  by those who consider them old hat. Apparently Brian Aldiss coined the phrase, a tasty irony now that his cod-psychedelic Barefoot In The Head is among the most dated and unreadable relics of 1960s New Wave science fiction.

Wyndham’s novels may not be high Literature but I’ve no doubt they have literary value way beyond mere thrillers. The skill with which he articulates the implications of his speculative scenarios has a sophistication evoking HG Wells.

One reason behind Wyndham’s fall from favour may be his overriding concern with the sheer ruthlessness of inter-species conflict. It’s a grim truth we can bear less now that we increasingly prefer to see Nature in benign terms, revering it as spiritual refreshment even while we despoil like never before. Largely shielded from Nature’s routine cruelties, we can afford to romanticise it as a harmonious force, but Wyndham reminds us that its essence is bloody struggle to survive.

The poster was the best thing about the 1962 Day Of The Triffids adaption

In our current social climate, any suggestion that conflict between diverse groups is inevitable risks being dismissed as a political incorrectness tinged with xenophobia. To me this is a fundamental misreading of Wyndham, however, as amoral biological conflict between species is a different theme altogether from bigoted conflict within or between human societies.

Admittedly Wyndham muddies the water a little in The Chrysalids, with his telepathic mutant children more an evolution of our kind rather than something completely different. Perhaps this is why it seems to attract more ideological debate these days than his other novels. Set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in which constant genetic mutation has prompted religious tyranny, The Chrysalids has less in common than the others and is perhaps the most thematically complex. But it is absurd to assume Wyndham approves of whatever social Darwinism some characters appear to espouse.

It’s true that most of Wyndham’s novels have village vicars and cups of tea and stiff upper lips. But these were simply realistic elements of the everyday world his scenarios collapsed. Our seat atop Nature’s table depends on the fortunate absence of a rival to match us. We act as if this luxury is guaranteed. But Wyndham’s flights of fantastic extrapolation shatter this complacency, ending all comfort and safety with deadly plausibility and urbane, page-turning flair.