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By Anna Sikora, Gale Ambassador at NUI Galway
Anna Sikora is a tutor, part-time teacher, and final year PhD student in the Discipline of English, National University of Galway, Ireland. She is examining the works of John Wyndham, author of over 60 short stories and 12 novels, including the famous The Day of The Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). Anna is interested to see when and why science fiction authors began to show an awareness of environmental issues, and how this was demonstrated in their work. She is adopting some of the concepts of environmental criticism (ecocriticism) to ask how environmental concerns are articulated in fiction, and whether literature can, and should, influence our daily environmental choices or the ways in which we interact with the environment.
The Science Fiction American-Canadian author Judith Merril (1923–1997) wrote her short story “That Only a Mother” (1948) about widespread infantile mutations after reading an article dispelling the rumours of infanticide in Japan after the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings. Later, in an interview, Merril recalls how this short newspaper piece caused her mind to race, and her initial reaction was “Oh my God. […] There are mutations by the millions and people are killing the babies” (What If? A Film about Judith Merril). Merril’s reaction is fascinating as it shows how authors transform everyday reality into literary fiction, and not necessarily just science fiction. The double lesson we immediately draw (or at least should draw!) here as students, critics, tutors and lecturers of literature is this: yes, literary stories are often inspired by real events or people; and no, literary text are not historical documents.
A quick search through Gale Primary Sources reveals another set of interesting connections between reality and fiction, this time in the work of the Science Fiction author John Wyndham (1903-1969). Wyndham’s short story “A Life Postponed” published in December 1968 is a tale of a couple who literarily postpone their lives through hibernation. Wyndham was an avid newspaper reader and articles such as the two presented below most likely did not escape his attention. The first one, published in The Times in 1967 and titled “Body In Ice Waits For Cancer Cure”, describes the first ever cryonics experiment in which Dr James Bedford was frozen in liquid nitrogen after being proclaimed clinically dead.
A similar article titled “US corpse frozen for rebirth” follows in August 1968, and here we learn that the Cryonics Society, representing “the weirdest American way of death,” has now performed several more of these procedures, and this time, the body of a 24 year old student was frozen.
The latter trial failed in 1974, as we learn from the website of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, an organisation who took over the early experiments, but the corpse of Dr Bedford still awaits better days in one of the cryonic capsules at Alcor.
In his most famous novel The Day of The Triffds (1951), Wyndham examines what would happen to our civilisation if carnivorous plants took over the world. “Triffids”, wrote Wyndham in his novel, were an “outcome of a series of ingenious biological meddlings” (Wyndham, 27), but in real life the Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko had, by 1951 and with the blessing of Stalin, meddled with plants for over two decades. A number of articles appeared in the Western press between 1941 and 1950 on Lysenko’s research on the heritability of acquired characteristics, such as the one below, titled “Soviet Biology” published in 1948.
Triffids are hybrids; plants that can walk and talk, and the article “Botanical Congress In Stockholm” published in 1950 in The Times hints that the Soviets modified various species to deliver to the population some sort of a GMO (genetically modified organism), a graft hybrid.
Wyndham revisits Lysenkoism in “It’s a Wise Child” (1962), a short story that centres on the ideas proclaimed by Soviet Russia’s leading scientist. A search in Gale Primary Sources for Lysenko after 1951 delivers numerous articles, some of which were most likely read by Wyndham. The Term Clusters tool, as shown below, allows us to view the results from an angle of particular interest.
In the novel Web (posthumously published in 1979), Wyndham writes about mutated spiders that weave a glowing web on an abandoned and radioactive island in the Bikini Atoll. A search for “nuclear tests in the Pacific” between 1950 and 1969 (the year of the author’s death) yields 56 results from the Gale Historical Newspapers available at my institution, mostly from The Times, with many pointing to the long-lasting effects of the tests. One such article titled “Biological Effects Of Radiation” describes in detail the grave consequences of the radiation.
Quite possibly, the article above provided the fertile mind of Mr Wyndham with the necessary inspiration for his novel.
FROM A CORRESPONDENT. “Botanical Congress In Stockholm.” Times, 20 July 1950, p. 5. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5Xk6m5. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
From A Special Corresdondent. “Soviet Biology.” Times, 6 Nov. 1948, p. 5. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5Xk6i0. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT. “Body In ICE Waits For Cancer Cure.” Times, 20 Jan. 1967, p. 8. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5XgHo4. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017
IRONS, EVELYN. “U S corpse frozen for rebirth.” Times, 2 Aug. 1968, p. 5. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5XgLi9. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
OWN, OUR. “Biological Effects Of Radiation.” Times, 6 July 1956, p. 7. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5XuTN6. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
Perry, Michael, R. “Suspension Failures: Lessons from early years” . Alcor Life Extension Foundation. http://www.alcor.org/Library/html/suspensionfailures.html
What If? A Film about Judith Merril. full-length documentary. Writer/director: Helene Klodawsky. Producer: Imageries, Montreal. 1999
Wyndham, John. The Day of the Triffids. 1951. London: Penguin Group Ltd, 2008. Print.
Blog post cover image citation: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dayofthetriffids.jpg
By Joseph Smith (see The Day of the Triffids (Allied Artists, 1962). Joseph Smith Original Movie Poster Art (22″ X 27.25″). Heritage Auctions (November 30, 2012). Archived from the original on 2015-09-27. This artwork has also been attributed to Reynold Brown. Brown’s own records indicate that he worked on the campaign for Day of the Triffids: Movie Campaigns, A Listing. Retrieved on 2013-03-12. The narrative accompanying the sale of the original artwork in 2012 by Heritage Auctions looks to be conclusive, and supports the attribution to Smith. It is possible that Brown contributed to the final poster design. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons