Reading Plan for Chaos by John Wyndham, ed. David Ketterer and Andy Sawyer

This review was first published in Vector in 2009.

Plan For Chaos – John Wyndham, ed. David Ketterer and Andy Sawyer
Liverpool University Press, Liverpool; 2009, 268 pp. £65.00

One cannot help feeling a certain frisson of anxiety on learning that, forty years after his death, John Wyndham has published a new novel. Plan for Chaos came to light after Wyndham’s papers were acquired by the Sydney Jones Library at Liverpool University in 1998, and given the ongoing controversy over the publication of authors’ lost and suppressed manuscripts, it is a relief to learn that Wyndham would probably have been delighted to see it finally appear. When first completed, it was unsuccessfully circulated to a number of publishers, and revised at least once as a result of editorial comments, but generated little interest despite the best efforts of Frederik Pohl, Wyndham’s US agent – ‘I seem to be almost alone in my enthusiasm for it’ (13). Although Wyndham recognised that it had problems, he struggled to find the best way to revise it, and eventually returned the manuscript to his files.

Looking at the novel now, it is not difficult to see why a publisher in 1950 would demur. When Pohl proposed revising the novel himself, he diagnosed one of the main problems. ‘I suppose the entire Nazi element needs to come out’. Doubtless, people didn’t want to consider the idea of a resurgent Nazi movement formed of cloned humans as a future possibility so soon after the end of World War Two. Whether Pohl addressed what seems to me to be the other major weakness of this novel, David Ketterer’s introduction does not say, but at least one publisher noted that Part 1 would benefit from drastic cutting. There is no getting past the fact that this is a novel of two remarkably disparate halves, to the extent that when I began Part 2 I initially thought the first-person viewpoint had shifted to a different character entirely, and was startled to discover that Johnny Farthing was still telling the story. While I don’t doubt Ketterer’s belief that the two bound volumes of the manuscript do indeed form one novel, and were submitted as such, I am less convinced that they started out as a single entity.

Ketterer’s research suggests that immediately after the war, Wyndham began to rework earlier unsuccessful projects, but as his records covering the immediate post-war period are fragmentary, and the few references in Grace Wilson’s diary and Vivian Harris’s biographical notes about his brother are tantalisingly vague, it is not clear whether Wyndham created this novel from scratch, or incorporated material from another abandoned project. Either way, this is a peculiar piece of work. Wyndham, a man acutely sensitive to the demands of the market, apparently intended Plan for Chaos to be not ‘what the enthusiast classifies as science-fiction, but, I hope, more what the general public thinks s-f to be’(11). Ketterer interprets this as meaning that Wyndham wanted to write something with a broader appeal, which seems reasonable, but the comment remains enigmatic given that I suspect the general public had a very clear idea of what science fiction was, and think Wyndham wished to conceal that he was writing science fiction. Certainly, he had already commented to Pohl that if a novel’s beginning ‘were to be presented in the more familiar style of a detective-story a number of people who customarily scorn s-f might be brought to start it and trapped into going through with it’ (10).

This is what seems to be happening in part 1 of Plan for Chaos, which might charitably be described as a sub-Chandleresque thriller. Johnny Farthing, an Englishman of Swedish descent, is working in the US as a photographer for the magazine Choice. Covering a story about a young woman’s unexplained death, he notices that she looks remarkably like his fiancée, Freda. A second, similar young woman dies inexplicably and when Freda disappears, having apparently left her flat with Johnny, he discovers that, despite his exceedingly striking appearance, he also seems to have a double.

Inevitably, Johnny’s enquiries attract attention and he is picked up by the group behind the kidnap. He is not particularly surprised to find that all the women in the organisation look superficially like Freda, while all the men look rather like him. Moreover, they are all identified by numbers, and find it impossible to account for Johnny’s unnerving similarity to them. Johnny manages to assume the identity of one of the multiples, and is thus able to make his way to their headquarters before the substitution is discovered. The one surprising element of this first section of narrative is that the group he is travelling with is transported by flying saucer, although they remain within Earth’s atmosphere.

As a detective story, Part 1 of Plan for Chaos seems rather half-hearted. Although the story’s initial premise is deeply intriguing, Johnny is an observer, not an investigator. Once the organisation is in control of the action, he functions more comfortably as an observer and commentator than as a man of action, in common with many of Wyndham’s male protagonists. Detached from the action, Johnny has time to reflect on what’s happening, but lacks the ability to analyse his experience, and thus the immediate revelation of Part 2 is far more of a shock to him than seems reasonable given the evidence he already has.

Had I blind-read Part 1, I would have been hard-pressed to identify it as by John Wyndham. There are, with hindsight, certain embryonic themes that one might regard as quintessential Wyndham concerns. The identical men and women will surface again, in slightly different form, in The Midwich Cuckoos, while Freda reminds me strongly of Phyllis in The Kraken Wakes. The classic Wyndham uncertainty about the nature of women is also in place. Johnny is at times conservative in his attitudes towards women, though he is equally admiring of their independence. One is slightly surprised to find that he and Freda are engaged (though not yet married because Freda’s father is opposed because they are first cousins). Their relationship seems to be more one of companionship than one of passion.

In Part 2 the novel’s tone shifts markedly to something that is more recognisably the Wyndham of Day of the Triffids. The prose seems more measured and the emphasis is on exploration of issues than on explosive action. Johnny’s first encounter with The Mother reveals how she intends to bring countries to war through feigned attacks by other powers, after which her ‘children’ will take over and create a new Germany. She lays out her philosophy in great detail, though Johnny is somewhat sceptical of many of her claims, and revolted by others. In particular, he is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of cloning, seeing it as unnatural (and indeed he later expresses fears at the thought of a monosexual race), and he is equally uncomfortable with Freda’s calm acceptance.

Here, we meet those familiar Wyndham themes: the terrifying unknowability of women, and the struggle between Science and Nature. On the one hand, it has to be Freda who identifies The Mother’s failure to fully comprehend her children’s emotional needs. While they may believe in her cause, ‘that hasn’t stopped them at the same time wanting babies, husbands, homes of some kind.’ (175). The Mother, as Freda notes, has devised a machine with no safety valve. (At the same time, Wyndham portrays at least one man who has secretly married ‘out’ and fathered a child, so he apparently is sensitive to the idea that men might seek the same security, even if Johnny hasn’t quite figured it out.) On the other hand, while Johnny is revolted at The Mother’s manipulation of what he sees as natural processes, it is Freda who points out that his attitude would have deprived humanity of such things as safe anaesthesia.

The Mother’s solution to the lack of a safety valve – to use Johnny’s and Freda’s children as ‘new blood’ – is greeted with dismay because it will obviously take at least another generation to come to fruition. This provides the spark to ignite a rebellion; different factions wrangle over whether they should initiate The Mother’s plan, and in the confusion Johnny and Freda, along with a group of others, escape in one of the flying saucers, taking with them a vast amount of data about The Mother’s scientific work.

What finally happens to that information remains unclear, but Ketterer invites us to read Plan for Chaos as a covert prequel to Day of the Triffids, particularly as the two seem to have been written concurrently, and suggests that Wyndham’s work on Plan helped resolve difficulties he was experiencing with Triffids, in terms of establishing the technology that produces the triffids and causes the satellite malfunctions in the latter novel. Ketterer’s arguments are persuasive, ingenious even, suggesting that Wyndham perhaps planned a future history trilogy, though there seems to be little if any substantive evidence for this last thought.

Instead, we are left with Plan for Chaos, Wyndham’s orphan novel. We have no way of knowing now what kind of reaction it might have drawn had it been published in 1950. It would have been groundbreaking, but I wonder if it would have been successful. Now it is more of an historical curiosity but for anyone with a serious interest in Wyndham’s writing, it is a must-read. While Part 1 stumbles badly, Part 2 shows, quite startlingly, the moment when Wyndham became Wyndham. To that end, one can only hope that Liverpool University Press will publish this in paperback, as the hardback price puts it way out of reach of most pockets.