Title: The Seeds of Time
Author: John Wyndham
Published: 1966, Penguin (Originally published 1956)
A colleague left this book on my desk a few weeks ago. At the time I was just finishing off a couple of other books so I thought I’d give it a try. This was my first time reading any John Wyndham and I thought a selection of his short stories might be a good introduction, but now that I’ve finished it I think I’d hesitate to recommend this as a starting point. I think I will eventually get round to reading some of his more famous novels but I’ll probably steer clear of any more of his short fiction for the time being.
The book comprises ten short stories which had previously been published elsewhere between 1941 and 1955. As the title suggests, one of the main themes which weaves between the tales is that of time, or perhaps more specifically the unreliability of time and the possibilities of time-travel, but other themes are in play here also – racism, sexism, science against nature, the perils of technology, and isolation. It feels a little unfair to state that each story is essentially an expanded essay based on one or two speculative questions, but that’s how it felt to me. That’s not to say that this is necessarily a bad point in itself, but it often felt like the stories were nothing more than attempts to answer these questions in as “sci-fi” a way as possible. In all fairness though, this collection really does feel of its time – and it didn’t strictly feel like true “science fiction” as we know it today. It perhaps just feels a little weak when compared with other sci-fi writers of the 1940s and 1950s.
One major gripe I have with this book is the mostly disappointing conclusions to the stories. Generally when I read a book (and especially when I read collections of short fiction), I focus on not worrying so much about the explanation or the outcome of the tale, I just try to absorb the text as presented. However, with this book, I felt as though I was helpless to avoid thinking about the ending, as so much of the collection is presented as: “Things are not what they seem – just what is happening?!”. It often felt like Wyndham had considered and developed endings to a loosely scientific questions, and simply filled in the spaces in between with exposition and dialogue of varying quality. At best, the stories’ conclusions are heavy-handed and arguably unnecessary, and at worst, the story simply trails off with no real closure or climax.
Other reviews state that a quite a few of the stories here are comedic in tone. Maybe I’m just not perceptive enough, or perhaps the humour was just too dry, but I didn’t find any story particularly funny. My loss, I suppose…?
Writing this feels unfair as I know Wyndham is a well-respected author in his own right, but what I experienced with this book is something I don’t normally experience with short fiction collections, i.e. frequent disappointment at the majority of the stories, and a reluctance to progress to the next.
That said, there were a couple of stories that seemed to be of a higher quality to the rest:
This story contains a fairly typical sci-fi premise, in which a rocket ship malfunctions, forcing the crew and passengers to survive on the ship’s cargo. There is a lot of sexist rhetoric here, but it’s hard to tell if that’s Wyndham playing with the theme or whether he’s trying to accurately record attitudes of the 1950s. Wyndham includes themes of celebrity, fame and the power of the media here to good effect, though ultimately I wished that these ideas were fleshed out a little more. As with many of the other stories here, the ending was disappointing in its presentation. I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say that as the reader reaches the end of the story, the chilling conclusion starts to become more clear. Wyndham then, in my opinion, destroys this mystique by clearly outlining the explanation with a few lines of unnecessary dialogue.
Pillar to Post (1951)
This was probably my favourite story from the collection, and one which strays furthest from the style of the other tales collected here. An amputee opium addict has an out-of-body experience and finds himself in a strange foreign land in a new, healthy body. It’s revealed that this is the result of some strange time-travel/body-hopping that is partially explained by Wyndham, but not so much that it strays towards sci-fi techno-nonsense. I found this story to be more unsettling than the others, especially considering the presentation of the languid yet advanced future civilisation, and the grim suggestion of eugenics and genetic oppression. In many ways it reminded me of that almost-sub-genre used by authors like Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft and others – in that the bulk of the story concerns a completely alien but strangely familiar landscape, that seemingly exists out of our space and time (I’m thinking here of things like Bierce’s An Inhabitant of Carcosa). I think I would be interested in reading more of this kind of stuff by Wyndham, if there is any.
Wild Flower (1955)
This is the last story in the collection and after looking at reviews elsewhere online, it seems as though this is generally one of the less popular tales of the collection. However, I really enjoyed the brevity and how indistinct some of the details were here (it also probably helped that it was the last tale in what was otherwise a bit of a slog of a book). The story concerns a schoolteacher who seemingly has a deep distrust of technology and science. One morning, one of her students fetches the teacher a strange but beautiful flower from a nearby crash site, which piques the teacher’s interest. The suggestion here is that the flower is potentially from an extraterrestrial source, though Wyndham does not speculate on the possibilities of such an artifact – it’s left to the reader to ruminate. I can see how maybe this would irritate some readers, but for me the ending held a decent balance of suggestion and mystery.
As I’ve written, the other stories really didn’t do much for me, but there were two stores in particular that I felt were very poor: Meteor (1941) and Chronoclasm (1953). These two stories were supposedly the most “comic” of all in the collection, but to me they just felt bland and ineffective.