Sunday 19 June 2016

The Kraken Wakes by Wyndham and McDermid

I've always enjoyed and admired the minatory science fiction of John Wyndham, particularly The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos. But I never read The Kraken Wakes. 

The Kraken is a mythical sea monster, a kind of giant squid, and I always assumed this is what Wyndham's book was about. Which is one reason I never got around to it. The giant squid notion just didn't appeal. But the title is misleading. It's basically a poetic parallel.

The Kraken Wakes is actually about aliens who send space craft into the deepest parts of the Earth's oceans, where their unseen activity eventually gives rise to lethal battle vehicles — "tanks" — which crawl onshore and begin to obliterate humanity.

But more than that, the aliens (dubbed "xenobaths") initiate a deadly climate war against the human race by melting the ice caps. Sea levels begin to rise, like global warming turned up to eleven.

I know all this only because of the superb Radio 4 adaptation of Wyndham's book, sharply scripted by the bestselling Scottish crime writer Val McDermid. This is a really wonderful piece of radio drama with outstanding music by Alan Edward Williams, played by the BBC Philharmonic live during the recording. 

Williams's music deliberately evokes the great scary science fiction classics of the 1950s, such as Bernard Herrmann's The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it adds immeasurably to the impact of this production.

This is a genuinely frightening portrait of what happens to the human race when the seas rise. I had no idea, for instance, that we would lose almost all of the land we need for growing crops. Or that rising sea water would ignite dormant volcanoes which would shroud the planet in a deadly ash cloud.

Chilling, thought provoking, wonderful stuff. Listen while you can — I'm not talking about doomsday here — the BBC radio production is only available for a week! After that, like me, you will need to check out Wyndham's original novel.

(Image credits: The somewhat misleading image of the attacked ocean liner is from the Radio 4 Twitter feed. The more accurate depiction is from Skull in the Stars. The main illustration is from another Twitter link. The cover with the alternate title is from a very useful post by Gotterdammerung, which shows I was not alone in being confused by the Kraken title. )


  1. Good old Wyndham... 'Kraken' is a good one, a leisurely catastrophe. Was this a new version? There's an adaption on Youtube that was enjoyable.

  2. Hey Al, apologies for a belated reply. Yup, this was a brand new version. And terrific.