Tales of Despair: Wyndham’s Apocalypse

Does anyone remember John Wyndham? His post-war novels set the stage for science-fiction to come, and despite H.G. Wells‘ prescient War of the Worlds,  he is known to this day as the godfather of the disaster novel.

The influence of his seven stories of terror and disaster have been felt across time and medium, being seen in future novels and films for decades after his lifetime. In particular, his first three novels, The Day of the TriffidsThe Kraken Wakes and The Chrysalids set the stage for apocalypse and disaster, and the strength of human survival in the wake of mass disaster.

Imagine the terror of waking, blind in a hospital, to nothing. No sound, no smell, no sight. Wandering through the streets of London, and discovering that every other person in the great city is equally blind. Some run in fear; some capture the few sighted in violence. Many are dead. All civilization is crumbling around you.

Then, quietly and in the distance, the whisper of monsters approaches. Towering, flesh-eating monsters that ought never to have been released. That ought not to exist. That ought not to be able to move, for they are plants. Yet move they do, and their advantage is great, for among the blind, they sense the movement of the frightened, and strike them down. Poison, stings, death and rotting flesh. Tearing humans limb from limb.

The 2002 film 28 Days Later… pays homage to this brilliantly, with Jim awaking in a hospital to the sound of silence. Stunning scenes of entirely empty London streets reflect the confusion and fright of Bill Masen, suddenly thrust into a twisted reality from which there is no waking, no escape. The fight for dominance among the few survivors parallels the dictatorial colonies of Wyndham’s post-apocalytic vision.

Paramount to these tales is the gut-wrenching realization that there is no return to normality. The world as we know it is gone, and the primal laws of evolution rise: the survival of the fittest. The weak die; the world diminishes. Hope is forsaken, and the sole thought is to make it to the next dawn.

When I first read these stories as a child, I was terrified; I saw tendrils of barbs and poison pushing gently at my window in my nightmares, insidious and threatening. I saw movement in the bushes walking home from school, and ran past the rhododendrons in fright. I haven’t read the novel again since.

However, the most heartbreaking tale of strife remains, to me, The Chrysalids. Here, the apocalypse is long-gone, and the survivors have settled into a rural, medieval society, where preservation of the normal is the law of the bible, and the deviants are hunted down and destroyed. Deviants, however, are abundant. Some are hideously deformed; some are barely noticeable. A single extra toe is cause for banishment and death. And in this setting, a new strain of human comes into being: ones who can sense the thoughts of others. The horror of being driven out by one’s own parents dominates the mood of the story, and I cried bitter tears when David, Rosalind, Petra and the others – mere children, naive and alone in the world – are gradually discovered and hunted in violence by their own families.

Wyndham had his finger firmly on the pulse of despair and hopelessness, inspired perhaps by his horrific experiences in the war, including the storming of the Normandy beaches. Such visions are indelible, and it is possible that these novels were his catharsis; the only way he knew of exorcising these demons.

His terror, his fright and his visions of destruction have inspired generations of creative artists; the world is fortunate to have had such a bleak storyteller.

On the Nature of Selflessness

Note: Thanks to alexandracorinth for the inspiration for this post.

I want to propose a mildly radical concept. I do not believe there is such as a thing as selflessness. All humans are selfish.

Before you cry out in indignation, I want to acknowledge every selfless act you have ever done. Every time you allowed someone else to take the last chocolate truffle. Every time you didn’t buy a new pair of shoes, even though you really, really wanted them, because your boyfriend was worried about money. Every time you bit your tongue and allowed a friend to believe they convinced you of their opinion, even though you know they’re completely full of crap. Every time you’ve ever donated to charity.

I want to acknowledge your efforts in all of this, because it’s all a lie.

We are raised (at least in Western society) to believe that selflessness is the epitome of culture and manner. We serve others before we serve ourselves at dinner, and we stand to allow older folk to have a seat on the bus. Some of these things have been ingrained in our nature from a very early age, and are very nearly subconscious. Some things, however, are more difficult to reconcile; we might forego applying for a promotion at work, because our best friend also wants the same position. We might give up every friend and joy of a home town, because our spouse wanted to move to a different country. We might put ourselves in a position of danger, so that our loved ones might not be.

At the heart of all this is the notion of sacrifice. Ultimately, all acts of selflessness are the result of the deliberate abstaining of something we desire, for the sake of another person or entity. Perhaps it is an object or toy; perhaps a location or person we love. We may even make that ultimate sacrifice, and lay down our own life. The impetus behind this is the same: we are willing to give up something we desire, because we feel there is something else that is more deserving.

Yet why do we do this? Where on earth does this sense of altruism come from? Evolutionarily, it doesn’t seem to make sense; in a simplified way, the great natural law ‘survival of the fittest’ goes completely against this grain. If you have ever watched birds scrabbling for breadcrumbs, you would recognize this: not a one of them is willing to give up a tasty morsel for a compatriot. The very nature of survival presumes the endurance of the most selfish; the one who can eat the most, endure the most, procreate the most and live the longest, ensures the preservation of their genes into the subsequent generation.

Yet is this always the case? There can also be found examples in the wild of what we would call altruism; a mother cat might die in defense of her kittens. The reason here seems perhaps obvious – her genes have been passed on to the next generation, so there is now little reason for her continued survival. Would she die in favor of her mate, however? Perhaps not. Wolves in a pack might share a kill with each other, even if an individual has not filled their belly. Again, survival is at work here; wolves live by necessity in a pack, and the survival of one is inherently linked to the survival of all.

So what of human sacrifice, then? Outside of our race, there is little evidence for altruism that does not directly further an individual’s survival. Yet there are examples of people who would give up items or values of considerable cost, sometimes for the sake of complete strangers. Where does this come from?

In much the same way that a wolf must live in a pack, so must humans live in society. Our race has evolved to the point where it would be nearly inconceivable for an individual to survive without any other person at all. We rely on each other for food, for clothing and for shelter; we rely on each other equally for emotional survival – for love, friendship, and counsel. It could therefore be argued that there is a very strong human drive to ensure the survival of our people in general, even at the sacrifice of ourselves as an individual.

It is possible, even, that it is from this basis that the very concept of morals arises. What defines ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Again in evolutionary terms, ‘good’ represents survival, of either individual or society – ‘bad’ represents the opposite. Thus, killing is bad; children are good. Yet killing bad people is often be considered good; ridding society of those who would destroy it is a strong survival trait. This instinct as produced a strong reward in us; we feel good when we do good.

And so this relates to selflessness. When we sacrifice something we care for, we convince ourselves we do it for the benefit of others. Yet the subconscious is at the same time rewarding us – we feel good for our sacrifices. This in turn leads to the thought that, in fact, every decision we make is based on the outcome we believe will make us feel better about ourselves.

And therein lies to falsehood of selflessness; if each decision we make is ultimately for our emotional benefit, then could we not be considered as being ultimately selfish? Consider a simple scenario: you are at a party, and there is one last cookie on a table. You could take the cookie and eat it, because you want it, or you could leave it for another to take. Take a moment to think about what you would do; then take another to think about why. Then – take a third moment to think about your reason. If you eat the cookie, it is ultimately because your desire for the cookie outweighed your desire to be nice to others. If you leave it, the converse is true. One or the other does not make you a bad or a good person; it becomes a simple matter of choosing the path we can most easily live with the consequences of.

This is a terrible thought to consider, in a way, yet comforting at the same time. Every act of self-sacrifice we have have ever made was in fact driven by the subconscious desire to feel good about ourselves. Every act of selfishness was driven by exactly the same force. Ultimately, whatever path you choose, it will be the one that benefits you: if not corporeally, then emotionally. In this, then, there is perhaps little difference between altruism and selfishness – merely our perception of the result.

In a nutshell, you ask? Okay, here goes: don’t feel bad when you are selfish, because you are just as selfish when you are selfless. And so is everyone else. So there.