Miching mallecho

Cover art from UFO Journal June 1950
Cover art from UFO Journal (June 1950)

John Wyndham Plan for Chaos
Edited by David Ketterer and Andy Sawyer
Penguin Books 2010 (2009)

Here is a curiosity: a novel by the author of The Day of the Triffids, written around the same time (1948 to 1951) but abandoned, only to see the light of day around sixty years later when it’s finally published. It’s not difficult to see why Wyndham gave up on it — its compound of different genres, disparate themes and mangled speech patterns make for awkward reading — and yet it’s an interesting experiment which, given radical tweaking, could have been made to work.

The basic set-up is that supporters of the Nazi cause have survived into the 1970s, somewhere in South America we deduce, where they have built a secret underground complex. Here their clandestine wartime experiments for perpetuating a master race have resulted in the successful breeding of human clones; all that is required is to fool the superpowers into annihilating each other with atomic bombs — the chaos of the novel’s title — after which the new Germans will re-populate the earth. Their technicians have also developed flying saucer technology and cloaking devices, causing international consternation and confusion in a world unaware of their existence.

Into this massive conspiracy stumbles Johnny Farthing, an American magazine photographer with a mixed British and Swedish background. He discovers that a number of women who’ve died in suspicious circumstances all appear to have similar facial features and, most worryingly of all, they all resemble his cousin Freda, who is also his fiancée. (The cover of the Penguin edition alludes to this coincidence with its illustration of a blonde seen full-face, her profile shown twice over in her hair-do’s contours rather like the reverse of a Rubin Vase optical illusion.) As he investigates further he finds that he too is being mistaken for somebody else; and then Freda herself disappears. So far this reads like a plot for a detective thriller, but at the point when Johnny himself is taken prisoner Plan for Chaos enters science fiction territory.

There are many ideas milling around, a lot of them typical of the postwar period but also with some relevance now. Cloning of course was a feature of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), here adapted to Nazi ideologies and examined for some of its practical implications. As for UFOs, the fact that the Nazis had really been developing new aircraft technology, combined with the worldwide explosion of ‘sightings’ of saucer-shaped flying objects after Kenneth Arnold reported his own observations in June 1947 — the year before Wyndham began this novel — soon generated postwar speculation that the two were somehow linked, speculation that continues even to this day.

Kenneth Arnold's diagrams of the supersonic flying objects he saw in 1947
Kenneth Arnold’s diagrams of the supersonic flying objects he saw in 1947

It also mayn’t be a coincidence that Wyndham began his dystopian novel about the planned resurgence of a rightwing tyranny in the same year in which that archetypal modern satire, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, was published. The description of the Big Brother party — uninterested in the good of others but interested solely in power for its own sake — applies equally to the group that Farthing encounters hidden in the South American jungle; but instead of Big Brother we encounter The Mother. As the narrator soon observes, she is a human equivalent — with all that this implies — of the hive’s queen bee or the queen in an underground termite mound, surrounded and serviced by myriads of workers and soldiers.

The editors’ note and the introduction by novelist Christopher Priest give the background to this novel’s gestation and stillbirth, making clear the difficulties the author had, especially with tone — the Englishman wrote it with the American market in mind, and tried unsuccessfully to jump through several hoops to get his hero’s phraseology right. Too often the novel even takes on the guise of a polemical tract before shying away with a wisecrack from the narrator.

The anticlimactic ending (the last chapter is headed “Finality?” with a question mark) to me reinforces the ambivalent feelings he had about the novel’s conclusion. Wyndham’s chapter headings and epigraphs are mostly from Shakespeare — perhaps a nod to Brave New World, which used Miranda’s words in The Tempest for its title besides citing other Shakespeare plays — but the way the plot fizzles out seems to suggest to me that this use of quotations was no substitute for a convincing structure. Still, as a portrait of mischief on a grand scale — Hamlet’s ‘miching mallecho’ — it does its job well.

Plan for Chaos is clearly no masterpiece, flawed or otherwise, but just occasionally there are inklings of what it could have become, given time and a lot of redrafting. Sometimes the action pushes along at a fair lick, and one may imagine that its filmic qualities and possibilities could encourage some enlightened producer to adapt it for the screen, a process that would curtail its longeurs and maybe even turn its narrator into a halfway convincing protagonist. As it now stands though it’s imperfect, however pregnant with possibilities.

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11 thoughts on “Miching mallecho

  1. Not sure about this publishing barely finished MS’s years after the author’s death. There are reasons he didn’t finish it and you’ve explained them very clearly. Can’t imagine how irritated I’d feel if someone took a half finished story of mine and published it.

    Any how, some interesting ideas in here, as you say, that could be worked up into a sci fi movie – probably staring Tom Cruise!

    I remember thinking Triffids was really good when I read it a few years ago — I liked Wyndham’s style very much.

    Thanks for the great review, Chris

    1. It was first published by Liverpool University Press, presumably with a plethora of notes and a cornucopia of bibliographic details, so I guess Penguin thought it would be a good idea to republish it in a uniform edition with all the other Wyndham titles it has issued. I’m grateful, anyway, otherwise I could have easily assumed he’d sprung fully formed into consummate author mode!

      I enjoyed The Kraken Wakes too, another faux documentary alien conquest novel like The Day of the Triffids which I also enjoyed as much as you, Lynn. I’ve also got for rereading Jizzle, a short story collection I haven’t looked at since the 70s I think, and which I’ve hung onto all this time for just such an occasion!

      1. I’m sure I tried to read The Kraken Wakes as a teen – not sure I finished it though. And you’re right – it’s heartening to see authors’ early works and know that even the best had their faults. Very encouraging to those of us struggling up the ladder in hope of reaching publication one day 🙂

        1. I suspect that, once he’d got into his stride and found his audience, he wasn’t tempted to revisit and recast this; it was of its time, certainly, but what with the current trend for nostalgia (all those Le Carre spy films) and classic novels retro-engineered as films set in contemporary or near-future times (War of the Worlds and I, Robot spring to mind) I’d imagine this’d work well re-cast for a new audience in a new medium. Good luck on the sometimes slippery rungs of that ladder, Lynn!

          1. Thanks, yes – slippery indeed. Just when you’ve climbed a couple of rungs you slide right back down again 🙂 Yes, always room for another Le Carre – thought the Tinker Tailor film a few years ago was excellent, though it sounds like they ‘sexed’ up the Night Manager a bit. And Philip K Dick’s back catalogue is always under revision. I hadn’t even realised he’d written that many books! My favourite was a few years ago though and that was I am Legend – not really for the OTT Will Smith film adaptation, but because seeing it led me to discover Richard Matheson and the original – fantastic – book. A very different and far superior beast.

            1. Didn’t get round to The Night Watchman unfortunately though I know it was highly rated. Adaptations are always a mixed blessing, aren’t they?

            2. It was gripping, very enjoyable and high budget but not perfect, especially when it came to consistency of character. So, yes – a mixed blessing.

    1. I rather preferred this to the very many ‘Nazi UFO’ photos that are ‘out there’ but which aren’t referenced at all, leading me to think some of them may be mocked up. I agree, said farmboy seems unexcited by its appearance!

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