John Wyndham – The Kraken Wakes (1953) Review


Sequel to The Kraken Snoozes, followed by The Kraken Needs a Cup of Coffee and The Kraken Defrosts His Car. Ok, enough of that.

This is an alien invasion story, very much in the tradition of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898). One day, huge fireballs start falling into the oceans all over the world. It takes a while for humanity to catch up with what is happening and rumours of flying saucers are all over the place, but the world slowly realises that something from outer space is plunging into the deep trenches of the world and we are caught with our pants down. We don’t know what they are or what their intent is. The US and USSR blame each other. Soon, ships all over the world begin sinking. This is phase one.

Yes, the novel is structured into three big chapters titled Phase One, Phase Two and Phase Three, that represent escalations of the invasion. Like War of the Worlds and like many Hollywood disaster movies, it slowly escalates the danger and tension. I like this story structure very much; it is simple but effective. Wyndham holds his cards close and slowly puts them on the table. There are some genuinely creepy and scary scenes in here, and yet he never shows us the aliens. The covers are misleading. You see, the original title was Out of the Deeps, and only with the title change did squids began to appear on the covers, but there are no real krakens here. They remain this unknown factor in the sunless black depths of the oceans, and the unknown is scary.

Wyndham in a sense updates the War of the Worlds tale to the Cold War era suspicions. His protagonists are two journalists who keep their finger on the pulse of public opinion and international affairs as this whole crisis unfolds. He has them track how all the fireballs from heaven and deep-sea conflicts cause a huge kerfuffle where people refuse to believe what is going on, start following conspiracies, distrust leaders, think humans are more to blame than any supposed aliens, and lose interest again as if it was all a joke. While humanity loses itself in bilateral arguing, bureaucracy and panic buying of toilet paper, the aliens start mining in the deep trenches. In H.G. Wells’ story, it all seemed so straightforward. It would be funny if it wasn’t so recognisable. 

What makes this novel distinctly Wyndham is that the two protagonists are a husband and wife, Mike and Phyllis Watson, and their downbeat, stiff upper lip conversations are hilarious. The perky Phyllis is actually the one with the writing talent and charm, and Mike coasts along on her success. Most of the novel is filled with the goodnatured banter of this married couple, giving this invasion novel a “cozy catastrophe” tone.

Phase two. The harvesting. I won’t spoil what else happens in the book. There are some chilling scenes, but in general I found the narrative a bit slow. There is a lull in the middle part in which humanity loses interest in sinking boats and hasn’t fully accepted the aliens-are-here theory. I found this very realistic and surprising to see this happen in an invasion story and that makes it interesting, but if you’re waiting for all that invasion action, it is a bit tedious. At times, Wyndham seems more interested in the journalism side of things than in the alien invasion side, and possibly grabbed the invasion idea for a treatise on half-truths, lies and propaganda in journalism. Around the halfway point, excitement picks up again, but the story never turns into an action-packed story the way Wells wrote it and towards the end it turned into a bit of a slog for me.

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18 Responses to John Wyndham – The Kraken Wakes (1953) Review

  1. Dawie says:

    It seems like these days people use leviathan over Kraken like they want to be smart arses or something… Leviathan this leviathan that… Still you got a pretty cool review here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bookstooge says:

    I read this in a collection. Wyndham has never impressed me and this didn’t change my mind.
    The ending was way to “happy’ w everything that came before.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It does sound like the structure is straightforward but something about the execution feels off, as if the author didn’t want to only build up tension and danger but also wanted to criticize and slow things down. Glad to read it wasn’t all bad for you in the end though. Thanks for sharing, Jeroen!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that you mention it, that is a strange thing about this book. Well spotted, Lashaan! I liked this book intellectually, but emotionally I was quite done with it before the end was in sight.


  4. The start of your review is one of the most hilarious introductions I came across! 😀
    Back to more serious matters… I remember reading this long ago so details are somewhat hazy, but from your description I wonder if the reader I am today would enjoy this story or be bored by the endless discussions.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. bormgans says:

    Funny, I bought this 2 months ago, based on the strength of Triffids. It will be interesting to compare notes.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Paul Connelly says:

    Just as in The Midwich Cuckoos, Wyndham has the older know-it-all character who is right when everybody else is wrong, Prof. Bocker. That seemed to be a popular trope for the time these novels appeared. Heinlein had his “wise old man” character spouting off Heinlein opinions in many of his novels, Jubal Harshaw being the most annoying example. I think Aldous Huxley was also guilty of this, and John Brunner had variants in some of his novels (Austin Train in The Sheep Look Up, for instance). The lone scientist or academic who remains clear-sighted when everyone else is on a delusional bandwagon has somewhat fallen out of favor in fiction these days.

    Liked by 1 person

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