The discovery of an author’s previously unpublished novel is often going to be something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, there is the anticipation of a potential hidden gem, on the other there is a question mark as to why the book was never published in the first place.
John Wyndham’s Plan for Chaos was written in the late 1940s/early 1950s––at much the same time as The Day of the Triffids––but was not actually published until 2009, when the University of Liverpool acquired the manuscript from the author’s archive.
In his introduction to the book, Christopher Priest makes much of the fact that Wyndham was troubled by his main protagonist––Johnny Farthing––not sounding authentically American, and this was part of the reason for the book’s original non-publication. Once raised as an issue, it is hard to read the book without looking out for this anomaly, although in truth if I had not been alerted beforehand I would never have spotted any problems.
Science fiction––or speculative fiction, which I would more categorise this work––is perhaps the most likely genre to appear dated should it be published years after its inception––60 years in the case of Plan for Chaos. But, although, there are aspects of Plan for Chaos, which read more like past than future, it is still possible to be impressed by the author’s foresight and imagination. For me, this is characterised by the fact that the three works, which I was most reminded of when reading Plan for Chaos, all appeared much after its original date of writing. These are the film version of You Only Live Twice, produced in 1967, with the idea of SPECTRE trying to destabilise the global world order by stealing spacecraft in order to set the US and Soviet Russia at odds with one another; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale of 1985, with its dystopian idea of forced propagation; and, most comparably, Ira Levin’s 1976 thriller, The Boys from Brazil, with its ideas of cloning and a resurgent Nazi state. In all instances, Wyndham was there first. And all in one book!
Having said that, I didn’t connect with Plan for Chaos in the same way that I did with The Day of the Triffids. The Day of the Triffids manages to convey its big concept on a very personal level, whereas with Plan for Chaos I always felt that I was being kept at arm’s-length; the events were never happening to me, always to someone else, and I don’t think that had anything to do with either the protagonist’s lack of American accent or the fact of it being published sixty years after it was first conceived.
Nevertheless, Plan for Chaos is still an entertaining read, although one that has echoes more of Wyndham’s early ‘pulp’ short stories than some of his more thoughtful later novels.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow is always planning for chaos.