Penguin £8.99

Plan for Chaos, By John Wyndham

This 'found' novel betrays its author's pulp sci-fi roots

A "found" book, one where the manuscript has been cloaked/hidden/mutilated and then miraculously discovered, usually with hopes of acclaim, is nearly always – pace the collection of Vladimir Nabokov's index cards lobbed at the world last year purporting to be The Original of Laura – a bad book. This rule goes against all our treasure-discovering, lost-works-of-genius instincts, yet it is sadly and brutally true. Or rather, it is nearly always true. John Wyndham's Plan for Chaos, written between 1948 and 1951 but only now published by Penguin, is not an extraordinary lost masterpiece, but it is fascinating.

Plan for Chaos is a bipolar, fragmented tale: mixing knowingly hard-boiled dialogue with ruminations on genetics and aerodynamic design. Johnny Farthing is the press photographer hero, who notices that identical women across the world are being killed – and that they all look very similar to his fiancée. His conventionally noir-ish thriller investigations bring him face-to-face with irrational threats and sinister identity numbers. Then, inevitably, his fiancée herself goes missing, and the book mutates into a chase across the world to a jungle lair/Nazi redoubt.

Wyndham's literary roots in pulp sci-fi short stories for the US market have never been so obvious, although this story of not-quite cloning anticipates late 20th-century technological developments to dramatic effect. Wyndham had written numerous short stories for US magazines during the 1930s and 1940s, under pseudonyms constructed by mixing variants of his real full name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. The legacy of those stories is abundantly clear in Plan for Chaos, with its combination of hard guys, wisecracking dames and crunchy beatings administered by goons. But, as is noticed in the useful introduction, all this is forced – a fact Wyndham subconsciously admits when having his central character ridiculed as a "Limey" for his inauthentic speech.

The gender politics are of their time: part of the reason that the hive-like jungle colony in Plan for Chaos becomes doomed is the urge of the Identikit women stashed there to settle down and start their own, nuclear, families, rather than riding to an atomic Gotterdämmerung with their leader. And the leader is an essay in Lady Macbeth studies plus racial-purity psychosis: "the Mother", whose name brings proleptic shades of Alien, is running a cloning programme which begins to explain the crew-cuts and blondes. But Mother is also the hero's unhinged über-Aryan aunt, previously presumed lost in the ruins of the Führer-bunker in 1945 Berlin. "Aunt Marta", as she has been incongruously known up until that point, does become more interesting, as the novel hinges upon her breakdown and defeat. From this come the best parts of writing – strangely discursive descriptions of boredom and fear that do not fit the structural architecture of the plot or wooden dialogue.

In Wyndham's other, more stylish and competent books – The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos – which were first published in the 1950s – the after-effects of the Second World War lend plausibility to his characters' activities. It is assumed that men will be au fait with small arms, be able to forage and enforce rationing – and take brutal decisions for the good of the whole. Indeed, the relish that Wyndham shows for the aesthetic of a devastated world puts him alongside other authors such as Rose Macaulay, or artists such as Graham Sutherland, with their biomorphic depictions of bomb sites and the "invasion" of nature into the city. But Plan for Chaos is perhaps most interesting for the way it shows how deeply Wyndham felt that the 1950s were a world the Nazis had made.

The hero's final escape from the jungle (featuring a superb description of airsickness in a flying saucer) leaves him and his fiancée apparently safe in Australia. But they are then repeatedly interrogated in some proto-Guantanamo corral. The reason: high-technology plans – cloning, alloys, weapons – had been smuggled out in his clothes. The clandestine history of how the West appropriated actual Nazi technology – from Werner von Braun's V2s transmogrifying into the Saturn V moonshot, to Reinhardt Gehlen's frantic re-recruitment of Nazi spies – has its imaginative corollary here. The result is slightly awkward, bogged down by its splicing of genre conventions, but horribly accurate.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen