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.