Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Secret People by John Beynon Harris (a.k.a. John Wyndham) (1935)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 15.)
"I found it interesting to re-read–particularly from around page 150 where the indications of the author's later style begin to appear; notably his characters' propensity toward continual chatter," British science fiction writer John Wyndham writes in 1964 introduction to The Secret People, an early novel written under his discarded pen name, John Beynon Harris. As self-deprecating as he might be, he's not really kidding, either. And he has the page wrong. These characters start their continual chatter well before page 150. It's a book full of ideas on loan from H.G. Wells and characters unafraid to talk about them. They're not terrible ideas, exactly even if the bulk of The Secret People involves the discovery of an underground race of tiny people who live off the meat of giant mushrooms. All those stories about gnomes, it turns out, are just distorted memories of our long-forgotten tiny cousins. The action unfolds in Africa where our hero, Mark Sunnet, has chosen to vacation in his sporty new rocket ship, "The Sun Bird." He soon begins an unexpected romance with Margaret, an alluring fellow vacationer and, wanting to spend a little time together, they decide to travel to the new artificial sea for some additional R&R.; But something goes horribly awry with the rocket and they eventually find themselves captive in an underground kingdom. He's placed in with the general population of prisoners–and in some cases, the sons and grandsons of prisoners–while she's taken aside for special worship because she carries with her a cat and the secret people's religion is somehow tied into that of the ancient Egyptians and their veneration of the cat goddess Bast. Their new situation naturally leads to confusion but it also allows them plenty of time to chat it out. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The chatter eventually wears thin, but there are some interesting ideas at play. Harris/Wyndham's secret people owe a debt to The Time Machine's Moorlocks, but they're not a straight case of devolution. Descended from Pygmies, they haven't so much degraded as evolved to suit their new environment. Even the offspring of prisoners, dubbed "natives" by the relatively new arrivals, have adapted quickly. Mark can't fathom this:
A man who had never seen sun or stars; never heard waves breaking or trees rustlingl never seen a bird, never–oh it was endless.
Or, as an American companion puts it:
Why, right now I could look at one flower for a week and still find it marvelous. I used to reckon old man Wordsworth was kind of soft; I guess I was out there. Daffodils! Just think of 'em; a bank of 'em, blowin' in the wind!
But the talk doesn't end with the philosophizing (or "philosophizin'," if you're from the States). There's also talk of how to escape. Should they dig up? Dig down? What if they're attacked? Oh, they've just been attacked. Better talk about it. Wyndham, who by the time of the book's reissue in 1964 was enjoying great success with apocalyptic science fiction thrillers like Day Of The Triffids and Village Of The Damned, refers to the book's as a "slightly period piece" in his introduction. Originally published as a serial in a publication called The Passing Show it certainly has the pulp era's "yes, I'm getting paid by the word" feel. It bears other marks of the era, too. Margaret's given a lot to do, including befriending the secret people's leader. He's refreshingly portrayed as a fairly reasonable being despite being, you know, a sub-human. They even share a conversation in which he suggests that keeping pets might be a vestige of past animal worship, a point Margaret can't fully dispute. But he ends the book dead and she spends the last act bound and graphically tortured by a traitorous Italian because, well, that's what happens. Maybe Wyndham meant "slightly" as an understatement.
Next: Tales From The White Hart, by Arthur C. Clarke
Then: Limbo, by Bernard Wolfe (this might necessitate a one-week break between entries)
And then: The Shape Of Space, by Larry Niven