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John Benyon Harris
The Early Pulp SF of John Wyndham
by G.W. Thomas

John Wyndham is known to the world of science fiction as the writer of the very best of that English disaster school started by H.G. Wells. But before there were Triffids and Chrysalids and Chocky, there were a dozen great stories written for the American pulps. In those days, Wyndham went by the name John Beynon Harris, later John Beynon or Wyndhame Parkes, all of which are derived from his real name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris.
John Benyon Harris
The earliest stories of John Beynon Harris have a delightful energy and inventiveness to them. It is only the scope of his later John Wyndham novels that have obscured his first works. These stories are well worth the hunt in paperbacks, English hard covers or the pulps themselves. Collections of interest include: The Wanderers Of Time (1973), The Sleepers Of Mars (1973), The Man From Beyond And Other Stories (1975), and Exiles On Asperus (1979).

Wyndham's first story is surprisingly mature for a beginner. Worlds To Barter (as John B. Harris in Wonder Stories, May 1931) tells of the descendants of the human race forcing modern men to trade worlds through time travel. The large-brained futurians are irresistible and send the humans forward to a time when the Sun is large and red. The story is wrapped in a frame of a man who has travelled back in time, to stop the invention of a battery that will eventually allow all the bad things to happen. This framing technique is used in several of Harris' stories.

The Lost Machine (Amazing Stories, April 1932) is a surprisingly humane look at a robot from Mars that gets stranded on Earth. The robot has many adventures before being adopted by a family of kind humans. It destroys itself rather than allowing itself to be copied by Earth scientists. This story is interesting in that the robot is kind and gentle (not the typical killing machine) in a time before Eando Binder or Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics'.

The Venus Adventure (Wonder Stories, May 1932) tells of visitors to Venus who find two races sprung from an earlier expedition. The Dingtons, except for their colouring, are exactly like Earthmen. Their enemies, the Wots, are beastly fanatics who despise technology. The explorers, teamed with the Dingtons and their native friends, the Gorlaks, destroy the Wot threat. Though action-filled fun, The Venus Adventure lacks Harris' usual logic. The Venusians know too much about the Earthmen (acting as the storyteller's mouthpiece) and the bad guys hate technology but conveniently use guns and planes. Harris explores the idea of human degeneration with the Wots, but some of his ideas are erroneous (that fanaticism could be passed on genetically instead of culturally for instance).

Exiles On Asperus (Wonder Stories Quarterly, Winter 1933) tells of a ship taking Martian prisoners to a penal asteroid. Because of an accident, the prisoners capture the ship and strand the crew. On the planetoid they discover a world ruled by intelligent bats called Batrachs. These creatures have conditioned the children of castaways to worship them and serve them. After a battle, the Batrachs show the humans that the new generation has no desire to leave the cavern cities. Harris does a great job of showing how human attitudes are made up of conditioned responses placed on them by others. The story ends with the humans defeated not by superior numbers but better psychology.

The Wanderers Of Time (Wonder Stories, March 1933) follows a group of time travellers from several different centuries that get marooned in the far future. The world is now run by insects, which control giant robot-like machines. Wyndham assembled an interested cast of humans, from the large-headed Del Two-Forty A, to the brawny, genetically altered 'numen'. The Third Vibrator (Wonder Stories, May 1933) is a cautionary tale about the arms race well before most people worried about such things. The story tells of a modern inventor whose spirit travels in time to see how the vibrator ray caused the destruction of Atlantis and Lemuria. The scientist is locked up as a lunatic when he destroys his own work - which will lead to the ray's re-discovery.

Spheres Of Hell (Wonder Stories, October 1933), called The Puff-Ball Menace in book-form, is a dry run for The Day Of The Triffids. Instead of carnivorous plants, the danger is a species of flesh-eating fungi that grows to beachball size before bursting and infecting people. The spheres were intentionally introduced to England by a foreign potentate. Harris does a good job of showing how people react to the disaster, something he would do on a larger scale in later novels.

Invisible Monsters (Wonder Stories, December 1933) aka: The Invisible Monster - is a gruesome tale of an invisible creature from Venus that is little more than mouths. The menace eats several people before being blown up by the military. The fragments of the monster all begin to grow, spreading the danger. (Harris shows his distrust of the military, a theme that will reoccur in his later novels.) Only once the creatures are covered with paint can they be stopped. It may seem to readers now that Wyndham wrote a typical 1950s' style movie plot, but he did it 20 years before drive-in theatres. The Moon Devils (Wonder Stories, April 1934) was originally a horror story that was rejected by Weird Tales, a market Wyndham never really cracked. It is ironic that the writer who could create such chills in The Day Of The Triffids was never successful in the horror genre. This story remains uncollected in any Wyndham volume.

The Man From Beyond (Wonder Stories, September 1934) aka: The Man From Earth - tells of a human, discovered by the inhabitants of Venus, who has been in suspended animation because of a gas in a mysterious valley. The man confesses how he was sent on the first mission to Venus as a saboteur. The man succeeds at killing the rest of the crew, but only then realises those who have sent him will not be rescuing him. The human warns the Venusians about his race but they tell him that the Earth has been a lifeless rock for millions of years.

The Last Lunarians (1934) tells of the first flight to the Moon, which discovers ruins and Lunarians in coffins. The moon men are revived and attack the ship. Harris has scenes worthy of Alien and other modern science fictional horror films, such as the aliens kill the Earthmen and eat them, as well as the last survivor stranded in his cabin while the Lunarians try to fly to Earth in the captured ship.

The John Beynon Harris nom-de-plume ended when Wyndham wrote his first two novels, Sub-Sahara (1935) and Planet Plane (1937), both as John Beynon. The Sleepers Of Mars (as John Beynon) is a short sequel to Planet Plane, telling what happened to the tragic Russian expedition. The stories that followed Harris' first novels begin to show the more familiar Wyndham-ish style, more characterisation, less action. The change was necessary for John Beynon Harris to become John Wyndham but these middle stories are not much to my taste. The early fiction has more energy and fun. The later novels are full-blown and often have the same excitement.

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Exiles on Asperus

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