The Outward Urge by John Wyndham

One-Sentence plot
A speculative history of five stages of space exploration, each fifty years apart, told through the eyes of five generations of the space-going Troon family.

The Outwrd Urge

The review
I have never made a secret of my love of John Wyndham. He lured me into the world of science fiction, a genre I had previously avoided with unjustified prejudice. I always love his narrative voice and measured tone, his imagination, his characters, and his compelling future-based stories. I particularly loved The Chrysalids and the Midwich Cuckoos, but to be honest I’ve enjoyed all of them. So when my lovely wife tracked down the out-of-print The Outward Urge, I leapt upon it.

To be honest, after all that excitement, I was a bit disappointed. It’s perhaps unfair to review a book I anticipated being so excellent – I feel cheated because it is only good, and hold it against The Outward Urge that it is not another Chrysalids. However, in its own right it is an interesting book. Before the first moon landing, John Wyndham was imagining not just that landing, but landings on Mars, Venus, and the Asteroid Belt. He was imagining the sociopolitical implications, the geopolitical implications, and the personal pull towards the stars – and its consequences. His ideas are ahead of their time, but it’s possible to imagine a world in which they are disturbingly, fascinatingly prophetic. There are a lot of ideas in this little book. What, in my feeling it lacks, is plot and characters. Which is a pretty damning assessment – but I’m making it sound worse than it is.

Of course there are characters – the various members of the Troon family. This book is, ostensibly, their history. But somehow, I didn’t bond with any of them. They felt a bit devoid of personality, a bit interchangeable, a bit lacking in real lives outside their space exploits, save for mentions of their children who will grow up to star in the next chapter. I wondered if it’s because each character only briefly featured in the book but no – my wife gave me Wyndham’s The Seeds of Time for Christmas. In these short stories, the characters were often quite vivid. When the punchline comes at the end of this book, I didn’t even really remember the relevant characters sufficiently to feel excited or intrigued by it.

Similarly the plot – these are five little vignettes, and were apparently published separately, with the final one added as an afterthought to pull it all together. This is quite apparent in the reading of the book. There are frustratingly insufficient links between the vignettes and the last one is therefore rendered a bit confusing – too little too late, an add on rather than a clearly planned twist. There isn’t much of a plot – it’s more a dispassionate recounting of a futuristic history. Which is not what I’d expect of this author.

That said, I love John Wyndham’s writing and imagination. I enjoyed the book. It was very interesting. It was nicely written. I just can’t forgive it for not being The Chrysalids…

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

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