The Secret People
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
The Secret People (1935) is a science fiction novel by John Wyndham. It is set in 1964, and features a British couple who find themselves held captive by an ancient race of pygmies dwelling beneath the Sahara desert. The novel was written under Wyndham's early pen name, John Beynon.
The Sahara is being flooded to create a new sea when the protagonist of the novel, Mark Sunnet, crashes his private rocket plane into an island of what is currently little more than a large lake. He soon finds himself and his female companion sucked into an underground cavern where they are promptly captured by mysterious pygmies.
The diet of little people is centred around large fungi; the captives speculate that stories which reached the surface of the little people and their giant mushrooms may have led to the myth of gnomes.
Sunnet finds that a tiered community has evolved in the underground caverns — the pygmies inhabiting a large underground collection of natural and artificial caverns and tunnels, and the captured humans in a deliberately isolated subsection of the caverns. He is also surprised to learn that family life exists in the caverns — "natives", children of captured humans who were born and have lived all their lives in the caverns exist, and are generally happy with their life, and have no wish to escape.
Most of the captured humans do wish to escape, and two different methods are being tried. Both are tunnels, one going up at an angle, to try and break through to the surface, and another on a level, hoping to intersect a pygmy tunnel or cavern, from where they will be able to make their way to the surface.
The pygmies are distressed, and it is Sunnet's arrival that reveals why to the captives — the pygmies fear their environment will be flooded and destroyed by the newly formed Saharan Sea. Their fear is well founded, and the waters break through into the pygmy caverns, eventually flooding the entire ecosystem. Sunnet and a handful of others survive, and finish the story being sunburned after years of subterranean life, and establishing a new company based on primitive — but unique — technology they rescued from the caverns.
Set in 1964, the novel correctly identifies Queen Elizabeth II as the reigning monarch of Britain, although when the novel was published in 1935, she was only third in the line of succession.
An early passage in the book describes the comic-military reactions of Germany (which in 1935 was under Nazi rule) towards potential violations of their airspace by the protagonist's descending rocket plane. This suggests Wyndham considered it possible that the Third Reich would survive at least another 30 years into the future; an expectation of totalitarian regime longevity that is mirrored by his similar projections of the continued existence of the Soviet Union into the 21st century in The Outward Urge.
The central premise of the novel is that the little people were once much more common but had been pushed to the fringes of the world by their larger counterparts until they were finally forced underground.
- Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 50.