Just as I was mistaken about the content of Solaris, I had the wrong impression about John Wyndham’s classic post-apocalyptic novel as well. The title is responsible for that misconception, as The Day of the Triffids is not about triffids. Obviously aggressive & carnivorous mobile plants do play a part, but they are a sideshow. This is not the simple, verdant horror of the 1962 movie. Instead, the overall story deals with the social fall-out of another catastrophe altogether: an event in the beginning of the story that blinds nearly all humans.
The book is told by Bill Masen, who wakes up in a London hospital and discovers the vast majority of other people lost their sight overnight. A similar hospital opening was used in Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie film 28 Days Later… – and again in The Walking Dead. Boyle has acknowledged The Day of the Triffids as an inspiration, and his movie indeed has much more in common with the novel than that opening scene. It goes to show how influential Wyndham’s book has become, a huge commercial success when published, widely read by non-genre readers too.
Commercial success doesn’t imply quality, but I have to say: of all the early 60ies and 50ies science fiction I have read, this might very well be the title that feels the least dated – and that does say something about quality.
Not that its age doesn’t show at all. The book’s historical context informed its writing: Wyndham’s angst for nuclear catastrophe looms throughout the narrative, and also tensions with the USSR play a minor part. Wyndham partook in World War 2 – although how much of the fighting he has seen is unclear, serving as a cipher operator in the Normandy landings, “landing a few days after D-Day.”
Whatever Wyndham’s soldier status, there is an amount of carnage & corpses in The Day of the Triffids – although generally subdued, and mainly visible out of the corner of the eye. Death might not be the focus of the book, Wyndham nevertheless manages to evoke its terror, precisely by understating the human costs: Mason digs a grave only once, “a very small one”, for a 4-year old boy.
Not a horror story, and not really about a battle with strange green creatures, what then is the focus of this book? Seminal science fiction influencer David Pringle missed the mark big time, when he wrote “it would be a mistake to stress the ‘moral’ in what is first and foremost an exciting escapist romp.”
Yes, it is an exciting adventure story, but it is only so successful because Wyndham grounds it in convincing moral choices and nuanced emotions. Bill Mason encounters very different reactions to what’s happening, including those of himself, and it is this social kaleidoscope that keeps the book relevant today. Wyndham doesn’t explicitly take sides, but religious bigotry and militarism do take flak, and his protagonists seem to favor a realistic morality over traditions that are dead anyway: “it was easy to mistake habit and custom for the natural law”. They opt for a pragmatic, long-term survival strategy, but one without coercion or violence against those who have a different opinion.
Much has been written about the strong female characters in this book. The second protagonist, 24-year old Josella Playton, wrote a book called Sex is My Adventure. This is not a cheap shot from Wyndham – Josella’s relationship to the book’s success is nuanced and interesting – and again it showcases Wyndham’s rather progressive mind.
Bill Mason himself doesn’t arrive on the scene fully morally formed. His first moral act is quite despicable – leaving the blind patients in the hospital to their oblivious selves – and throughout the book he doubts and searches. He never becomes a righteous hero, but nevertheless gains almost beatific adoration of Josella near the end – maybe the one blemish on the book’s feminist achievement.
The reason David Pringle stressed escapism over the morals probably is the fact that Wyndham never preaches. Even though there are quite a lot of explicit meditations on society & morality, he leaves things in the middle, asking questions rather than giving answers.
Similarly, it is never fully explained how the triffids originated, or what exactly was the “freak cosmic event” that rendered most humans blind. The American edition of the book was rewritten by its editors, maiming the book beyond recognition, as they have the triffids originate from Venus – and not the result of Lysenkoan engineering by the Russians as was suggested originally. They also removed some of the parts that hint at the fact that the blinding meteor shower might also have been man made. In the original edition Bill Mason is actually pretty sure of that, by the way.
As such, the American edition misses a very important subtext: the peril humanity is in because of its own actions. Be it nuclear threat back in the fifties, or a global pandemic that partly results from humans overcrowding nature at this very moment, that subtext keeps The Day of the Triffids highly relevant today. And just as a character is glad most of humanity went blind as that saved the planet from nuclear obliteration, today, I’ve seen quite a few people write about the good of COVID-19, thinking the lock-down experiences will reset society on a more sustainable course. That seems wishful thinking to me, but you’re here for a review of a 1950ies book, not an op-ed on current world affairs.
Anyhow, The Day of the Triffids is not fully without fault. Some people commit suicide a bit too easily, the triffid biology is farfetched, and early antagonist Wilfred Coker is forgiven in a blink – but that are details. The book’s major issue is a common one: our main character simply is too lucky. He is immune to triffid poison, rescues a pretty, smart girl, they fall in love, and after quite a lot of adversary, against all odds, they live happily ever after. As such, I can see why Brain Aldiss called this a “cosy catastrophe”. Aldiss saw the magic in this book nevertheless, but, like Pringle, misses its riches, and bafflingly claimed the novel is “totally devoid of ideas”.
That might just be the main take away for me: however you approach it, and even if you underestimate its intellectual content, it seems almost everybody loves this book. That should not surprise, given that its pacing and construction is superb, and the prose supple.
After his work in the late 1920ies and 30ies – writing 2 detective novels and 2 science fiction books and some 30 short stories – it seems that only after the war John Wyndham Harris found his true voice. I will read more of him, and I’ve added The Midwich Chronicles to my ever growing TBR.