THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS – John Wyndham (1951)

The Day of the TriffidsJust 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.

Recommended.

The Day Of The Triffids


Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

24 responses to “THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS – John Wyndham (1951)

  1. From my memories of reading this (sometime in the second half of the last century) you’ve captured its essence in this review and made me even more avidly want to reread it. And also his The Kraken Wakes, another global disaster in human terms (a true invasion this time) that for me evokes Cold War anxieties as much as this one did. Critics like Aldiss seem to miss or at least under-appreciate the varied emotional impacts such competent disaster narratives have. I had the same response to the first in Peter Dickinson’s The Changes Trilogy for a similar reason, the sense of breakdown or uncertainties in society which partly underscores Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (which I’m reading now) or, say, Eric Amber’s non-fantasy The Mask of Demitrios.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ambler, not Amber! #bloodypredictivetext

      Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t think of any higher praise than a fellow reader saying I have captured the essence of the text, so thank you for that.

      I’ve been surprised emotionally numerous times in the book, by unexpected turns in the narrative, and by subtle nuances Wyndham introduces, like when he describes Masen being moved more by the nostalgia that creeps over him in the quiet hours than the feeling he gets when he occasionally revisits London and surveys its ruins.

      I’ll have to look into Dickinson and Ambler and The Secret Commonwealth, all unknown to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great and thorough review, thanks for it.
    I’ve read this in 2013, and liked it, though it has its weaknesses. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/622786410

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, much appreciated! I agree, the triffids are a great marketing trick – but there’s nothing wrong with that. I do like the double predicament humanity is in. At first they don’t really play a role, and I think structurally that’s interesting, as they lurk in the back, presenting another, future threat to the reader, adding tension. It also adds another breath to the novel, in as they figure out how to live together & survive, the apocalypse party isn’t fully over.

      I also agree on their biology, their targeting the eyes seems impossible without having eyes themselves, and especially without having evolved for countless of generations to do so. But I don’t think the novel clearly states they really have a language or cooperate. All that kind of behavior we see can just be explained by the triffids reacting to sound, being drawn to it, including the sound they make themselves (possibly as a reflex), and that explains them ganging up around human settlements.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. oberon the fool

    Dang, it’s been ages since I read this one. It introduced me to Wyndham, and I went on to read a few of his other works, as well as seek out the BBC miniseries, but I can’t recall if I ever actually watched it through.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, if you don’t remember to have watched the entire miniseries, I guess it probably isn’t worth checking that out. I’ve looked into it a bit, and there are 2 BBC series: one from 1981 and one from 2009. I’m guessing you’re talking about the first one? The one from 2009 gets only 5.6 on imdb, so that’s that.

      Apparently there was also a remake of the film in the works, but around 2014 it had been in production hell for about 4 years, and then they announced that Mike Newell, the guy that directed Donnie Brasco and Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire, would direct it, but there has been no news since, so I’m guessing the project failed. To do the original narrative any justice, I think a movie is too short either way.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I never read this one, just as you I had been misled by the movie! Now I will definitely try to remedy it, so thanks for the review, Bart! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m pretty sure I saw the 1961 movie as a child, and that’s indeed part of me being mistaken on the content too. As I wrote above, I think a movie is simply too short to do the book justice, but from what I read online, the 1961 one butchered the book completely, removing a lot of important stuff. The movie has the triffids come from a meteor shower, and even removes Josella Playton, othe most important character aside from Bill.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. It’s true that Wyndham avoid the preaching tone that used to be a common element in most SF novels of the era, and I believe one of the reasons of the book’s success comes from the fact that readers can form their own opinions and judgements without “authorial intervention”. It’s a pity that such an interesting story never received a proper screen treatment….
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes that’s very, very true, I hadn’t thought about it that way, thanks for the insight!

      (The flipside is that some people don’t get the message, but I guess that’s a small price to pay.)

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank goodness for those brave men and women who hated this book and weren’t afraid to say so. I know that I rest easier at night knowing such vigilant guardians of humanity are there to pull us back from the utopian brink of “everything is awesome” that you seem intent on driving us right over.

    Shame, sir, shame on you for trying to drive us over that precipice.

    😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have you read it?

      If you think it might offend you, the (religious) morals that are challenged are mainly monogamy, and there’s no smut whatsoever in the pages.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have read it. And hated it.
        Sorry for being so cryptic with my comment 😀 I was blowing off the stress of finally getting all the travelling done and relaxing at my folks place. I was feeling good and so left a comment that was commensurate with my emotional state.

        I also didn’t know there was an “Americanized” version. I have no idea if that was the version I read or not. The edition data I have over on LT I don’t trust, mainly because I wasn’t keeping track of that type of thing (and still don’t for the most part). I am pretty sure I remember the triffids coming from russian research, so I might have gotten the original text.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, that’ll have been the original. Any specific reason you hated it? I have seen very few negative reviews, so very curious why you’d thought it bad.

          No prob with that comment, I can take it. I hope you’re fully settled by now. Is the fact that you’re at your folks place covid related, or just a summer visit?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Just vacation. taking a full week off :-

            hang on a sec and I’ll go see if I reviewed this or not. ahhh yes, back in ’11.

            Basically, I had seen the movie first and was expecting more people getting eaten. And as for a dystopia, this was just another one. I think I called it boring and said there were more exciting apocalyptic books.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I don’t have a lot of references, but I think in the early 50ies this stood out as a post-apocaliptic story, the double calamity making it more interesting than projections on just blindness, or just killer plants. In most apocalyps stories I know, it’s just one thing.

              I’m not sure I’d call it a dystopia, as a few characters actually like their life better after the event than before.

              If you expect a horror slash fest, I can understand people finding this boring. But I did think the adventure of Bill losing Josella and needing to find her again was varied and engaging. I also was interested in the various responses by various factions.

              Anyhow, enjoy your week off, I hope you and your parents will enjoy the time together. Spend it well!

              Liked by 1 person

  7. An absolute classic. One of the books I remember plucking off the school library shelf as a teenager and being completely engrossed by – which goes to show that teen readers identifying with books has nothing to do with being a “new release.” Bill waking up in the hospital to an uncanny, unnatural silence is timeless hook. I probably didn’t even realise it was from the ’50s.

    Went on to read The Kraken Wakes (my personal favourite of his, a slow burn of an apocalypse event rather than the overnight catastrophe of Triffids), The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos. All of them unique and engaging in their own way; I think he and John Christopher were the best British writers of the mid 20th-century, and certainly two of the most influential writers of my childhood.

    Re:the historical context, I think it was James Bradley who theorised that the horror of an unnatural darkness in London (whether from blindness or the electricity failing) was a subconscious trauma retained from blackouts during the Blitz.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to know those three others are all unique, thanks! That makes me want to read them all.

      Interesting remark from Bradley, but actually it is relevant to one of the things that bothered me in …The Triffids, namely that people at first couldn’t distinguish between darkness and blindness, even after hours. In most dark places, people can still see after there hours adjusted, I didn’t think that very convincing, but again, a detail.

      Like

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