The book is set in the aftermath of a meteor storm that left everyone who witnessed it blind. As the story begins, the sighted are only few and the end of modern civilisation is in its first few hours of crumbling. In the background are strange plants, the Triffids, engineered and grown to aid the world with its growing food supply challenges. The Triffid can move and have a sting strong enough to kill a human, oh and they are carnivorous. This hasn’t been a problem as they are typically commercially grown and chained in rows. After the meteor, the Triffids break free and the few sighted survivors are hamstrung by the blinded majority.
Although published in 1951 it is a book that still sparkles with incite, packed into a ripping yarn, beautifully told. It is a book that has been much adapted for the big and small screen, as well as radio over the years, but never on the par of the novel. In fact, it is worth reading if only to understand from where some of the tropes of the genre come. You can see its influence in much of Danny Boyles 28 Days Later, from the opening hospital bed (see Rick Grimes here too) through to the country house refuge, the city versus countryside lesser of two evils, and the inhumanity of man in the state of nature. The Girl with all the Gifts draws on much of this too, including man’s demise resulting from his own folly – again back to 28 Days and I am Legend, Elysium, Twelve Monkeysetc, etc.
Wydham’s talent here is to work throw large philosophical issues about humanity, right and wrong, politics, and ecology. In fact, on the latter point he could be seen as very much ahead of his time. Philosophers like John Grayare the modern champions of ideas behind political ecology, in books such as Straw Dogs, but Wydham puts these ideas in a political frame at a time when most people were more worried about nuclear annihilation. Perhaps, he was reflecting a sense of decline felt in Britain more particularly after the war? There is much in Britain of the 1950s that throws the apparent certainties of the past into new relief. Heck, we still feel it today with Little Englanders and uneasiness over the results of globalisation.
I found several things particularly compelling. Firstly, the mix of immediate peril with the much slower and insidious dangers from the Triffids and from the new societal order which survivors of the fall of modern society try and rebuild. Secondly, the end of the world scenario and its moral dilemmas is brilliantly handled, out of which come several thought experiments on society and human psychology. Thirdly, the interpersonal relationships feel authentic. Even given its first publication date, the women have agency and vim.
Okay, the diction feels a little dated but I liked it. There are a few regional voices and a whole lotta clipped Received Pronunciation and 1950s idioms, hence quite a liberal use of the word ‘queer’. But before your liberal buttocks clench so hard your underpants turn to diamonds, in this context the word purely means ‘moderately strange’.
In short, if you haven’t read it already, The Day of the Triffids is well worth a read. Imaginative, detailed, tense and apposite given our current fascination with the end of the world.
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris; 10 July 1903 – 11 March 1969) was an English science fiction writer best known for his works written using the pen name John Wyndham, although he also used other combinations of his names, such as John Beynon and Lucas Parkes. Many of his works were set in post-apocalyptic landscapes. His best known works include The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), the latter filmed twice as Village of the Damned.
Review by Daniel Soule
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