Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Day of the Triffids

John Wyndham The Day of the Triffids (1951)

I'd promised myself that I wouldn't buy any new books until my to be read pile had lost some of its resemblance to the sort of edifice into which religious fundamentalists crash planes, but the promise was made back in January and I was down to about nine titles; plus my friend Roberto had come all the way from Italy and we were attending the Worldcon science-fiction convention here in San Antonio, mainly because it coincided with Roberto's visit and seemed like a good opportunity for him to fill suitcases with unfamiliar editions of Simak novels. I told myself I'd hold back, and I was doing okay until I found this on the DreamHaven Books stall. A few months later and I probably would have blown hundreds of dollars, but as I say I was holding back, exercising the kind of self-denial which might have earned a sainthood under other circumstances, conditional to it having been a fairly quiet year in religious terms; but I caved in with this one.

The fact of my never having read The Day of the Triffids must seem an obvious oversight to just about everyone west of Brian Aldiss, and this is the sexed-up US edition dramatically retitled Revolt of the Triffids with heaving bosoms on the cover and a blurb which speaks of lovers caught between the heaven of their frenzied love-making and the hell of fighting the Triffids. Despite my initial reservations, this version contains no supplementary descriptions of it going in and out, and is in all respects complete and unabridged.

Even now, the quality of Wyndham's writing is astonishing - not particularly florid, but solid and engaging, absolutely compelling without any obvious trickery involved. From even just a cursory glance, it's not difficult to understand his enduring popularity, why his novels have been taught in schools, and like H.G. Wells - in whose footsteps he more or less follows - he has come to be known as an author who writes science-fiction rather than specifically a science-fiction author, if you see what I mean.

The premise of The Day of the Triffids seems to have entered the collective imagination and as such should need no introduction, triffid having become comic slang for almost anything in a garden which grows bigger than anticipated; and the notion of ambulatory and predatory plants is so ingenious that it seems peculiar that no-one had done it before - so far as I'm aware - or has done it this well since. As an aside, some time ago during a horticultural phase I bought a few pots of pitcher plants - specifically trumpet pitchers - from which the triffids are so obviously extrapolated. They were fascinating plants and did very well, but I distinctly remember finding them quite unnerving on that first night before I grew accustomed to their presence.

I can only imagine the main reason that no-one else has ever really bothered to tap into this is that Wyndham did it so well as to make subsidiary attempts seem redundant; and the great thing - the central point that at least one television adaptation seems to have missed, is that the novel really isn't about triffids, and the predatory plants in question are at best a peripheral if annoying presence - a consequence of the disaster rather than its cause.

It shouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine why authors writing in the early 1950s might have been concerned with threats to civilisation and the absolute collapse of society - two world wars, the most recent of which culminated with two cities destroyed by the atomic bomb, the highest expression of scientific advances previously viewed as having the potential to elevate humanity. A lot of rugs had been pulled from beneath our collective feet:

'You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realise how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.'

She was quite right. It was that simplicity that seemed somehow to be the nucleus of the shock. From very familiarity one forgets all the forces which keep the balance, and thinks of security as normal. It is not. I don't think it had ever before occurred to me that man's supremacy is not primarily due to his brain, as most of the books would have one think. It is due to the brain's capacity to make use of the information conveyed to it by a narrow band of visible light rays. His civilisation, all that he had achieved or might achieve, hung upon his ability to perceive that range of vibrations from red to violet. Without that, he was lost. I saw for a moment the true tenuousness of his hold on his power, the miracles that he had wrought with such fragile instruments...

The nature of the disaster by which the great majority of the human race wake up to find themselves blind is subject to speculation, and never clearly explained, but human agency seems to be the culprit, as it is for the cultivation of the triffids who capitalise on the disaster. The Day of the Triffids is then about humanity's efforts to cope with that which it has brought upon itself, a fairly simple account of what may happen in practical terms, and also in moral terms with existing rules no longer quite applying to what little is left of human society. Needless to say, the picture is fairly grim, but not unremittingly so. Brian Aldiss has described Wyndham's novels as cosy catastrophes, suggesting that his main characters tend to experience disaster as a bit of a wheeze. Whilst The Day of the Triffids may be nowhere near so relentless as, for example, 1984, this still strikes me as cobblers. Rather, Wyndham provides light amongst the darkness for the sake of both contrast and because that's how people work - finding the smallest positive in even the most dreadful of circumstances, as concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

The Day of the Triffids is a great book for a great many reasons - deservedly regarded as a classic - not least that it presents a scenario of such unrelenting horror, with no hero arriving on a white scientific charger to save the day, and yet conveys an ultimately positive message about human nature without a trace of syrup.


  1. Great article about a terrific novel which is probably the Godfather of every good zombie film ever made. I've never really agreed with the 'cosy catastrophe' label, which is probably due to the fact that most of the protagonists of his novels are middle class characters who are, one suspects, quite similar to Wyndham himself but his world building is so good that this has never really been a problem for me.

    The television adaptations are both interesting for different reasons. The 80s one keeps to the spirit of the book and manages to be very scary and believable despite the small budget, infused by the nuclear paranoia of one of the warmer periods of the cold war, (in a similar vein, it's worth reading or rereading the remarkable Judge Dredd story from the same period, 'The Apocalypse War', remembering this stuff was aimed at twelve year olds!). The more recent adaptation from a few years ago was dreadful and didn't have much to do with the book. I suspect it's because we're living in a world that feels much safer than the 50s or the 80s where the savage changes to society depicted in the book are just too unpalatable (and arguably sexist) for mass consumption. I'd recommend The Kraken Awakes if you want to read more by him. It's also worth checking out John Christopher who was similar to Wyndham although slightly pulpier. He wrote the 'The End of Grass' which is, I suspect, the unofficial prequel which inspired Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'

  2. Yes... The Kraken Wakes was excellent (and you already commented!) though it's increasingly likely I'll be picking up The Midwich Cuckoos and others next time I happen upon copies - I recall my mother having Penguin editions of most of them from when I was a kid so he's been 'on the radar' for a while; and funnily enough I was thinking about The Death of Grass only the other day, specifically thinking that the name keeps coming up so maybe I should read it. To be fair, I do seem to recall the older BBC Triffids adaptation as being decent TV - probably still reeling from that crap with Eddie Izzard - I think I managed about 30 minutes before I gave up on it.

    Ah - The Apocalypse War - yes, that's another I have one eye half-open for. I'd really love to read the original Cursed Earth saga again as it seemed amazing at the time, but I've heard they had copyright issues with McDonalds or Green Giant or something of the sort?

  3. I think 2000 AD agreed never to reprint the offending episodes (although you can easily find them online) but the rest of it has been reprinted loads of times, most recently in Judge Dredd : The Complete Case Flies #2. If you're intrigued by Dredd though, I'd go straight to volume #5 which includes The Apocalypse war and loads of other great stories from what was arguably the strip at its very peak. Personally I think it's still pretty good even now although it's aimed at my generation instead of kids these days. Last year's 'Day of Chaos' storyline is the best and scariest fictional response I've yet seen to recent events like the UK riots, the Arab Spring and the meltdown at Fukushima. Here's a good review...