I absolutely adored this book. But not in the way I typically do. Wyndam does not paint a rich tapestry of a post-apocalyptic England, nor is he particularly adept at creating complex and layered characters. But he masterfully accomplishes what so many current writers flail at mindlessly: a believable world that feasibly explores the varying degrees in which people abandon their ideas of what society can be in the aftermath of cataclysm.
But this was written in 1951. The veterans of WWII had yet to grey, and the future soldiers of Vietnam were still in diapers. The Cold War was in full swing, but the idea of “nuclear winter” did not yet exist. Televisions were still relatively new, and were only in black and white. America still held on to its place as saviour of the Western World, which is brought up a number of times in this book by characters hoping to be saved.
In the world of The Day of the Triffids, there is a plant known as a…..well, “triffid.” It’s nearly as tall as a tree, but is mobile and highly dangerous to the unwary, but it produces a highly sought after oil. It is thought by the narrator, Bill Masen, that the triffid was secretly created by the Soviets, and stolen by a man attempting to sell the seeds to the west. His plain was shot down, allowing for their release into the wild, where they quickly proliferate and infest countries all over the world.
The book starts with the narrator in the hospital, blinded by bandages protecting his eyes following a triffid attack. Danny Boyle, director of 28 Days Later…, sites this book as the inspiration for the opening scene of his movie. While in the hospital, a meteor shower occurs, and most of humanity is left blind from the spectacle. This is an unexplained phenomenon, but I don’t find that too problematic. Given other explanations in genre fiction, this is just as plausible as any origin story in comic books, or similarly mysterious causes of zombie outbreaks. This blindness sets up some interesting social dynamics for the remainder of the story, as characters are divided by whether or not they can see. This poses a potential danger for the sighted (who are targeted by the impaired and forced into a servile relationship) or a burden to others (who’s attempts to rebuild society are weighed down by their desire to help those who can’t fend for themselves). The role of women in society is explored, but my take-away from it was that “modern women” weren’t as independent as they thought they were. I was disappointed in Wyndam’s evident political leaning away from progress on this point.
As someone who gave up on The Walking Dead for its misery porn, it was a welcome change of pace to read about people doing what, you know, people actually do after disasters: helping one another.
Much of the conflict in the book revolves around how humanity is trying to move forward. This book isn’t specifically about the triffid menace – though there is a consistent creeping threat throughout the novel. This is a story about how humanity survives and attempts to rebuild. Some try to maintain a version of the status quo, others try to revert back to a more feudal and exploitative system, while still others try to set up new societies based around the new social structure brought about by widespread disability.
Again. This is all familiar territory for fans of zombie and/or post-apocalyptic stories, but Wyndam balances everything in a way that never really gets done now. While The Walking Dead seems intent on making everything as miserable and bleak as possible, The Day of the Triffids shows people pushing forward and trying to find a niche for themselves. That was actually the criticism of the book when it came out: that it was a “cozy catastrophe”. But I don’t agree. I think this story represents what Wyndam saw all around him. This isn’t apocalypse through the vehicle of horror (like modern variants of this trope), it’s ruination as an impetus to rebuild. It is, in short, emblematic of how we imagine life was in post-WWII English society: trying to retain some semblance of who they were while also becoming who they are today.
Like all good science fiction, this book is about more than the contents of its pages.