Day of the Trifids, The by Wyndham, John, 1951
The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, is a rare disaster novel in that humanity is struck by two disasters, one a serious calamity, and the other made that way by virtue of the first. Wyndham's story is about the effects of mobile, poisonous, carnivorous plants on a society struck almost completely blind. Its as dire a set of circumstances as can be imagined, and in my opinion, its one of the best mid-century disaster novels we have. Wyndham was a master of the disaster novel. Though this was the second "cataclysmic vegetable story," as I like to call it, in four years (the first being Ward Moore's Greener Than You Think), it is totally original, very interesting, and actually, despite the topic, imminently comforting. Four out of five stars.
The Day of the Triffids is the story of one cataclysmic disaster, and one qualified one. As an after effect of directly witnessing a startlingly bright meteor shower of green rocks and lights, virtually everyone in the nation of Britain, and probably the rest of the world, is rendered completely blind. The only people spared were those who were asleep at the time, or who did not otherwise observe the lights at all. Overnight most humans lost the ability to do anything for themselves. The blind reacted in all the predictable ways. Within the first few days it became obvious that the Americans were not going to come in and save the day as many apparently hoped. Some gave up and killed themselves, some broke into pubs and got as drunk as possible, some captured the sighted and bound them with rope and made them search for food for them, and others just tried to make do with what they had in their homes. But whatever they did, they were effectively helpless and either had to get assistance or they would die.
But of course, that is not all that happened. Several years before the meteor shower the seeds of a genetically manipulated plant were released to the wild as a spy attempted to smuggle them from the Soviet Union to the UK. This plant, called a triffid, produced an exceptionally fine oil when rendered down that could potentially change the economics of the petroleum industry. As a result of their extreme usefulness, triffids were cultivated virtually everywhere. However, mature triffids also produced a deadly toxin, and could deliver it by means of an appendage in their head blossom that had a reach of over 10 feet. Before the meteor shower triffids were docked to prevent attack and used as ornamental plants in many gardens and parks. Undocked triffids could sting their prey and inject the toxin which was capable of killing even bovines and horses. After killing a target the triffid then took root in nearby soil and waited a few days to start tearing off and consuming the putrescent flesh. Triffids could also uproot themselves and move about, and demonstrated some intelligence too. For example they were capable of listening to and following prey, and in one interesting scene, were observed to be corralling blind humans for slaughter. They were able to test fences for weak spots, and would mass there to break them, they learned eventually not to walk into traps after masses of other triffids had been killed in them, and they even had a rudimentary way of signaling to other triffids to call them or warn them away.
But the action against the triffids, while detailed and interesting, was not the main focus of the book. Wyndham gave us a number of well adjusted, intelligent characters who early took up the debate over what to do with the blind masses. The book is about individual survival in a sort of post apocalyptic landscape, where a new, deadly and seemingly unstoppable predator has been introduced. But the discussion that Wyndham seems to return to again and again was about the best way to save the species, as well as the individuals. Specifically, should the blind be saved and cared for, should blind women be saved to produce sighted children and blind men abandoned lest they siphon off vital resources that becoming increasingly rare as time goes on, or should all of the blind be left to their own fate and resources hoarded for the sighted only? I found it very comforting that virtually nobody, even the radicals, proposed leaving the blind to their own devises. As a matter of fact, one of the radicals actually kidnapped the sighted and pressed them into service helping the blind find food in London a few days after the comets passed by. That in fact is one of the things that makes this book so well done; because everyone in it took some effort to help others.
Wyndham's prose is clear and well crafted, but I was confused about one issue. This is pretty clearly a disaster novel that has broader social concerns, namely care for the disabled. The author takes actually a moderately strong pro-paternalism stand on the issue. But underneath the dual disasters that Wyndham used to discuss that meta-issue, Wyndham seems to be writing about the fear that ultimately some disaster will knock us back to the stone age, if not the particular kinds of disasters that could strike us. More than the damage done by sensory loss or disability, and more than the loss caused by the introduction of a new predator, Wyndham seems most concerned with the potential loss of science and industry and says that once that goes, we are truly destined to become cave-men again, no matter how paternalistic a society we have. He discusses social evolution, positing that science and knowledge are luxuries that are out of reach for a fallen society that must achieve all of its goals by muscle power alone.
Published first in 1951, this is a quintessential post war novel, chock full of end-of-the-world type Hitler-fears. But it is also a hopeful novel, chock full also of England's penchant for perseverance. If you have not read Wyndham before, this is an excellent place to start. Its still easily available through all the on-line services, though I do admit to having trouble finding it locally. Find it and give it a try.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell