The Day of the Triffids (1951) – John WYNDHAM

I know that I keep going on about how much I love the new(-ish) Vinage Classics covers, but Penguin have now stepped up to the mark with their new Modern Classics covers. Some truly awesome covers in there. Which, despite the old adage that tells me not to read a book just because it looks pretty, makes me want to buy them because the cover is pretty. And this one’s pretty good.

Bill Masen after eye surgery one Wednesday morning to discover that everyone else is blind. Somehow, the world has been decimated, and he must escape London to survive. First, though, he must find people to help him, including the young attractive novelist, Josella Playton. Together, they must eck out a new life in the countryside, avoiding the crazy people who have popped up everywhere, and the deadly triffids – plants who can walk, and who have taken over the planet now that the humans are no longer in charge.

This was wttally not what I was expecting, and it actually turns out that The Day of the Triffids is, while certainly a prime example of 50s pulp fiction, actually a littl bit deep, and Wyndham has some quite interesting points to make. It is quite clearly a product of its time – the threat of nuclear war and the USSR are ever present, with the Cold War and Hiroshima now firmly impanted into people’s minds. As such, the idea of a post-apocalyptic world was perhaps no more important in any other part of the 20th century. So the question that is asked by many authors of the time, then, is this: what happens to humanity when something big happens? Wyndham’s vision of splintered, factional control of the countryside is probably more true than most – and it is certainly one that remains in the minds of many authors still. The images are almost now cliched – a small farm in the countryside, where a small group of people live in harmony, with constant watch from the outside, either other groups, or the ‘baddie’ of the story.

For this story, that means the triffids, which are an excellent invention. I kept waiting for them to be revealed as the ‘baddies’ of the story, and yet that is exactly what they aren’t. They just happen to be a species of plant that happens to thrive in a world where humans cannot see. There’s never a clear explanation of where they came from, or why, but the implication is that they were an invention of the USSR that accidently spread throughout the world.I rather like this idea, and it really allows Wyndham to focus on making his story about the people of the book, not the monsters and their life, which I just don’t care about, to be honest. And in the end, Wyndham’s view is probably pretty conservative, though by no means confusing – in the end, it is the people who can see, the people who have not been disabled by the catastrophe that must carry on the human line. Not very communist, indeed, but as I say, the threat of the USSR is present throughout the entire novel. Similarly, the catastrophe is never explained, but the theory is again based on the Cold War. Once people started putting nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, pointed at their enemies, it was only a matter of time before one of them went horribly wrong.

I know Brian Aldiss called this novel the beginning of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ – that is, post-apocalyptic futures in the suburbs, where nice people get together and rebuild the world – but I’m going to have to disagree on him with this one. There’s enough human in-fighting going on to last quite a lifetime (I especially love the line at the end that mentions one man going to war, despite having just survived a holocost), and these people can get nasty. It never resorts to violence, but a lot of humanity has gone. Especially among the blind, who turn into animals (almost unbelievably) quickly. A very readable look at humanity in its darkest hour.

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3 thoughts on “The Day of the Triffids (1951) – John WYNDHAM

  1. estelle says:

    Great review of a book I’ve read but can’t remember anything about! As usual. Have you read Saramago’s Blindness? Similar-ish post-apocalyptic blindness premise. I haven’t read it, though, so the value of this post comment is basically zero, sorry. I’m definitely a sucker for a Penguin cover, though, and I just bought Bellow’s Herzog in the Modern Classics edition. Love the big ol’ letters.

  2. matttodd says:

    I’ve never read Saramago – but I keep hearing about him, so maybe I should get a move on…

  3. […] feel that, had I not recently read The Day of the Triffids, I may have been somewhat more enamored with this novel. There are a lot of similarities between […]

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