John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids is another early post apocalyptic novels that’s more interesting as a historical curiosity than for aesthetic merit. It suffers from many of science fiction’s deficiencies in terms of writing quality and characterization. These problems might stem in part from science fiction’s focus on novelty in plot, technology, and world, rather than in linguistic or cultural achievement; perhaps fiction is innovative either in what it says or how it says only seldom both. The only science fiction novels I’m aware of that could stand on their own as a literary achievement is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Some others are serviceable and worthwhile, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Walter Michael Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Philip K. Dick’s better novels. But none are great novels, though Gibson comes closest, and while I don’t think the genre is incapable of housing real greatness, the relative lack of literary worth gives me pause when I continue searching for satisfying science fiction.
This long introduction is designed to put The Day of the Triffids in a context it doesn’t transcend. The plot begins with a fantastic meteor shower that strikes all who watch it blind combined with the invasion of an insidious species known as triffids, which kill anyone within a few feet via a stinging lash. These walking carnivorous plants become symbolic repositories for our fears and our collective inability to see what’s in front of our faces; as Bill Masen, the overly prim and competent protagonist observes, ” ‘There’s a kind of conspiracy not to believe things about triffids.’ ” There is, and I felt some horror as I learned more about them, but it was an overly familiar feeling from all those end-of-the-world stories: George Stewart’s Earth Abides, which predates The Day of the Triffids by two years, the aforementioned A Canticle for Leibowitz, Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer, and even Stephen King’s The Stand. Except for A Canticle for Leibowitz, they all share the same styles, themes, and motifs concerning humanity’s capacity for darkness and ignorance (“Horrible alien things which some of us had somehow created, and which the rest of us, in our careless greed, had cultured all over the world,” we learn in The Day of the Triffids. Notice the lack of subject or article at the beginning of the sentence, where it seems that one or both should appear). I just wish there were more originality in this, although to be fair Earth Abides and The Day of the Triffids are forerunners to the later developments in the sub-genre of apocalyptic stories.
As in many such works, Bill Masen is little more advanced emotionally and intellectually than the nameless narrator of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. A curious mixture of competence, chivalry, and sexism, Bill Masen wants to protect his women and while keeping them, you know, in their role. Still, to his credit he thinks about a ten-year-old, “[…] the world in which she was going to grow up would have little use for the overniceties and euphemisms that I had learned as a child […]” Still, he’s not perceptive enough to think that perhaps those “niceties” aren’t of use in the current world, as Paul Graham cogently argues. “[His] quest was personal,” although that quest is just to find a girl he randomly encountered, and even then it feels not so much personal as generic and something expected by a certain type of society. I sometimes feel the same way when closing time approaches at a bar. Augie March is on a personal quest, but Bill Masen, alas, is not.
Elsewhere, he almost verges on something vaguely resembling insight when he says that, “There is an inability to sustain the tragic mood, a phoenix quality of the mind. It may be helpful or harmful, it is just a part of the will to survive—yet, also, it has made it possible for us to engage in one weakening war after another.” Maybe so, but even here the awkwardness of the writing, with the disjointedness created by the first comma in both sentences, weakens the sense of flow and as a result the sentiment that is being expressed. And yet his fundamental argument about the resilience of humanity is not a bad one, even if it is not expressed well, and I would’ve liked for more on the subject.
As I said, The Day of the Triffids is most interesting as a historical document: Cold War symbolism abounds, and as disaster befalls England one girl “[…] had an utterly unshakeable conviction that nothing serious could have happened to America, and that it was only a matter of holding out for a while until the Americans arrived to put everything in order.” Contrast this belief with what Fareed Zakaria persuasively argues about the views of America abroad in The Post-American World. In Day of the Triffids, this exchange takes place a few pages after the first quote:
“Try to imagine a world in which there aren’t any Americans—can you do that?”
The girl stared at him.
“But there must be,” she said.
“There won’t always be those stores. The way I see it, we’ve been given a flying start in a new kind of world.”
Although the girl who believes in America is presented as a fool, it’s still nice to imagine that this sentiment was reasonably widespread during the Cold War. I remain hopeful and perhaps even confident, like Zakaria in The Post-American World, that it will be again in the near future. In the meantime, Day of the Triffids remains dead history rather than living fiction that still speaks loudly to us today, as great literature does.
John Wyndham�s science fiction novels, in this instance The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids, do not focus on incredible and unbelievable developments in technology, as do novels of many of the stereotypical science fiction writers, yet instead focus on how the people; particularly the protagonist, deal with the many uncomfortable situations they are faced in the frightening world of the future.
The Day of the Triffids is perhaps Wyndham�s best known novel, and tells of explosions in space blinding a large proportion of the population, at the same time as an agricultural experiment goes horribly wrong, and millions of triffids, carnivorous plants, populate every corner of the globe, threatening mankind�s very existence. In The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham speculates on many things. He contemplates how the people would deal with wide-spread blindness, and how they would accept the danger of carnivorous plants on the loose - not a contemporary invention, simply basic biology working against us. In his writings he considers how the remaining people of the world would deal with such a situation, that changing situations do require new ways, and what new ways would gain acceptance.
Speculation about how people would react widespread blindness is an integral part of The Day of the Triffids. Wyndham considered what the consequences would be; that most of the population would die of starvation because of their inability to carry out normal daily tasks such as buying the groceries and preparing meals without the assistance of a person with twenty-twenty vision, not to mention the overhanging danger of the triffids.
�My dear,� I said. �I don�t like this anymore than you do. I�ve put the alternative badly before you. Do we help those who have survived the catastrophe to rebuild some kind of life?� (p 103)
Wyndham uses quotes such as that above to allow the reader to consider what the consequences would be, and also to work on the conscience of the receiving character. Wyndham considers how the people of the world would cope in such a disastrous situation with an overwhelming majority of the population being blind, where the small proportion still sighted are relied on by numbers of one thousand to one for the survival of the human race. He focuses on the devotion and responsibility it would take, to in effect, save civilization as we now know it.
Wyndham�s consideration of what would happen if carnivorous plants capable of killing humans were loose develops into a primary issue throughout the novel. Coupled with widespread blindness, those with vision defects would undoubtedly be stung by a triffid if not already dying of starvation, a situation which progresses into the biggest conflict in the novel.
�Triffids were at large. Sometimes I saw them crossing fields, or noticed them inactive against hedges.� (p 197)
This excerpt indicates the helplessness felt by the rescuers, and how widespread the problem was. He considers the devotion and selflessness that people such as Bill felt, and uses this to reflect on the strength of character exhibited by the heroes of the era in which the book was written.
The Chrysalids is another of Wyndham�s novels; the tale of a society who have survived a nuclear war, Tribulation, however the high levels of radiation arising from the war have contaminated the living parts of the biosphere. In The Chrysalids, Wyndham uses not new technology, but ultra-conservative religious views to create the conflict in his futuristic town of Waknuk. The conflict expressed in this novel was the bigotry and antipathy for anything which did not correspond with the �norm,� illustrating the use of strange customs to set the scene, in preference of the stereotypical space or time travel.
Bigotry and ignorance are the key conflicts in The Chrysalids, and Wyndham uses the intolerance for any de-formed or telepathic being to correspond with intolerance in our society to due colour, race or creed. The ultra-conservative views of Joseph Strorm are designed to relate to Twentieth Century intolerance such as the 1930-40�s persecution of Jews in Germany under Hitler, The Klu Klux Klan, and anti-white sentiments in certain areas of the United States, such as Harlem or Miami.
Sentiments such as those put forward by Joseph Strorm in the form of the signs reading phrases of antipathy like �ONLY THE IMAGE OF GOD IS MAN,��WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!� and �THE NORM IS THE WILL OF GOD� are used by Wyndham to reflect on how his futuristic community of Waknuk is sadly in many ways a clone of the society of today.
One of the clearest notions the novel presents for the fear of Mutants is Joseph Strorm�s dislike for the over-sized horses - something which could have benefited the community.
�I don�t believe it,� my father told them. �God never made horses the size of these. The Government can�t have approved them.� (p 36)
This prejudice, solely on the grounds of appearance, illustrates the hatred Strorm had for anything that did not correspond with the norm, even if, as in this case the deviation could have worked to the advantage of the community at large.
As the novel develops, David discovers that he and his peers are too deviants; yet their mutation is not as obvious as that of Sophie�s - David discovers that he possesses an outwardly undetectable yet astonishing deviation, that of mental telepathy. While the bigotry shown by the community against the so called �Fringe� people is despicable, the greatest intolerance of all is when parents turn against their own child; which was what happened to David. Wyndham�s purpose for creating this conflict was to give the reader a greater understanding to how widespread and unjust the narrow-mindedness in Waknuk was.
The novels The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids are both prime examples of Wyndham�s unique style of writing. Wyndham�s 1950�s novels heralded the dawning of a new era in science fiction, for he was the inaugural writer of what is now widely known as speculative fiction, a division of the science fiction genre. Speculative fiction, hence the name does not necessarily concentrate on amusing the reader with illogical tales of space or time travel, but involves plausible fiction based on rational extensions of the present day, which is the genre which The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids belong.