Science Fiction does not often make an appearance on the school curriculum, but The Day of the Triffids is one work that has been required reading for generations of pupils. I first encountered the book nearly forty years ago, in fact just months after the death of its author at the comparatively early age of 66. At school, I must confess, my enthusiasm for Wuthering Heights, Return of the Native and I Claudius was (shamefully!) less than these great works warranted. But The Day of the Triffids was unputdownable. Instead of reading the two chapters set for homework that evening, I read the entire book!
It is reasonable to say that I could have been presented with many other works of science fiction and devoured them with equal gusto. Few of these would be regarded as great works of SF, let alone English Literature. But no other book has ever appealed to two more differing arbiters of what constitutes a good read, myself at the age of fourteen and those seemingly determined to stuff down pupils’ throats the dullest books imaginable.
So why is a somewhat dated science fiction novel, written from a seemingly rather prim post-war middle class perspective, still popular now – almost half a century after it was written?
Read the first few pages and you will see why. There is something for everybody, from the most inattentive schoolboy to the stodgiest academic. The first line is one of the finest opening sentences to any book ever written, SF or otherwise….
When a day you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.
Tension mounts immediately as we sense that the hospitalised narrator, not named until the tenth page as Bill Masen, is helpless. Realisation is slow to come that he is blind – at least temporarily so. His eyes are bandaged following emergency treatment to save his sight. And his plight is nightmarish. Not just the hospital, but the world outside, has apparently ceased to function. Nothing can be heard – not a car, not even a distant tugboat. Nothing but church clocks, with varying degrees of accuracy, announcing first eight o’clock, then quarter-past, then nine…
We learn that the previous night, the whole Earth had been treated to a magnificent display of green meteors, believed at first to be comet debris. Masen is bitterly disappointed at being one of the few people to miss the display. He wonders has the whole hospital, the whole of London made such a night of it that nobody has yet pulled round. Eventually, he takes off the bandages, which were in any case due to come off, by himself. He is greatly relieved to find that he can see – he soon finds out that is one of the few people left who can.
The hospital has been transformed into a Doréan nightmare of blinded patients milling helplessly around. The only doctor Masen encounters hurls himself from a fifth floor window after finding his telephone is dead. After giving only cursory consideration to trying to help the blinded, he flees the hospital. What, he rationalises, would he do if he did succeed in leading them outside? It is already becoming apparent that the scale of the disaster extends way beyond the hospital. He makes for the nearest pub, desperately in need of a drink. But this is a nightmare from which there is no escape. The pub landlord is also blind, to say nothing of blind drunk. He blames the meteor shower for his condition. He says that having discovered their children were also blinded, his wife gassed them and herself, and he intends to join them once he is drunk enough.
Anybody who describes this as “cosy catastrophism” really needs to re-read just this first chapter to be firmly disabused of the notion.
At a single stroke, mankind’s complex civilisation has been brought down, all but a tiny handful of the world’s population blinded. Nor is this the extent of humanity’s troubles. Within hours, triffids have broken out of captivity and are running amok, and within a week London is smitten by plague. Only near the end of the book do we learn that mankind, in all probability, brought this triple-whammy down upon himself.
The Day of the Triffids is set in the near future, although no date is given. Masen, who is apparently an only child, is in his late twenties when the story begins and his father had reached adulthood before the war. The catastrophe, that turns out to have been caused by a satellite weapon having been accidentally set off in space rather than close to the ground, probably occurs around 1980.
Masen lives in a world in which food shortages are the biggest challenge to mankind. The triffid, a mobile carnivorous plant equipped with a lethal sting, is being farmed world-wide as a source of vegetable oil and cattle-food. Originally bred in secret in the Soviet Union, they are distributed world-wide when an attempt to steal a case of fertile triffid seeds backfires. Masen himself is making a successful career in the triffid business and is hospitalised when one stings him in the eyes – thus it is the triffids who are responsible for his escaping the almost universal blindness.
The story follows the adventures of Masen and fellow-survivor Josella Playton and explores the differing attempts of various groups to deal with the catastrophe. Some want to somehow cling on to a vestige of the social and moral status quo, others see the situation as an opportunity for personal advancement. The well-meaning but ultimately hopeless attempts of Wilfred Coker to keep as many blind people alive for as long as possible end in failure within a week when the plague strikes. Miss Durrant’s attempt to build a Christian community fares little better, and it too succumbs to the plague. The dictator Torrence tries to set up a feudal state, using the blind as slave labour, fed upon mashed triffid.
From the start, though, Masen and Ms. Playton take the same view as Michael Beadley, the avuncular leader of a group of survivors holed up in Senate House. Nothing can be done for the vast majority of the blind – mankind’s best hope for the future is to set up a community of largely sighted survivors, in a place of comparative safety.
Thus Wyndham explores from different angles the question of how ordinary people face up to the task of trying to run a small community, something that is quite challenging under even normal circumstances, with everybody seemingly having different views on how things should be done.
Coker’s shenanigans see to it that many adventures must pass before Masen and Ms. Playton eventually link up with Beadley’s group, by now ensconced on a triffid-free Isle of Wight.
The Day of the Triffids has been likened to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four for both its cold-war extrapolations and its gloomy perspective of misery for evermore. But this view is wrong on both counts. Wyndham’s remarks about the Soviet Union could have been written by almost any author between the end of the war and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. And despite the magnitude of the disaster to have overtaken mankind, the tone of The Day of the Triffids is an optimistic one. Its recurring message is that a portion of mankind has been spared to begin again, and the human race has in fact escaped the even worse fate that was becoming increasingly inevitable in a world threatened by both global nuclear war and mass starvation. The triffids’ possession of the world will be a temporary thing, and in the last paragraph of the book, Wyndham suggests that research into ways to destroy them is well underway. Within two or three generations at most, mankind will be in a position to strike back and reclaim all he has lost.
It is perhaps the upbeat endings and veneer of British middle-class values, a constant feature of Wyndham’s work, which fools people into labelling him with the “cosy catastrophe” tag. In fact, there is much more to his work than met even my enthusiastic eye when, in the Autumn of 1969, I first encountered an author I still count as one of my great favourites.
The Day of the Triffids was made into a truly appalling Hollywood movie, starring country and western singer Howard Keel (1963), and a superior BBC television series (1981). Simon Clark wrote a sequel, The Night of the Triffids, in 2001. My personal feeling is that another movie version is long overdue.
© Christopher Seddon 2008