Review: ‘The Day of the Triffids’ by John Wyndham
I’d always imagined that The Day of the Triffids would be kind of frivolous; a faintly comical post-apocalyptic jaunt in which the world is under threat from lumbering plants. I think perhaps because I couldn’t see myself finding a story about sentient topiary particularly threatening. But oh, it so is. It’s threatening and it’s haunting. I finished the book in January and there are some moments that still bring a shudder to my bones when I think about them. Growing potatoes is all good and well until you read a book that makes you wonder if they’re going to get up and flail menacingly at you…
From the moment Bill wakes up with bandages over his eyes and braves the streets of London to find that the streets are empty and everybody else has seemingly gone blind, the tension starts to build (with one of my favourite quotes: “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere“). What unravels in the following pages is a glorious blend of action and peril, tragedy and humour.
What’s worrying about The Day of the Triffids is that it’s one of those stories that was written decades ago (in the 1950s in this case) but that has become more and more relevant as the years go by. We meddle with genetics and we test the boundaries of modern science and who’s to say that one day a plant that we think of as perfectly harmless but with physical quirks that we can’t fathom out won’t turn out to be utterly destructive? Ok, so perhaps they won’t start walking around and maybe there won’t be a huge comet shower that renders all but a few humans sightless and at the plants’ mercy but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something we can take from the dark message behind Wyndham’s witty writing.
Speaking of which, the writing itself is understated and quiet and has a distinctly classic British feel that I just don’t feel you find in much modern fiction with the increasing melding of British and American cultures. I’d expected flailing and action in the face of an onslaught of murderous vegetation and instead what I got was moral wrangling and political musings. If almost the entire country has gone blind and no longer find food or other supplies, is it the duty of the few who can still see to save as many people as possible for as long as the resources left last or to sacrifice the many to enable the few to focus on rebuilding communities who can work on creating a sustainable future?
That makes the story sound cumbersome and dreary or as though the invasion of the triffids is just a flimsy veneer to give Wyndham the excuse to wax lyrical on the virtues of democracy or of the perils of unbridled experimentation. It isn’t at all. Bill Masen, the main character is a reluctant kind of hero; he stumbles upon Josella while wandering around and trying to understand the new world and is jarred into action. Their friendship is borne of necessity, almost, but it’s sweet and…simple against the complexities of their new world. Their fight to find something like a life gives The Day of the Triffids heart and it takes a cautionary tale and makes it a story that you want to keep on reading.
“And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past”
Overall: A science fiction classic that is as relevant now as it must surely have ever been. I started The Day of the Triffids because it’s iconic and because I have an enduring memory of my Nan trying to compel me to read her worn hardback copy years ago when I was a teenager. I don’t know that I would have enjoyed it all those years ago but I do know that I really enjoyed it as an adult.