Raw Feed (2006): The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951.
Brian Aldiss referred to the work of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”. I don’t think, in retrospect, he meant that the disasters of Wyndham’s works are improbably nice and clean. I think he was referring to the narrative strategy Wyndham used in this and The Kraken Awakes: first person narratives centering around one or two individuals who have limited knowledge and explanation of the disaster they face. For instance, the narrator here has no definite proof that the blindness which strikes most of humanity is the result of satellite weapons — an interesting idea for the beginning of the satellite age — or that the lethal plague which breaks out after the blindness is an engineered disease — and limited means of dealing with it. This stands in direct contrast to the best-seller idiom of later American works like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. (I don’t know enough about styles of the time to know if something similar to Niven and Pournelle existed in disaster fiction prior to this book.)
John Christopher, another English writer from the time, fits into this style, and a prior American work, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, does too. In fact, as the story progresses and we hear about how the houses and roads and bridges of England were being eroded away by nature, I was very much reminded of Stewart’s novel. Tonally and thematically, though, there is nothing cozy or comfortable about this novel. There is something very visceral about the blinding of most of humanity, an unclean disaster that requires, for disaster fiction, an unusual amount of lifeboat ethics in that the narrator and some of his fellow survivors realize they are not doing the blind any good by temporarily saving them from death.
Wyndham’s genius, of course, is combining the blindness with the “invasion” of genetically engineered, ambulatory, poisonous triffids. As with Wyndham’s Re-Birth and The Midwich Cuckoos, we are constantly reminded of the Darwinian struggle for life, of competing species and supplanters in our midst. As the narrator memorably remarks in a book of many memorable, philosophical lines, custom and tradition have been long mistaken for natural law.
And Wyndham strips things to basics. In what may be a cliche, the breeding and reproductive capabilities of the surviving women are of paramount importance, the possibility of polygamy discussed. It’s cliched, but it’s cliched because that would be a very realistic and natural concern. Wyndham, to the annoyance of some feminist readers of the novel, says women want to have children. It is a paramount concern of Josella in the hazardous world she finds herself. Again, I think that’s realistic. Wyndham embraces a practical kind of feminism when he says that women will have to learn to pull their own weight, learn, as they did during World War II, how to do many things they are used to depending on men for.
There are a surprisingly large number of on-stage suicides in this novel, again, I think, realistically. There is the fighting of triffids — not successfully.
The novel ends in the stalemate of the English survivors retreating to the Isle of Wight and hoping, by organizing their society to provide enough leisure for scientific research, for the hero (a triffid expert) and others to figure out how to defeat the triffids. The Darwinian struggle never really ends.
Alternative methods of political organization are tried by survivors in London and elsewhere. (London must be one of the most trashed cities in sf since it had a good head start in that direction with H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.) The sinister Torrance suggests a form of feudalism. There is an implication, given his military stores and his quick and calm shooting of early plague victims, that Torrance may have some connection to the pre-disaster military.
A justly classic work.