"The Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham seems to be a forgotten child of the post-apocalyptic genre. I'm not sure if this is due to it's relatively unorthodox premise, or it's somewhat dated take on gender roles, but either reason is, frankly, dead wrong as this is an amazing book that ranks with "On the Beach" and "Alas, Babylon" as a cornerstone of the genre. With a premise that is both utterly unique and rich in metaphor, and characters that are charged with emotion, it is a truly gripping read.
What sets "The Day of the Triffids" apart from other books in the genre is its two tiered approach to the end of the world. The first revolves around the eponymous Triffids, which are mobile, semi-carnivorous plants which are presumed to be the result of Soviet genetic tampering. While one would expect that they would be treated as a scourge, quite the opposite occurs as mankind farms them for the rich oils they produce. Thus, is the hubris of man framed quite nicely, and the pieces put in play.
For the triffids are only benign so long as man can control them; when left to their own devices they grow an intensely venomous lash that can kill a full grown human. When a bizarre stellar event leaves everyone who witnessed it blind, the time of the triffids is suddenly at hand. To go further would risk spoiling the plot, but as the few sighted survivors struggle to make sense of, and survive in, their greatly altered world, the triffids become the foremost obstacle to their continued existence.
Thus, "The Day of the Triffids" stands quite nicely as a post-apocalyptic thriller. However, it is what is going on between the lines that makes this a classic. First is the obvious comparison between the triffids and the Soviets. Not only did the latter create the former, but the swarming, relentless approach of the triffids nicely mirrors the Western view of Soviet expansions in the 1950's. However, unlike many Cold War era authors, Wyndham's view of the world is not entirely black and white. While the Soviet system may be the enemy, and not one he wants to live under, he doesn't remove all blame from the West. By their very response to Soviet moves he sees a world made less, not more safe, and one that is walking a knife's edge over the abyss.
Ultimately though, he sees hope for mankind because even as it teeters on the brink of extinction, he anticipates the ability to learn and grow from the mistakes of the past. His rather prescient views of the use of space and bio-technology offer hope, but only if used responsibly, and therefore "The Day of the Triffids" is as much a cautionary tale, somewhat in the vein of a "Jurassic Park", as it is a post-apocalyptic thriller.
Finally, there is a small but very noticeably element that infuses much of the first half of the novel. Time and again, Wyndham has his characters assuming that the Americans will be along by and by to sort things out. Given that this novel was published in 1951 on the heels of World War II, one has to assume that Wyndham was warning his fellow countrymen that the Americans weren't going to be around forever, so they better start standing on their own two feet. While hardly essential to the plot, this historical artifact does offer interesting insight into the context of the book.
Finally, as I alluded to above, there is definitely a pervasive, but largely benign note of sexism in "The Day of the Triffids". While it may offend some, it is by no means misogynistic, and rather reflects a form of chivalry that was probably outdated even as Wyndham wrote the book. On some level he seems to recognize this, as his writing of female characters is somewhat conflicted; he wants to shelter them even as he knows they must be strong. Again, more than anything this offers an interesting historical context to the novel.
I should also add that the introduction by Edmund Morris is superb, as he does an excellent job of stating why "The Day of the Triffids" is still relevant, and perhaps more pertinent than ever in our post-9/11 world. He writes particularly strongly of Wyndham's pathos for the victims, and how it mirrors our own response to terrorism. The rare novel that offers both gripping narrative and thoughtful commentary, "The Day of the Triffids" represents post-apocalyptic literature at its best and should rightly be held among the best contributions to the genre.
on July 26, 2012
This is a great classic work of science fiction; however, the Kindle edition doesn't do it justice. Besides not including the Introduction that's included in the paperback edition, the Kindle version is full of typos, missing letters, missing punctuation, and so on. Amazon needs to do a better job of quality control on the books it accepts for the Kindle.
on July 24, 2003
First published in 1951, this classic science-fiction novel was unique for its time (although undoubtedly inspired by "War of the Worlds"). The story follows the plight of the world's few remaining survivors after three (possibly) coincidental cataclysmic events of uncertain origins: the genetic development of mobile, carnivorous plants; the blinding of the earth's inhabitants by what may or may not have been a meteor shower; and the sudden onset of a mysterious and fatal disease. Most of the world's inhabitants are sightless and unable to defend themselves against the marauding plants, and even those with vision succumb to the plague.
End-of-the-world scenarios have of course been done to death, especially in B-movies, but "Day of the Triffids" has withstood the test of time--not because of its plot, but because it anticipated many other works and because the writing and themes are a cut above your typical pulp fiction. Nearly every episode in the book has been replicated in dozens of science fiction and horror movies and novels. Filmgoers who have seen "Resident Evil" or "28 Days Later" will recognize the opening scene, in which Wiliam Masen wakes up in a hospital room, unaware that the world as he knows it has come to a devastating end. Other scenes recall the "Night of the Living Dead" series and similar films, and the descriptions of the survivors' efforts to rebuild society clearly influenced many later works of dystopian fiction.
Wyndham adopts a minimalist "noir" style for the first sections, using a surreal first-person perspective to convey the confusion, fear, and isolation afflicting William Masen while he tries to figure out what has happened. When the focus of the book changes from the lone individual to bands of the living, the author shifts to a more expansive and analytic prose that fleshes out the book's social and political commentary.
It is the exploration of these themes that makes the book so fascinating. As various groups of survivors unite together, they adopt different modes of government: a communalism that tries to rescue as many people as possible, a fundamentalism entrenched in its devotion to outdated moral codes, a militarism that quickly degenerates to totalitarianism, and a rationalism relying on the survival of the fittest to guarantee as many new offspring as possible. Each of these myopic systems suffers from a slavishness to one goal at the expense of any other: preventing as many deaths as possible, preserving morality, maintaining law and order, and insuring the survival of the species. Following the traditions of the best dystopian fiction, Wyndham uses his story to examine the faults with our present world and its communist, theocratic, authoritarian, and Darwinian societies.
The ending of the book is just open-ended and ambiguous enough to have allowed for a sequel, by Wyndham wasn't the type to write or authorize one (although Simon Clark published "The Night of the Triffids" two years ago). This closing ambiguity seems appropriate: in the real world, there are never as many solutions as there are problems.
on April 20, 2006
You can read other reviews to get the storyline etc. But - although it's brilliantly imagined and carried off - the plot isn't the most important thing about this book. What counts is the vision, the intelligence, the language, and most of all the humanity.
These bring to the book a timelessness usually absent in science fiction. It's astonishing to realize that this book was written in 1951! Not only because Wyndham foresaw orbiting weapons and designer crops, but because there's almost nothing that would need to change if it was rewritten today. The important things don't change even that fast, and this book deals with important things. This is subtly done, since all of the protagonist's concerns are immediate throughout; but his and others' decisions reflect unchanging aspects of human nature and of nature itself.
I first read this around 1960, and enjoyed it but did not really appreciate it then. This time I had the additional advantage of hearing the Chivers audiobook, wonderfully narrated by Samuel West.
Don't miss it!
on November 22, 1999
This is the first serious novel I ever read. (Before that I was only reading Doctor Who tie-in's.) After seeing the BBC adaptation on TV I wanted to read this book. I got it when I was 11 and have cherished it ever since. This was the book that made John Wyndham famous: the overnight destruction of civilization by "comet debris", the world overrun by flesh-eating plants called triffids.
One could look at this book as a war between man and nature on a grand scale. When mankind was the species that dominated all others, nature was driven back, "suppressed", or killed in the name of progress. When the tables are suddenly turned, it looks as if mankind is in decline. As the years pass, dead cities are slowly disappearing, turning into jungles as nature takes hold. In a matter of time nature will take over completely and the triffids will be the new inheritors. Unless the human race can fight back and reassert itself.
I have lost count of how many times I have read this book. I am 23 and the story is just as effective now as it was when I first read it. I like seeing all the different cover artwork that people have done for this book. The fact that it's been reprinted so many times is proof that this novel shows no sign of losing its popularity.
on April 28, 2000
My first introduction to The Day of the Triffids was watching the BBC series as a child. I was terrified. Many years later I opened the book and discovered John Wyndham. Having read all his books I rate this one right at the top.
Like his other titles, the reader is immediately immersed in the "what if" world that Wyndham creates. The protagonist, Bill Mason is one of the few people in the world not sent blind by a meteor shower. To compound his situation earth is taken over by Triffids; walking, man eating plants, biological abominations created by you guessed it, humans. Our hero must flee the death and depravity of London and attempt to start a new life not only for himself but for humankind.
A battle for survival of the fittest is dramatically played out with the winner changing constantly. Some themes that I found interesting included the struggle for man to again dominate over nature and the effect of a cataclysmic event on human inter-relations.
This book is classic Science Fiction but I also like think of it as Horror without gore.
on July 30, 2002
The Day of the Triffids has all the feel on a 1950s cheesy science fiction movie: implausible monsters (walking/thinking/hunting plants) threatening the existence of the human race. There is also some Cold War paranoia (..the commies are behind all this!) for good measure. However the book surprisingly rises above the silliness and is, thankfully, an enjoyable read.
The Day of the Triffids succeeds because of two factors. One, it does a terrific job of building suspense; it is indeed a page-turner. Secondly, its description of how people act after "the world has ended" is frighteningly realistic. Think Stephen King's The Stand and you've got the right idea. However Wyndham's prose is a bit more crisp, and the scenes are less graphic.
Bottom line: a surprisingly mature bit of nostalgic science fiction. Not quite as shocking as when it was first published, yet The Day of the Triffids still offers reading entertainment value.