REVIEW: The Day of the Triffids (1951)

A Book by John Wyndham

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham is a classic British post-apocalyptic survival novel set in a future where most of the world’s population has been blinded by a meteor shower. The story follows Bill Masen, a young man who has been spared from the blindness due to being hospitalized at the time with his eyes bandaged during the meteor shower (this would later be borrowed in the film 28 Days Later!). Bill is an expert on the ecology of The Triffids, a species of venomous plants that are capable of moving on their own and attacking humans if not properly managed. The only reason that humans have tolerated these invasive plants is that triffids are a “miracle plant” grown for their oil, which is used as a replacement for fossil fuels, cooking, cosmetics, and pretty much everything else. They have become a threat to humanity due to human vulnerability post-meteor shower. Most ignore Bill’s warnings about the impending doom via plants hell-bent on killing man, as if sentient, but his caution helps him be one of the few ready for this new future.

“When a freak cosmic event renders most of the Earth’s population blind, Bill Masen is one of the lucky few to retain his sight. The London he walks is crammed with groups of men and women needing help, some ready to prey on those who can still see. But another menace stalks blind and sighted alike. With nobody to stop their spread the Triffids, mobile plants with lethal stingers and carnivorous appetites, seem set to take control. “The Day of the Triffids” is perhaps the most famous catastrophe novel of the twentieth century and its startling imagery of desolate streets and lurching, lethal plant life retains its power to haunt today.”

I have watched all three film and TV versions of this book (that I know of at least), but until now I simply hadn’t got around to actually reading the original novel. Written shortly after World War II, The Day of the Triffids has proven to be one of the more influential works of British science fiction throughout the years. The book questions everything about modern (at the time) society including whether or not everyone has a moral obligation to altruism, whether preserving “the old ways” would be a viable option for a huge disaster, and the general unease about Cold War life including a dash of weariness regarding Russia’s place in the world. Much like a similar book about a devastating eco-disaster, The Death of Grass by John Christopher, there is even a bit of a theme of female empowerment hidden within the book, although it is somewhat shadowed by 1950’s sensibilities. At its heart, the book is far more complex than your typical monster flick that it gets generally transformed into via it’s various media outings, and while not perfect, fans of post-apocalyptic fiction should definitely check it out.

Before I get rolling, I’d like to mention my one issue that I take with this book, something I also took issue with in the aforementioned The Death of Grass, and that is how fast society collapsed. Bill Masen is in his hospital bed the night of the meteor shower and is upset because the radio presenter is basically like “YOU MIGHT AS WELL KILL YOURSELF IF YOU MISS THIS GORGROUS SIGHT!” The next morning, Bill finds it weird that he has not been given breakfast by 9 AM, and finds that society has largely already fallen to pieces. I’m not saying that things would not be in a bad state in a situation like that, but there were already people jumping from windows, looting, and killing each other by lunch, there was no power, and Mad Max rules were already firmly in place. Perhaps I’m optimistic, but going immediately into a post-apocalyptic hellscape in that short of time seems unlikely.

I think one of the more interesting tidbits from the book that I simply do not recall from any other version of the story (although it has been a while, and a re-watch is in order) are the cold-war themes found throughout. The book centers on a series of disasters including a meteor shower that causes blindness, a plague that attacks the survivors, and the rise of a deadly plant species. These three seemingly unrelated events are a one-two punch combination to society and bring about the collapse of everything that anyone holds dear. While seemingly coincidental and unfortunate rather than deliberate attacks, the book routinely asks “what if?” to keep the reader guessing.

The main character, Bill Masen, goes to great lengths to discuss the advent of satellite technology and its potential use for weaponry. He surmises that a “bad-actor” could easily load a satellite with an array of nukes and drop the entire payload into the center of a city killing everyone. This was written some years before the launch of Sputnik in 1957, so details are not exactly what the real science would eventually create, but one can see that people of 1951 were weary of a new space-aged delivery method for nuclear warheads. This book peers into the mind of Masen, himself, largely due to the structure of the novel being something of a loose Epistolary novel. The book is written as if Masen is recalling his memories well into the future for a memoir that the reader has in their hands. Masen may not be a reliable narrator at all times, so we are basically seeing his own personal opinions on matters. Perhaps we are just getting his conspiratorial bad-takes, and he definitely has a doozy – he is something of a “meteor truther” if I were to use modern vernacular.

Throughout his narrative, you can tell that Masen suspects a antagonist country may have either deliberately attacked the UK or accidentally mis-used a satellite that caused the light show that burned out everyone retinas – he is vague, but one can assume he is hinting at Russia. There is also some back-story involving the origin of The Triffids, that Bill has heard third-hand, which supposes that they were created by the infamous Soviet crop scientist Trofim Lysenko, stolen from a research facility, and accidentally dispersed throughout the world via a counter-espionage blunder. We never hear his opinion on the plague, but to the very last page of the book, he suspects the whole ordeal is less than natural. It makes for an interesting read, trying to piece together the actual origin of all the problems, and agree with Bill or not, he’s got some solid evidence. Considering how conspiratorial EVERYONE was in 2020 (and still now) regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, I feel that John Wyndham understood how humans would react to disasters better than most.

Overall, this is my favorite version of this story that I have consumed due to the emphasis being more on human survival versus it being a simple monster story. The reader really gets to know the characters and appreciate where they are coming from, and Masen is definitely far from being the heroic “Mary Sue” we see in many modern stories in this genre. He has flaws and prejudices, and seeing him overcome this is a great journey. I also appreciated and old-school stab at some sort of feminism through the main heroine, and love interest, of the story Josella. Before the meteor shower, Josella gained infamy by writing a controversial book that caused a moral panic, becoming somewhat of a minor celebrity for all the wrong reasons. While the book was not overtly sexual, it was seemed as some kind of pornographic affront to The British Empire. Josella is more forward thinking than Bill, even being willing to entertain going into a polyamorous four-person relationship centered around a couple and two other blind women grouped for the sole purpose of re-populating England.

She is never seen as “crazy” or “a bad person” to anyone other than stodgy old people clinging to the past such as women trying to keep religion forced upon everyone in their survivor camp. This was somewhat refreshing to me, and I was not expecting it. In fact, at one point a secondary character named Coker tears into a young girl that basically acts submissive and demure when faced with the challenge of doing work outside of her gender role prior to the catastrophe. She is basically of the mindset of “I’m just a dumb girl and I need a man to do all these man things”. His words are harsh, and he is not really in the right, but his message is clear – When things get tough men and women should be equal, and pushing outdated social norms because “it’s the way it’s always been done” is a great way to get yourself killed. Whether intentional or not, this is a strongly feminist novel in many ways.

Day of the Triffids is a great book, and really stands the test of time in many ways. Despite being 71 years old, a lot of the themes are still very relevant and it’s crazy to see how people back then dealt with their post-war troubles and concerns. I mentioned the fact that many post-apocalyptic stories have borrowed from this a lot, most notably the horror film 28 Days Later, and the references are still coming to this day. Apparently, some critics hated this book when it first came out, including fellow writer Brian Aldiss, who coined the disparaging phrase “cosy catastrophe” to describe The Day of the Triffids. Personally, I think I prefer a so-called “Cosy Catastrophe” where there is a glimmer of hope in the narrative, to the monstrous piles of depressing “misfortune porn” that have popularized the genre. It’s a shame that the author never continued the story in any way, although there is a book called Night of the Triffids by another writer, and written in 2000, that does. I have heard mixed things on it, and may eventually read it with some reservation. I’d love more books like this, and need to get to researching some!

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