Since I last read #120 The Day of the Triffids, I’ve read several other books by John Wyndham. This a typical example of his work – the world ends, and everyone does, in fact, keep calm and carry on.
At the start of The Day of the Triffids, humanity has developed triffids, fabulous oil-bearing plants which also happen to have a lethal sting. Oh, and they can walk. When a meteor shower leaves approximately 99.9% of the population blind, hummanity is suddenly at serious risk – not only from the triffids. The main character, Bill Masen, one of the few sighted people left, is set adrift in this collapsing world.
How the world ends
First published in 1951, The Day of the Triffids is part adventure story and part philosophical treatise. The characters are erudite and educated, and adapt quickly and calmly to the situation – no one seems to run about screaming, they either kill themselves quietly and efficiently, die accidentally or set about coping. It’s astonishing, really, and somewhat unsettling. Bill comments, at one point, that he’s the only person looking for someone after the collapse – every other character seems to have shucked off all their connections on the day the disaster struck.
The obvious Big Read book to compare this to is Stephen King’s The Stand. While both books deal with the end of life as we know it and the collapse of society, The Stand dwells more on the horrors of the situation and shows a broader cross-section of society. In The Stand, people also retain their connection to their former lives, they’re tied to their homes, they want to bury their dead. They still have loves and hates, prejudices and joys left from before the disaster. In The Day of the Triffids, everyone seems to be born anew on the day of the destruction – the ties to their former lives seem superficial and no one seems to mourn much, even when their entire family has been wiped out. Conveniently, most of the survivors don’t have any family.
The Day of the Triffids presents a genteel view of the end of the world. Despite the desperation which must be caused by 95% of the world waking up suddenly without sight, there’s little violence. The Stand, to my mind, is more of a horror story – bad stuff just keeps on happening. And the disaster (a super-flu) seems horribly plausible – mobile, murderous plants plus a sight-destroying comet? Not so much.
Both books also stop just when – in my mind – things get interesting. I’m intensely curious about how the world being set up turns out, but neither author gets much beyond the first new generation – although Wyndham does do it in about a quarter of the pages.
Disabled, ruined, dead
For me, the horror of The Day of the Triffids lies primarily in what it says about the society Wyndham was living in. The people blinded by the comet are absolutely disposable – they’re ruined, entirely. They can’t in any way get on without a sighted person. Many of them kill themselves – Bill does nothing to stop this, he rather agrees with it as a course of action. Pretty much every sighted character has a name, only a very few of the blinded characters do – perhaps four in the whole book. As a view of people with disabilities, it’s appalling – and it’s more shocking how quickly the sighted characters give up on the blinded ones.
Apart from being upsetting, this seemed astonishingly unrealistic. I can understand some sighted characters being set adrift alone, but almost every character is willing to discard former friends, neighbours, family as soon as they lose their sight. It’s absolutely bizarre – there’s more nuance and regret in most zombie films than in this book.
Naturally, it’s not just people with disabilities who come under fire. Wyndham is not good about women. The main female character is, of course, the love interest, and the female-led colony is the one doomed to destruction. In Triffids we’re treated to a 3-page rant by a male character explaining that women are keeping themselves down, and need to snap out of it and start being capable and fixing engines. It is, it turns out, women’s faults that they’ve not been engineers before the war as they proved themselves capable during it. He does not address why they are no longer in those jobs now peace has resumed.
The woman this is aimed at objects, argues, is shouted down and leaves. It’s not always possible to tell whether a character is speaking for the author, but in Triffids, I think it’s fair to assume that if Bill agrees, Wyndham agrees. Bill agrees – he simply points out that the speaker should have been more tactful. It’s an appalling misrepresentation of the social situation – and an oddly limited view, coming from a character with poor or working class roots who should have known full well that most women in Britain didn’t have the option of handing over either hard physical work or bread-winning to a man. In fact, even middle-class women seem to have been working physically harder at home than their husbands would have pushing paper in an office.
The Day of the Triffids isn’t, to my mind, Wyndham’s best book, but it is certainly his best-known book, and I can see why. Written during the shift from World War to Cold War, it confirms a number of social prejudices and, even as London falls, holds British values up as worthwhile, strong and good. I can imagine that, at the time, it was both shocking and reassuring, that it pandered to the fears current at the time and also gave a road map out of them.
To me, now, having read so much other apocalyptic fiction it seems lazy – whole swathes of the population, 95% of it, is ignored and unrepresented. Who is blinded and who isn’t doesn’t seem to have been thought through properly – and the numbers are too small, anyway. I feel that Wyndham had an idea he wanted to explore, and did it – it’s almost a personal fantasy or a cod-philosophy book. It may be early sci-fi, and it’s certainly gripping in a car-crash kind of way, but it’s not a book I strongly recommend.
I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.