Nineteen Eighty-Four last month, I decided to continue in the English Dystopias vein for my June reread. Initially I tried Brave New World, which I mentioned in passing in writing about Nineteen Eighty-Four, but found it hard to write anything worthwhile about it. But that gave me the idea to return to John Wyndham's classic sci-fi, The Day of the Triffids. Unlike any of the other books I've covered so far in this series, I came to this novel fairly recently - I read if for the first time only a couple of years ago (for this and many other things, my eternal thanks must go to the North Sydney Public Library - I also saw the excellent miniseries version via their gracious benevolence).
Longtime reader/s, if any, will be aware of my somewhat mixed feelings about plot (in short: it's great if there is one, but plenty of potentially interesting books have been spoiled by the addition of a plot where none was necessary). I was somewhat surprised, especially given how recently I first read The Day of the Triffids, how little plot there actually is here. In short, seven years before the story begins, a new type of plant is discovered, eventually named the triffid. Though useful (it produces a sort of super oil), the triffid is dangerous - they come equipped with a powerful sting and a seemingly aggressive behaviour, including the ability to move. Our hero & narrator, Bill Masen, a biologist specialising in triffids, is stung in the eye & thus blindfolded when a beautiful series of comets streaks through the night sky. The next morning, he discovers that everyone who saw the display - almost everyone else - is now blind. He meets a girl (the appallingly named Josella) who was drunk and thus also missed the comets, and the two try to survive. The triffids, sensing the opportunity to take over, begin more overtly attacking and killing the blinded humans.
So, yes, in a way, a lot happens. But Wyndham handles it masterfully, making his whole book about the premise. What would you do if tomorrow morning you awoke and found that everyone around you was blind? Yes, now it would be a fair bit different to in 1951, when the book was published (and, more or less, set), but services quickly drop out. Electricity, fresh water, telecommunications, the chains of supply that bring food to us - all fall apart remarkably quickly. Wyndham obviously put a lot of thought into what effects his scenario would have, and in doing so, he creates a world that we can live in through Bill. Bill's an ordinary man in many ways, other than his professional knowledge of triffids which turns out to be vital, but otherwise torn: should he try to help the helpless people around him? Or is that merely delaying the inevitable, prolonging their misery while decreasing his own chance of survival? Stores can be looted in the short term, but if ongoing survival is your aim, a big city is no place to be. That fact is brought home - fully half of the novel is set in London, before Bill is finally able to leave and look for a suitable place to live in the country. Not only are supplies in short order, but everyone - blind or otherwise - is fearful, confused and desperate. Wyndham is unsparing in his descriptions here: The Day of the Triffids is never gory, it never revels in the misery of the world it creates, but it's impossible to read without thinking about what it would be like to be in Bill's shoes, or in the place of those less lucky than him who simply wake up one morning blind. (Within the first few chapters, several characters commit suicide, and many others turn violent, especially when they encounter the still-sighted like Bill and Josella.) Wyndham seems to actively encourage us to think about how we would react in Bill's place.
Bill is an obvious character for us to latch on to, and his narration is perfectly judged. I don't often include lengthy quotes in these reviews (mostly because my eyes glaze over them in others'), but this short paragraph (from just before Bill leaves London) wonderfully conveys the feeling of standing in the middle of a city and knowing that neither it, nor anything else you've known, will ever be the same again:
Above it all rose the Houses of Parliament, with the hands of the clock stopped at three minutes past six. It was difficult to believe that all that meant nothing any more, that now it was just a pretentious confection in uncertain stone which could decay in peace. Let it shower its crumbling pinnacles onto the terrace as it would - there would be no more indignant members complaining of the risk to their valuable lives. Into those halls which had in their day set world echoes to good intentions and sad expediencies, the roofs could in due course fall; there would be none to stop them, and none to care. Alongside, the Thames flowed imperturbably on. So it would flow until the day the Embankments crumbled and their water spread out and Westminster became once more an island in a marsh.
The Day of the Triffids is not a long book (around 230 pages),
but it's a surprisingly dense one. Even my brief plot summary above
should indicate that, but its main interest is not 'this happened, then
this, then this...', but rather Wyndham seems to have come up with an
idea and then decided not to complicate matters, just to think about
'what would happen if this premise came true?' In doing so, he's created a world, and dragged us into it. The book ends on a strangely lowkey note - another indication of Wyndham's real interest in this story. We're left with a lot more to imagine - knowing what we know to that point, what might happen afterwards?
What would we do? How would we cope?