Friday 22 June 2012
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
John Wyndham wasn’t just the best-known British SF author of the 1950s – he was one of the best known authors in fiction. It may be hard to recall, but in the UK SF used to be a lot more mainstream than it is now. In my childhood, Jules Verne was still very popular (I still have my ancient copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) as was H.G.Wells (The War of the Worlds, among others). In the 1930s, Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 raised the literary status of SF to the highest level. In the 1950s, Fred Hoyle, the most famous astronomer of his day, wrote The Black Cloud and Ossian's Ride, and in the 1960s went on to co-write the script for the Andromeda TV series. One of the most popular radio series in the 1950s was Journey into Space (I can still recall our family clustering around the radio to hear the weekly instalments) while Quatermass was a successful 1950s TV series.
Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids (published in 1951) therefore met a receptive audience and created something of a sensation at the time. Most people seemed to have read it and everyone knew what a triffid was, just as they know what a Dalek is today. As was pointed out by another reader on a discussion forum, some people even now (myself included, I realised) still jokingly refer to any large, strange and imposing plant as a "triffid". Nowadays Dr Who and the Harry Potter series are just as well known, but they differ in two important respects: they are primarily aimed at children, and they are fantasies rather than SF (I suspect that Tolkien was partly responsible for that). In the 1950s, SF in the UK was mainstream adult entertainment rather than the niche interest it has become.
Triffids was followed by several other best-sellers by Wyndham, especially The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed exceptionally well in the UK in 1960 as The Village of the Damned, with a poorly-regarded Hollywood remake in 1995) but Triffids has survived better than the others. I hadn’t read it since the 1960s, so I was interested to see how it stood up today. One warning: this review contains some spoilers in describing the plot, but most readers will probably be aware of them anyway.
The first point to strike me was the quality of the writing. This isn’t just fiction, this is literature, and the care with words and descriptions plus the perceptive observations spread throughout the book all stand out from the great majority of SF. No wonder it had a good critical reception. However, in this case "literary" does not imply "slow and unexciting", as it tends to today. The initial chapter, when the protagonist Bill Masen is in hospital having been temporarily blinded, is chilling in its evocation of the helplessness and dawning horror as he realises that something is terribly wrong with the world. This is emphasised by the story being told in the first person, making his emotions all the more intensely felt.
I had a more negative response to the next two chapters which told the story of the triffids. Frankly, this pushed my credulity well over my limit. The potential dangers of genetically modified plants are of course just as topical today, and I would have no problems believing in a commercially valuable crop which was also dangerous to be around due to poisonous thorns or some such. But plants which detect movement with sufficient precision to be able to strike accurately with a poisonous lash from several feet away? Which can pick up their roots and walk? Demonstrate collective intelligence and organisation? Communicate with each other via a drumming code (how did they devise and learn that)? Know that the eyes are the most vulnerable target in a human despite having no vision of their own? Sorry, but such an assembly of impossibilities, accidently emerging in one plant as a side-effect of developing edible-oil quality, would be met with derision if a modern author presented such a concept. Most modern SF might not be as well written, but its attempts at such developments tend to make more scientific sense.
In fact, I am rather baffled by the need to include the triffids at all. The conventional guidance to SF authors wanting to base their stories on some change taking place in the present day is that they should only introduce one “MacGuffin”; one key element, the consequences of which can then be explored. Wyndham has two right at the start: the triffids plus the intense atmospheric flashes which blind nearly all of humanity. I can’t help thinking that the concept of the triffids probably occurred to him first, and that he invented the global blinding in order to enable the triffids to become dangerous. If the global blinding had occurred to him first, the consequences of that would surely have provided quite enough drama to fill a novel without needing the impossible plants at all. In fact, I suspect that without the triffids, the story would have been even more chillingly realistic, and thereby even easier for the readers to relate to. On the other hand, the triffids are what the book is best remembered for, so perhaps he was being clever after all.
The triffids and their origin described, the tale then returns to Masen’s account of survival against the odds, which continues to grip the reader throughout the book. This is one of the classic “what would you do in his place?” novels, and the story doesn’t skate over the harrowing moral dilemmas about whether to try to help the blind survivors, knowing that it would only postpone the inevitable. Masen has great difficulty in casting aside his social conditioning to accept the new reality and change his attitudes and behaviour accordingly. In fact, the story isn’t really about SF at all, in the sense of focusing on bold futures full of gee-whiz technology and zooming rocket ships, as much SF was at the time. This is really about what it is to be human, and how people react so variously when placed in a situation which, while appalling, was not so strange that readers could not easily relate to it. This was, don’t forget, written in the early years of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was already rearing its head. Arguably, the disaster which befell the world in Wyndham’s story was even more disconcerting than atomic war would have been; the cities left untouched, apparently fully functioning, yet populated almost entirely by ordinary people whose lives were steadily unravelling and who were certain to be dead before long. The lethal disease which sweeps through the city, horrifying in other circumstances, comes as something of a relief since the alternative for most was a slow death by starvation.
One interesting aspect of the novel is that the female characters are far more than props for the men, as was so often the case at this time. They are drawn just as strongly, in both positive and negative roles; the characterisation of both genders is complex and rings true. One of the male characters rants furiously at the traditionally helpless attitude of a young woman when faced with vital technology - how to switch on a domestic generator to provide electric power - and the essential need in the changed situation for all of the sighted survivors to lose their ignorance and dependence. Even in this instance, the author has the woman responding with some spirit.
That also made me realise that we are even more vulnerable to a global disaster today than the world was in 1951 - we have become highly dependent on a sophisticated web of infrastructure, communications, trade and just-in-time deliveries, and have even less idea of how everything works and what to do if it stops. To give one detailed example of our vulnerability, much of the tinned and dried food which could be expected to last for months or years has been replaced by chilled or frozen products which will start spoiling only a few hours after the power has failed.
As ever with novels from an earlier age, there are some unintentional glimpses into aspects of the past. The universality of cigarette smoking is a common one, but what struck me this time was the wonderment of the survivors at the clearness of the air in London, unaffected by coal smoke and fumes. That reminded me that the first Clean Air Act, which enforced the use of smokeless fuel in some urban areas, was not passed until 1956, and followed London's "Great Smog" of the winter of 1952/3, during which the capital (known colloquially at the time as "The Smoke") was occasionally immobilised by zero visibility and some 20,000 people were estimated to have died from the resulting respiratory illnesses.
The reasons for the runaway success of this novel are clear, and they still make it a compelling read today: the writing quality, combined with the way in which the reader is drawn into and fully engaged in the developing disaster, empathising with realistic and sympathetic characters. I know someone who was so horrified by the story as a young woman that she has never wanted to read it since, nor see any of the screen versions. Yet she watches modern disaster films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow without any concerns at all, because they’re so unrealistic and superficial by comparison. In conclusion, The Day of the Triffids is an excellent, adult story which fully deserves its place in any list of classic science fiction. It’s just a pity about the triffids…!