Another in my series of post-apocalytpic novel reviews, The Day of the Triffids is known by many as not only an archetype post-apocalyptic story but also one of the all time great sci-fi books. From the very start it’s easy to see why – it’s written in an easily accessible way and the theme is immediately novel and gripping. Coming into it raw you’re led to believe it’s a disaster story about the attack of giant plants, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s about a lot more than that. In fact the titular triffids play only a small role in a story of survival that questions human conventions.
Briefly told, the story follows Bill Masen, one of very few people left in London with the ability to see after the effects of an alleged comet. As he bowls about the city trying to make sense of things, he makes friends with a young lady and realises that humans without sight will be helpless against the rise of the triffids, a new species of carnivorous plant apparently engineered during the Cold War. Whilst the triffids are crucial in providing the lasting threat of the new world, in fact it is the blindness that creates the post-apocalyptic landscape of this novel, and it does so in a unique way. In questioning what would happen if the human population suddenly went blind, Wyndham builds a frighteningly realistic portrayal of how quickly society would decline. There are no zombies, there isn’t even a weapon that effectively kills the masses – there is simply the loss of one of our human senses, and it completely transforms the world.
The story is expertly crafted for the most part – the considerations of survival Wyndham makes are spot on, his attention to detail admirable and his characters all well-defined. Croker, in particular, is a superb character, a subversive orator used as a voice-piece for exposing theories about what the disaster means for the world, and what civilisation needs to survive. It’s a novel with many carefully plotted themes, including Cold War paranoia, the damning effects of miss-used technology, gender roles and social consciousness – however it is one that Croker dwells on that comes across strongest. The theme that without leisure time, the human race cannot advance. In fact, it is destined to regress. That is, knowledge cannot exist without the free time to foster it, and that is the ultimate damning point for a human race beset by the need to survive.
The triffids themselves are an inspired feature in the post-apocalypse, but the strength of the story, the details of survival and rebuilding society, are almost universal, and could be ported to any post-apocalyptic story (28 Days Later, Danny Boyle says, was partly inspired by this novel). In fact the plants themselves aren’t in the story anywhere near much as you would expect – the human influence is far more important in the way things change. That’s why the book remains so popular, and the story has been recreated so many times, including for radio and film. It’s not a horror story, not a tale of giant plants taking over the world, it’s a story of how easily the human race could fall apart with one luxury removed from us, and what it might take to keep going.
If you haven’t read The Day of the Triffids, I highly recommend you do. It’s not long, either. Available from Amazon here.