My mum and my sister have been telling me for years that I MUST read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. “Oh yeah? What’s that one about again?” I would ask, with one of them replying with something along the lines of “Well it’s about killer plants…” before quickly insisting that this didn’t mean it was silly. I finally picked The Triffids up in August and found myself totally captivated, finishing it in one day.
Killer plants are a large part of The Triffids, but it’s far more multifaceted than that. A supposed comet causes a spectacular light show, only to plummet the world into darkness; the intense light has left the majority of the population blind. The sightless stumble the streets in hysterics, desperate for food. At first many die in the ensuing violence, are killed in tragic accidents, like mistaking windows for doors, others, not willing to live in perpetual darkness, suicide. The seers and the blind that survive the first few days find themselves in perpetual danger from a new and unusual threat. Without the power of sight mankind is left at the mercy of the triffids, plants that were created via genetic engineering in Russia and prior to the disaster were harvested commercially across the globe for their oils. The triffids are not your average plants, they are about six-feet tall, able to hobble along on their roots, and are equipped with poisonous, whip-like stingers that lash out at high speeds and reach several feet. Once a triffid has stung it will sit by its victim for days as the body decays, digesting bits of rotting flesh. The novel follows Bill Masen, one of the few whose sight remains intact, and his struggle to survive.
The Triffids was first published in the ’50s, and true to its era it oozes heavy themes of Cold War paranoia. Not only are the Russians responsible for the creation of the triffids, but Masen reveals that prior to the disaster people were living in constant fear of weaponry satellites circling the earth, created as a part of the arms race: “It was by no means pleasant to realise that there was an unknown number of menaces up there over your head, quietly circling and circling until someone should arrange for them to drop – and there was nothing to be done about them. Still, life has to go on – and novelty is a wonderfully short-lived thing. One became used to the idea perforce.”
Despite the heavy contextual impact of the Cold War, The Triffids has stood the test of time because Wyndham’s story is one of human nature and survival; ageless themes contemporary authors continue to wrestle with. It has influenced post apocalyptic writers for the past five decades and as a result its traces can be seen in many modern works (The Happening, I Am Legend, The Handmaid’s Tale…). Wyndham might have been preoccupied with the events of the ‘50s, but he also managed to foreshadow modern concerns about genetic engineering and bio warfare, increasing the text’s longevity even further.
All of this aside, The Triffids is simply so well written. Wyndham paints a vivid, thrilling, disaster story that successfully walks the line between frightening and funny without ever becoming overwhelmingly dark; a fate many post-apocalyptic works often succumb to.
I’m dying to read more of Wyndham’s works, and next on my list is The Chrysalids, which, according to Wikipedia, some fans consider his finest work.