My life in outer space

The Day of The Triffids – John Wyndham (1951)

The Day of the Triffids

Academics have written enough about this novel to fill an entire shelf at least, and that perhaps is not a good thing since it tends to detract from the fact that this is a marvellously entertaining and thought-provoking work, maybe the single best British SF novel of the Twentieth Century.
Some years before the opening of the novel a plane containing a box of triffid seeds was shot down and, it is supposed, the tiny seeds were carried to all parts of the world since, not so long after, triffids began growing and multiplying everywhere. It is also supposed that the triffids were a product of Russian genetic engineering and used as a source of highly pure and efficient vegetable oil.
For those not in the know triffids are, in brief , six foot mobile plants whose main stalk ends in a trumpetlike ‘flower’ from which a prehensile stinger can lash out. The stinger contains venom strong enough to kill a man. The triffids can also uproot themselves and walk on their three ambulatory roots. Also, they have sticklike growths which drum against the main stem, creating a rattling noise with which some believe they communicate among themselves.
Bill Mason is a researcher working with triffids and in his world most specimens are docked of their stingers. Some are staked out in parks. Other people keep docked specimens in their gardens.
At the start of the novel however, Bill, who has been in hospital after an accidental triffid sting to his eyes, awakens to a strangely silent world. As his eyes were bandaged he was one of the few people to miss a worldwide display of cometary debris burning up in the earth’s atmosphere.
Eventually he discovers that the strange fireworks have burnt out the retinae of everyone who witnessed them. In the days that follow, the very few who have kept their sight attempt to reorganise, but it is only Bill who realises that now the infrastructure of civilisation has disappeared, the triffids may become masters of the earth.
Wyndham’s three major works – this, ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ and ‘The Chrysalids’ – all deal in their different ways with evolutionary issues and the battle between species for territory. It is here that the message is clearest, and shows an extinction event in which the triffids, until now contained and controlled by a more successful species, are suddenly given an evolutionary advantage. Triffids are carnivorous plants which may or may not have some form of rudimentary intelligence. It has been noted by Mason’s colleagues that when attacking humans they inevitably aim for the eyes. It is also pointed out, somewhat prophetically, that a triffid would always have the advantage over someone blind.
Therefore, by a combination of circumstances, Wyndham quite chillingly shows us how a more successful species (which need not necessarily be a more intelligent species) could, in evolutionary terms, supplant us.
Mason’s colleague makes the point that we go to great lengths to feed and grow the triffids and then design machinery to extract their oil, while all the triffid has to do is kill someone, settle down in the soil and wait for the body to decompose before using its stinger to transfer bits of rotting flesh to its ‘throat’.
What has never been clear is when this novel is actually set. Written in 1951, Wyndham obviously intended it as some near-future setting which, by the internal chronology, must be some time in the Nineteen Sixties.
Much is made of Wyndham’s rather quaint middle-class viewpoint and the fact that many of the survivors seem to be professional middle-class types. The interesting point about this is that it gives Wyndham a chance to have a swipe at some of the complacent attitudes of Middle England, such as the lady in charge of Tynsham Manor who would rather her community fail than surrender to immoral unchristian practices.
Coker is the most fascinating of the sighted survivors although his character may be merely a clever device on Wyndham’s part, since he is written as having a chameleon use of language and accents, which allows him to enter into debate with anyone, and therefore raises some questions which might otherwise have been avoided. The role of women in society, for instance, is brought up when Coker fixes the generator at Tynsham Manor and then berates a young woman for basically waiting for a man to sort it out. This is Wyndham addressing his women readers, telling them that women are more than capable of doing any job a man can do, but it is up to them to fight against the entrenched notions of society.


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