#43 – The Day of the Triffids Review – John Wyndham

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With a premise that seems like it was taken from a SyFy channel original movie, John Wyndham’s 1951 post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids is a singularly unique and terrifying take on the fall of human civilization and the struggle to survive in a world turned upside down. And while the idea of a story about “Killer Plants” may seem laughable these days (especially since the release of the M. Night Shyamalan flop “The Happening”), the book does an admirable job of portraying the terrifying confusion and fear of a scenario in which most of the population has been rendered helpless against a slow but persistent predator. Amidst the terror and struggle for survival, Wyndham is also able to squeeze in a tender love story, a commentary on the pitfalls of mankind’s obsession with toying with nature, and even a frank discussion of the types of societal structures that may arise after the breakdown of civilization.

Day of the Triffids Summary: The hero of the story, Bill Masen, is an English biologist who has been working with a fictional strain of tall plants called Triffids that seem to possess a rudimentary level of intelligence and coordination. Having been bioengineered and accidentally spread throughout the world by the Russians, their extracts were found to actually be favorable to existing vegetable oils – which is why they were eventually tamed and cultivated. As the book begins, Masen is recuperating in a hospital after a lab mishap in which Triffid venom splashed in his eyes. With his eyes in bandages, Masen misses a spectacular green meteor shower that is seen across the globe. After waking up the next morning, he soon discovers that the majority of the population (having witnessed the meteor shower with their own eyes) have become blind. With most of London’s residents rendered sightless, society comes to a crashing halt and Masen is thrust into the ensuing chaos.

While making his way out of London, Bill is able to save a sighted woman named Josella who is being violently held against her will by a blind man. Together, they eventually find a group of other sighted people held up in a University building. After being forcibly separated from Josella, who he’s begun to develop relationship with, Bill tries desperately to reunite with her among the turmoil of competing leaders who have begun trying to set up their own little societies based on their own ideologies and theories as to how best to protect themselves and save as many people (both blind and sighted) as possible. To make matters worse, those lovable Triffids (now without any human supervision) have begun to get loose and prey on the humans with a whip-like stinger that they are able to use to poison and immobilize their victims before feeding on them. While the blind population are the easiest targets for the plants, the sheer number and persistence of the Triffids make them deadly predators of those who can see as well. In essence, the Triffids are a lot like how zombies are usually depicted – slow moving, but ravenous and in such an endless supply that they eventually overtake their victims in the end.

Day of the Triffids Review: This is a book that sneaks up on you. While the problem of blindness does cause mass chaos, it doesn’t have the emotional impact of the mass-extinction events that other post-apocalyptic novels contain. The Triffids aren’t some menacing alien species that wipes out human civilization with their superior technology and firepower. Instead, they stalk us silently and effectively as a result of the loss of just one of our five senses. They are a product of our own manipulations with the natural order – something that we think we’ve tamed, yet eventually breaks free of our control. But in a way they are a much scarier threat. Instead of extinction happening all at once, it will happen slowly and painfully with us picked off one by one. “Not with a bang but with a whimper” as T.S. Eliot put it. And Wyndham does an excellent job of slowly increasing the tension and desolation of the characters as they try to come to terms with this new reality. And while you may not look at gardening in the same way again, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this book just the same.

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August 23, 2010

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