Day of the Triffids — John Wyndham

John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids is another early post apocalyptic novels that’s more interesting as a historical curiosity than for aesthetic merit. It suffers from many of science fiction’s deficiencies in terms of writing quality and characterization. These problems might stem in part from science fiction’s focus on novelty in plot, technology, and world, rather than in linguistic or cultural achievement; perhaps fiction is innovative either in what it says or how it says only seldom both. The only science fiction novels I’m aware of that could stand on their own as a literary achievement is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Some others are serviceable and worthwhile, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Walter Michael Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Philip K. Dick’s better novels. But none are great novels, though Gibson comes closest, and while I don’t think the genre is incapable of housing real greatness, the relative lack of literary worth gives me pause when I continue searching for satisfying science fiction.

This long introduction is designed to put The Day of the Triffids in a context it doesn’t transcend. The plot begins with a fantastic meteor shower that strikes all who watch it blind combined with the invasion of an insidious species known as triffids, which kill anyone within a few feet via a stinging lash. These walking carnivorous plants become symbolic repositories for our fears and our collective inability to see what’s in front of our faces; as Bill Masen, the overly prim and competent protagonist observes, ” ‘There’s a kind of conspiracy not to believe things about triffids.’ ” There is, and I felt some horror as I learned more about them, but it was an overly familiar feeling from all those end-of-the-world stories: George Stewart’s Earth Abides, which predates The Day of the Triffids by two years, the aforementioned A Canticle for Leibowitz, Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer, and even Stephen King’s The Stand. Except for A Canticle for Leibowitz, they all share the same styles, themes, and motifs concerning humanity’s capacity for darkness and ignorance (“Horrible alien things which some of us had somehow created, and which the rest of us, in our careless greed, had cultured all over the world,” we learn in The Day of the Triffids. Notice the lack of subject or article at the beginning of the sentence, where it seems that one or both should appear). I just wish there were more originality in this, although to be fair Earth Abides and The Day of the Triffids are forerunners to the later developments in the sub-genre of apocalyptic stories.

As in many such works, Bill Masen is little more advanced emotionally and intellectually than the nameless narrator of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. A curious mixture of competence, chivalry, and sexism, Bill Masen wants to protect his women and while keeping them, you know, in their role. Still, to his credit he thinks about a ten-year-old, “[…] the world in which she was going to grow up would have little use for the overniceties and euphemisms that I had learned as a child […]” Still, he’s not perceptive enough to think that perhaps those “niceties” aren’t of use in the current world, as Paul Graham cogently argues. “[His] quest was personal,” although that quest is just to find a girl he randomly encountered, and even then it feels not so much personal as generic and something expected by a certain type of society. I sometimes feel the same way when closing time approaches at a bar. Augie March is on a personal quest, but Bill Masen, alas, is not.

Elsewhere, he almost verges on something vaguely resembling insight when he says that, “There is an inability to sustain the tragic mood, a phoenix quality of the mind. It may be helpful or harmful, it is just a part of the will to survive—yet, also, it has made it possible for us to engage in one weakening war after another.” Maybe so, but even here the awkwardness of the writing, with the disjointedness created by the first comma in both sentences, weakens the sense of flow and as a result the sentiment that is being expressed. And yet his fundamental argument about the resilience of humanity is not a bad one, even if it is not expressed well, and I would’ve liked for more on the subject.

As I said, The Day of the Triffids is most interesting as a historical document: Cold War symbolism abounds, and as disaster befalls England one girl “[…] had an utterly unshakeable conviction that nothing serious could have happened to America, and that it was only a matter of holding out for a while until the Americans arrived to put everything in order.” Contrast this belief with what Fareed Zakaria persuasively argues about the views of America abroad in The Post-American World. In Day of the Triffids, this exchange takes place a few pages after the first quote:

“Try to imagine a world in which there aren’t any Americans—can you do that?”
The girl stared at him.
“But there must be,” she said.
[…]
“There won’t always be those stores. The way I see it, we’ve been given a flying start in a new kind of world.”

Although the girl who believes in America is presented as a fool, it’s still nice to imagine that this sentiment was reasonably widespread during the Cold War. I remain hopeful and perhaps even confident, like Zakaria in The Post-American World, that it will be again in the near future. In the meantime, Day of the Triffids remains dead history rather than living fiction that still speaks loudly to us today, as great literature does.

6 responses

  1. Pingback: Quid plura? | "Les yeux sans visage..."

  2. Ok, Gotta admit it… I love this story.

    I’m tempted to launch into a long defence of it, but to be honest, reading above… I think I see what the problem is.

    Triffids is an exceptionally English book, one of the most English of the postwar period. You discuss the lack of social emphasis and characterisation while this book is actually quite important for the social discussion in it. There is a lot of intensive discussion of class roles in post war British society that I can fully understand being a bit impenetrable to an American, particularly the relationship between Coker and first the university group, and then the mansion. Also, there is a heavy dose of British geography (this story makes a lot, lot more sense if you have a mental map of London to work from) that adds itself on top of the Englishness of the class system.

    While discussing later version of this work, it’s probably worth mentioning the recent movie “28 Days Later” which is well documented for being a film version of this book, only with Zombies replacing Triffids… Or for a more direct comparison it should be framed against the literary works of someone like Kingsley Amis…

    The stuffyness that seems to be pushing you away from this story was a major aspect of British post war society.

    I can’t help but feel sad that so much of this novel went over your head.

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  4. Pingback: Quid plura? | "...oblique suggestions, and he waited."

  5. I would agree with Edwin, except to add that if this novel didn’t speak to you, if you consider it dead, then you are dead to good literature, not the other way around. I am not English nor familiar with postwar British society (except to the extent I learned about it from the novel) but I love Day of the Triffids. In fact, it has become one of my favourite novels. I grant you it is not a Persuasion or a Villette, but it is certainly a classic of literature, comparable in writing quality to 1984 or Brave New World. Compared to those it only trades off depth of ideas for the pleasure of its story, but at least measure for measure.

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  6. Jim —

    Maybe so, but I would argue that not caring for a single particular novel, regardless of that novel, can’t make one dead to good literature. If someone doesn’t like one of my favorite novels—All the King’s Men, Gatsby, or Moby Dick, for example—they still might be open to novels.

    The problem with Day of the Triffids is that it’s pedestrian in form and content; at the front of the chapter that beings “frustration,” one finds a paragraph so unremarkable that it could be from any novel:

    The first thing was an ache in my head. The next was a glare when I opened my eyes. At the first blink it was as dazzling as a klieg light, but when I started again and edged the lids up more cautiously it turned out to be only an ordinary window…

    Apparently every person in literature has a headache and can’t stand bright lights when they wake up, and this is rendered with no unusual detail that might make it stand out. There was a glare that was not just bright, but like a _really_ bright klieg light: and so what?

    If this were an unrepresentative sample, one could call me unfair; but I don’t think it is, and little of the novel is sufficiently, well, novel, or aesthetically interesting, to be worthwhile.

    Anyhow, I obviously beg to differ with your perspective, but I do appreciate the comment.

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