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.

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