First published in 1951, this is a classic cold war, post-apocalyptic novel. The triffids of the title are large, mobile, carnivorous plants. They are supposedly the creation of biotechnological tinkering by those dastardly Soviets.
The oil men of the capitalist states are more than happy to pay for the illicit shipment that will result in farm upon farm of triffids producing cheap, high quality oils, though.
We first meet the novel’s protagonist, Bill Masen, as he wakes up in hospital with bandages over his eyes. He has been working with the triffids for some time when he takes a sting that nearly results in him being blinded. While he is lying in hospital unsighted the “comet” comes along and creates a spectacular light show that everyone watches.
The comet brings the apocalypse. Bill wakes up the following morning to find the world and its inhabitants have been rendered sightless, while he is ironically able to see once he removes his bandages. This is where the story begins with the great opening line, “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”
Indeed there is. It is the start of the end for civilisation as we know it.
While puzzling it out and stopping at various pubs along the way, Bill meet Josella Playton. Josella has been captured and tied up in order to be the “eyes” of another person. Bill helps to rescue her and they form a bond in the aftermath of the disaster. There is discussion on whether to stay and help the masses of people who can no longer tend to themselves, or to leave the city for the countryside where things are less dangerous. There follows a meandering story of the few sighted people’s response to such a disaster and how the prevailing morals and attitudes play out against a pragmatic and hard nosed alternative world view.
I thought it would be menacing to read this book. It wasn’t.
The triffids are not particularly scary, although they are meant to be semi-sentient and organised. They clearly have some good weaponry at their command, but they are not really the centre of the story. It is how we create things that go on to have unforeseen consequences that takes centre stage. The menace is ourselves and the arrogance that “nothing can go wrong” with our experimentation. The menace is what we can turn into when things get unpleasant.
I found the story to be very easy reading. It did not feel menacing to me despite the clearly nasty situation that the characters and the world was facing. I put that down to Wyndham’s style of writing. This topic in another pair of writer’s hands could have my blood running cold.
The language and the social mores are of their time (late 1940s, early 1950s) and that adds to the soft edge this novel has. We have become considerably harder and more cynical over the years, but the questions raised sixty years ago are still valid. How would we all cope if something of a worldwide magnitude catastrophe occurred? What choices would we need to make? How would we reconcile those with our existing morals?
One of the oddest things it made me think of was self-sufficiency. If push came to shove, could I support myself and my family? Do I have the skills if there was no one else to do it for me? We are so interdependent now that this aspect of the breakdown of society was perhaps the most chilling for me, not the scientifically engineered giant venus flytrap-style threat.
Although not at all what I was expecting to read, I did enjoy it and it did provide some food for thought. It also gave some very nice quotes to share. Here are some that I think give good voice to Wyndham’s thoughts.
It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that ‘it can’t happen here’ – that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms.
There are plenty of people living in various parts of the world, my own included, who have had a year from hell that was totally unexpected. The idea that it can’t happen here is a very strong one and it is a pertinent observation on his part, even now.
And on the thinking that would be required in such a post-apocalyptic time,
The simple rely on a bolstering mass of maxim and precept, so do the timid, so do the mentally lazy – and so do all of us, more than we imagine. Now that the organization has gone, our ready-reckoners for conduct within it no longer give the right answers. We must have the moral courage to think and to plan for ourselves.
Coker, another of the main characters mid-way through the book also has something of a rant about this default to non-thinking. In the context of the era, it is a gender based rant about dependence, but could easily apply to all of us who quite happily sit back and rely on others to cover our (self-induced) skill shortages.
Times have changed rather radically. You can’t any longer say: “Oh, dear, I don’t understand this kind of thing.” and leave it to someone else to do for you. Nobody is going to be muddle-headed enough to confuse ignorance with innocence now – it’s too important. Nor is ignorance going to be cute or funny any more. It is going to be dangerous, very dangerous.
I would recommend this book on the strength of those questions alone – it could be read somewhat like a rousing civil defence advertorial. But I think it unlikely to feel menacing, from a fear of triffids perspective, after so many years and such literary and film-based nasties as the human mind has created in that sixty year gap.
Enjoy a classic view of the world.