The Day of the Triffids is a brilliant, seminal science fiction novel by the legendary John Wyndham. This was the book which started me off reading science fiction again in earnest, looking for the best that the genre had to offer. Wyndham’s book offers a blend of subtle social critique, suspense, and dystopian world building that few books have since managed to repeat. I find myself making reference to Triffids relatively frequently, so much so that it has driven a few people to reading the book for themselves, just to see what it is that I’m on about.
The plot of the original – not to be confused with various film, television, and radio versions – is straightforward: the development of a new and hideous species of plants with the capability to move and sting humans lethally is unfortunately coincident with a brilliant cometary light-show which strikes the vast majority of the world’s population blind. The plants, which were developed in secret and only spread inadvertently through the world by the destruction of the aeroplane on which the smuggled seeds were being transported, had spread quickly around the world and begin to appear in the wild in the years before the comet. Although they are found to be possessed of a lethal, whip-like “sting,” and are capable of moving independently, the plant hybrids are also thought to be without any intelligence. Quickly, it is found that they are a valuable resource, and despite their danger, triffids are bred and kept in captivity, farmed and tapped for a useful oil which they produce.
The comet (it is implied that the phenomenon may not in fact be natural, but a damaged spacecraft or satellite gone horribly wrong), in the meantime, has promised to put on a spectacular light show, as the Earth rotates through its path, the entire world is exposed to brilliant light shows of aurora and green flashes. The next morning, everyone who viewed the sky awakens to find that they are blind.
The triffids use the opportunity of their handlers’ new blindness to break free of their enclosures and to hunt their former masters with impunity. Using their lethal sting to kill, the triffids then feed by waiting for their victims to decompose and absorbing the nutrients through their triple-root base (hence triffid, or “three-footed”). Although the triffids have no obvious intelligence, it is clear that they communicate in some way, and their sinister rattling is the only indication that they give of agitation or alarm.
Bill Mason, a triffid expert serendipitously suffering an eye injury on the night of the comet, awakes in a hospital on the day his bandages are to come off only to find himself in the world of the blind. With Josella Peyton, a former playgirl, Mason tries to negotiate the suddenly terrifying landscape of implacable hybrid monsters, disease, and human survivors. In very little time, they find themselves on the run not only from diseasae-ridden London and triffids, but from the petty dictators and thugs who arise in the strange new England after the comet. Assembling a small outpost on the Sussex Downs, Mason and Josella face challenges and perils in trying not only to survive, but to struggle to maintain some grasp of the former civilisation, now slipping so quickly out of reach.
As a book of the 1950s, set in an unspecified future, The Day of the Triffids has dated in a few minor respects, but on the whole this book is as compelling and terrifying as it was fifty years ago, when it served as the inspiration for a raft of dystopian literature. A must-read. Five stars.
Originally reviewed 15 July 2011.
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