Monday, April 13, 2009

Blind new world: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids

I saw the 1960s film version of The Day of the Triffids around 15 years ago – it was part of a horror-film festival by the then-new Star Movies – and what I remember is a campy, moderately entertaining monster movie about carnivorous walking plants (known as triffids) that go on the rampage shortly after flashes from a meteor shower have blinded most of the world’s human population. It was very specific B-movie horror, emphasizing the predatory triffids and the immediate danger they posed to flailing homosapiens. Much swishing about of tentacles and such, which made me think of that famous line from The Thing, “An intellectual carrot – the mind boggles!” Also some Fay Wray-like screaming by the victims if I remember correctly. (Check for yourself: the full film is on Google Video.)

The source material, John Wyndham’s novel, is more contemplative and deals with subtler terrors. For one thing, despite the title, the triffids play a relatively small part – for around three-fourths of the book they are fleetingly mentioned and the full extent of the danger they pose to the suddenly disadvantaged human species is not clear (despite a character pointing out early on that sight is the only real advantage humans have over them). Even when they come into their own in the later chapters, the tone of the narrative remains sober and pragmatic rather than sensationalistic, as narrator-protagonist Bill Masen – one of the few sighted people left on earth – and a small group of survivors examine their dwindling options.

Far more frightening than the stinging triffids is Wyndham’s account of the special problems facing a world where nearly everyone has suddenly lost the power of sight – and how completely civilisation would break down in such a situation. The premise here is more complicated than that in H G Wells’ famous short story “The Country of the Blind”, about an isolated mountainside community made up entirely of blind people who have successfully adapted to their state over the generations, to the extent that the concept of sight becomes incomprehensible to them. In The Day of the Triffids, the people affected have been thoroughly dependent on sight all their lives, the change takes place overnight, and the future of the species is at stake. In almost no time, the systems in charge of power generation and water-purifying stop working and people take to the streets in panic, blindly smashing shop windows in the hope that there might be food inside. Near-universal blindness turns out to be a great leveler, wiping clean the slate of protocol that led a lower-class person to be deferential towards someone more privileged. Some of the more resourceful blind people start taking sighted people captive, to help them procure food and lodging.

Many difficult decisions must be made: is it better to make a desperate, “humane” effort to save and provide for everyone in the short term or to accept that long-term planning is the way forward, even if that means making hard-hearted choices? When there is to be a complete reordering of society, to what extent should the old laws and norms be adhered to? During a lengthy discussion, a character named Coker stresses the importance of large communities rather than small groups, because certain people – teachers, doctors – must be left free to do their own specialised work rather than spend their time in mundane daily labour:
Where everybody has to work hard just to get a living and there is no leisure to think, knowledge stagnates, and people with it. The thinking has to be done largely by people who are not directly productive – by people who appear to be living almost entirely on the work of others but who are, in fact, a long-term investment…A community of our present size cannot hope to do more than just exist and decline. If there are children we shall be able to spare only enough time from our labour to give them just a rudimentary education; one generation further, and we shall have savages or clods. To hold our own, to make any use at all of the knowledge in the libraries we must have the teacher, the doctor, and the leader, and we must be able to support them while they help us.
The genesis of the triffids and the appearance of the mysterious “comet debris” that causes the wide-ranging blindness are two unrelated events, separated by 20 years, and in theory this would make Wyndham’s novel more far-fetched than a science-fiction work built around a single fantastical occurrence. But it isn’t that way in practice: the triffids are presented as an exaggerated outcome of genetic engineering, and there is speculation that the deadly dust could have resulted from an accident involving the many dangerous satellite weapons circling the earth (the book was written while the Cold War was on). As he often did in his work, Wyndham begins with alarming real-world possibilities, extends them to weave what he called “logical fantasy”, and then, using a realist narrative, sets down the responses and actions of different people. This is very much a book of ideas and I thought its overall mood was closer to Camus’s The Plague, with its restrained, methodical account of a community struggling to remain organised in the face of calamity, than to pulp fiction; Marsen’s narration in places reminded me of Dr Rieux’s.

This is the third Wyndham I’ve read, the others being The Midwich Cuckoos (briefly mentioned here), which was also filmed in the 1960s, as Village of the Damned; and The Kraken Wakes. But I’ve recently accumulated many of his books, The Chrysalids and Trouble with Lichen among them, and hope to finish the lot soon. Penguin's brightly designed new editions are worth getting - see this.


  1. The basic idea of civilization facing a crisis because of not being able to see reminds me of the recent movie Blindness, based on Jose Saramago's novel.

  2. This reminds me of Joe Haldeman's short story, None So Blind.

  3. nice blog for book readers.. great job..
    Work from home