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Beware of the giant plants
The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham
Member Name: JOHNDMR
The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham
Advantages: Chilling story, more than just a science fiction tale
Disadvantages: None, really
Imagine giant stinging plants which walk or rather move around on their roots, gather in groups, emit a lethal sting and feed on the bodies if their victims, threaten to take over the world and ultimately bring about the destruction of the human race. That is the basic scenario of this book.
The central character (the human one, that is) is Bill Masen, a biologist who has been professionally working with triffids. His theory is that they were the outcome of a series of ingenious yet accidental biological meddlings. No 'well-documented ancestry' for them exists, because of what he calls 'the curious political situation then prevailing'. He suspects that the seeds must have been released into the wild when an aeroplane which was smuggling them, packed into a small cube of plywood, was shot down over the Pacific Ocean. Literally millions were free to drift all over the world - and they surely did.
At the beginning of the story, Masen is in hospital in London with his eyes bandaged, as a consequence of having been splashed with small drops of triffid venom in an accident. While he is convalescing, he learns that thousands of other people, maybe even millions, have been watching the light from a meteor shower. Next day he wakes to the news that everyone who saw it is now blind. With trepidation he removes his bandages, and finds that his sight is thankfully unaffected. Then he discharges himself and begins a weary journey on foot through the mainly silent city, where nearly everyone else is sightless, and civilisation seems to be on the point of collapse. It is a bleak picture.
That's not a criticism, but should be taken as a compliment to Wyndham's writing, by the way. He paints a chilling picture of how his hero finds the situation in what is almost a city of the dead. Was he possibly inspired, it occurred to me, by reading or seeing pictures and/or films of the experiences of those left alive in such cities as Dresden and Hiroshima in 1945 after the bombs were dropped? Such events were still well within living memory when the book was first published. The eerie sense of danger and isolation is conveyed very effectively in these pages.
Love rears its head when he meets novelist Josella Playton, one of the more fortunate ones who can still see, even if she is being forced to pay for the gift of keeping her sight by being used as a guide by a man who is blind and seems about to turn violent. A solitary light in an otherwise dark city leads them to a group of likewise fully sighted survivors in a university building. Their leader wants to establish a new colony in the countryside, consisting of others who also still have their sight, who will rebuild a healthy population. As they have little alternative, Bill and Josella join them. But that is only the beginning - and that's all I am prepared to reveal about the story.
Domesday scenarios, with scientific and/or environmental disaster, were very much in vogue some years ago. 'The Day of the Triffids' was one of the first, if not the first. There is a case for arguing that the real precursor was H.G. Wells' 'The War of the Worlds', but only very loosely. It is hardly surprising, by the way, that Wyndham acknowledged his debt and inspiration to that title.
By the way, I can recall in my youth the name 'triffid' being applied as a joke to any large ugly plant, although there is certainly nothing funny about the subject matter of the story.
To a certain extent, this seems to me a cautionary tale about how genetic engineering and one accident (or possibly deliberate action disguised as an accident) can bring about terrible, uncontrollable consequences and imperil the survival of mankind. But it is not merely a story about what could happen when the genie is let out of the bottle. To some extent, it is also about what inevitably occurs when society collapses, morals are swept aside, anarchy becomes rife, and certain unscrupulous people take over. On the face of it, the triffids are the enemy. But probe beneath the surface and mankind is actually the guilty party, the one to fear. It was human beings who played God and unleashed a monster they could not control, and it was human beings who attempted to seize control of the chaotic situation and impose their order on society. I can see another parallel with what was then a fairly recent event in history emerging here - how a certain woefully charismatic leader seized power in Germany after the post-war chaos and hyper-inflation of the early 1920s.
When I began reading it, my immediate thought was 'ah, another science fiction novel' - albeit one that I had had vaguely on my must-read list for a long time. Once I had finished it and began to think about it on all levels, I realized it was much more than that. I would recommend this book to anyone, not least as a thoroughly readable and chilling volume which ultimately turns out to be more than it seems at first glance.
John Wyndham (1903-69) had long been a writer of mainly short stories for magazines, the majority of them science fiction and detective stories, before he turned to novels. 'The Day of the Triffids', his first and best-known, was published in 1951, and was later filmed as well as adapted as a drama for TV and radio. Though he published several more novels before his death in 1969, this remains the one for which he will always be remembered.
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Summary: What happens when scientific meddling gets out of hand and killer plants threaten the universe?