In which Netty comes face to face with her own personal Day of the TriffidsJune 26, 2012
The Triffids were a 1980s alternative band, hailing from Western Australia and led by the late singer-songwriter David McComb, whose 10-year, five-album career culminated in the seminal 1986 release Born Sandy Devotional …
Hold on – what’s that? Oh, whoops! Wrong blog. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
Actually, I need to make a confession here – and it is quite an embarrassing one. Until this month, I did not know that a triffid was not a real plant. Yeah, yeah – chortle away to your heart’s content. Especially you, Andy. Now, I can blame it on my shockingly poor knowledge of botany, or just plain ignorance (there’s an anecdote I can add here about peat moss, but I figure I’ve already set myself up for enough ridicule for one post). So, yeah, The Triffids were one of my favourite bands growing up – and I guess I was aware on some level that they were named after a plant, and then there’s a vague recognition of John Wyndham’s book The Day of the Triffids in there, too – not that I had ever read it, or was ever intending to. I mean, it’s an old sci-fi book, so why would I bother?
When you sign on to do a book blog with a dedicated sci-fi aficionado, chances are you’re going to encounter a bit of that genre along the way. As an interesting aside, in the five years Andy and I have been doing Reading Challenge, by far and away the most hits our archives get are for Andy’s post on Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. Feel free to refresh your memory here: https://wellreadweare.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/the-chrysalids-and-chaos-walking-andy-explores-the-wyndham-ness/ Hence Andy chose arguably Wyndham’s best-known novel for me to tackle in this year’s alterna-challenge. And boy, I gotta tell you it was both a revelation – and a relief – that these triffid things do not exist outside of Wyndham’s mind …
Wyndham, an English science-fiction writer, published three novels in the mid-1930s under a pen name before reviving his career with the 1951 release of The Day of the Triffids, at the age of 48. He went on to release 11 novels and short-story collections before his death in 1969 (as well as a handful posthumously). Triffids has subsequently been reimagined as a film, TV and several radio series; there is even a 2001 sequel, The Night of the Triffids, written by Simon Clark. The original Triffids is post-apocalyptic science-fiction, set in the era in which it was written (early 1950s England), but stylistically it seems to have much in common with the dystopian genre of which I dip into from time to time (although many of its premises are fantastical enough that it is not the sort of story that unlike, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, will keep you awake in the wee hours). Wyndham’s fellow sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss, perhaps churlishly, referred to Triffids as a “cosy catastrophe”.
In the opening chapter, the narrator Bill Masen wakes up in a hospital bed in London disturbed by the surrounding silence (the portentous first line of the book is: “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere”). A botanist, Masen has been blinded – he hopes temporarily – by poisonous droplets from the highly venomous triffid plants with which he works. After removing his own bandages, moving about his environs and encountering others, he discovers that a meteor shower during his incarceration has blinded all those who witnessed it. The city is in chaos, with the blinded masses largely unsuccessfully fighting for their survival by looting and scavenging. In his wanderings Masen encounters Josella Playton, a wealthy novelist who also avoided being blinded but has been taken hostage by a blind man who is forcibly using her as his eyes.
Masen frees Josella from her captor, and the pair join forces and plan their immediate futures before they spot a shaft of light, visible at night and emanating from a nearby university. After investigating, they find a small, but highly organised community of both sighted and blind people, led by Michael Beadley and the Colonel, also plotting the path ahead. But a dissenter, Wilfred Coker, hatches a plan to kidnap the sighted, separate them and put them in charge of small groups of blind street people in order to prolong the latter’s existence. When a plague systematically kills off the blind members of Masen’s group, he returns to the now-vacated headquarters, where he encounters a contrite Coker and sets off to find Beadley’s community – and Josella.
And to say any more would be somewhat churlish and wreck the rest of the story for the similiarly uninitiated.
That’s all very well and good, I hear you think, but what of the triffids? Originating in the tropics, these tall, carnivorous plants first come to western attention as novelty value when it is discovered that they can “walk” – effectively picking up their roots and shuffling along on their tripod “legs”. However, they also issue a poisonous, lengthy stinger from their stems that can blind and even fatally maim their victims. With their stings docked, the plants are either kept domestically or harvested commercially for their valuable vegetable oil. But after the mass blindings, the triffids – no longer at the mercy of human intervention – regroup, regrow their stingers and prey upon the unsighted and the unwitting. So if having to deal with the dwindling supplies of food and resources wasn’t enough, the post-blinding survivors also have to negotiate the ever-increasing numbers of predatory triffids who see the remaining humans as a primary food source and happily play a game of cat-and-mouse to the death.
I’ve been softened up a bit recently by reading some other, mid-20th-century sci-fi offerings, so perhaps it is no surprise that I enjoyed Triffids as much as I did (although not as much as I enjoyed – and continue to enjoy – Born Sandy Devotional). As I opined on the same topic in another blog recently, a good story is a good story, full-stop. So if a genre – even one that I had, and believed I would continue to have, little interest in – can hook me in with its plot, characters and story development, well, put me in the corner and colour me happy. You really can’t ask for anything more from a book.
So thanks to Andy (and you, too, Ninja) – I appear to be a sci-fi snob no more. Hell, I might even get around to reading The Chrysalids one day soon. Maybe you should, too – straight after you read The Day of the Triffids. Because what you most want in a book is a damn good story, am I right? You know that I am.