The Day of the Triffids has become a sci-fi classic. It is an engrossing and entertaining novel that contains the best elements of the genre – it indulges the reader with an experience of a fantastical world while making poignant observations about our own. Its wide influence is clear to see in our current era of post-apocalyptic storytelling.
William Masen wakes up in hospital with bandages covering his eyes. He had just undergone a procedure to save his sight. But today he can’t hear the sounds he has become accustomed to during his stay in hospital – no traffic outside, no doctors or nurses bustling around, no other patients. Though initially scared to remove his bandages for fear that he may ruin the restoration of his sight, he is now too scared to not take that risk.
When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.
What Masen finds is a new world where everyone is blind; a blind doctor jumps to his death from the hospital window, blind patients wander aimlessly through the corridors. The previous day, the Earth’s orbit was to take it into a path of comet debris. It was supposed to be an amazing spectacle that Masen was unable to witness. Now it seems that everyone who watched the comets is now blind.
Before entering hospital, Masen’s day job consisted of working with triffids – a bizarre species of plant which emerged spontaneously when Masen was a child and have spread worldwide. Their origin is unknown, but many suspect they are the result of genetic experiments conducted in Soviet Russia. The plants produce a useful and valuable oil and farming the triffids for oil has become a lucrative business around the world.
But triffids also exhibit traits that alarm some. They are somewhat mobile. They may even be able to communicate with each other and show signs of what some might interpret as intelligence. And they possess dangerous stings that can even kill a human. Though they are insectivores, they can consume flesh as well. One of Masen’s colleagues argued that if it were not for our ability to see, triffids would have a considerable advantage over humans. It was from such a triffid sting that Masen landed in hospital needing a procedure to save his sight.
Now, in a world of the blind, it would seem the triffids have the upper hand.
Masen soon learns that he is not the only sighted person remaining, but they are in the minority. When Masen sees a woman being beaten by a blind man he comes to her rescue. Josella Payton, who can also see, was a somewhat well-known author of salacious novels. Both are grateful to have found an ally at a moment when survival seems precarious. Together, Masen and Josella try to formulate a plan. They are in danger of attack from the blind, from the sighted and from roaming triffids alike. More challenges await. In a world that has become highly specialised, the sudden return to self-sufficiency puts the survival of many in the hands of a few who can source food, administer medicine, generate power or threaten violence. Not everyone can be saved; difficult choices and struggles for power lie ahead.
When a change takes place so suddenly, without warning and is also so universal, complete and irredeemable; there are a myriad of ways things can progress from there. While some might feel anxious for a return to normalcy, others may enjoy the release from previous constraints. While some may sense an opportunity to make a new world as an improvement on the previous one and for the benefit of all, others may find such pretensions to be as deceitful as they always were; societies were always built to serve an elite and there is a new elite now.
All the old problems, the stale ones, both personal and general, had been solved by one mighty slash. Heaven alone knew as yet what others might arise – and it looked as though there would be plenty of them – but they would be new. I was emerging as my own master, and no longer a cog. It might well be a world full of horrors and dangers that I should have to face, but I could take my own steps to deal with it – I would no longer be shoved hither and thither by forces and interests that I neither understood nor cared about.
I began The Day of the Triffids with an expectation that I would enjoy it. Despite that set up for disappointment, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Though only a short novel, it contains a lot of thought-provoking material, far more than I can unpack here.
Reading The Day of the Triffids it is impossible to ignore the strong sense of its setting and to appreciate it as a key to understanding the novel. Written in 1951, only shortly after England’s, and particularly London’s, survival of the Second World War, there is a sense that, once again, England must somehow find a way endure near-catastrophic destruction.
My father once told me that before Hitler’s war he used to go around London with his eyes more widely open than ever before, seeing the beauties of buildings that he had never noticed before – and saying goodbye to them. And now I had a similar feeling. But this was something worse. Much more than anyone could have hoped for had survived that war – but this was an enemy they would not survive. It was not wanton smashing and wilful burning that they waited for this time: it was simply the long, slow, inevitable course of decay and collapse.
But the times have clearly changed. There is no more Empire, no Churchill on the radio lifting their spirits. Instead there is a question of, and hope for, a miraculous rescue from America.
As a rule they showed little wish to join up with other parties, and were inclined rather to lay hands on what they could, building themselves into refugees as comfortably as possible while they waited for the arrival of the Americans who were bound to find a way. There seemed to be a widespread and fixed idea about this. Our suggestions that any surviving Americans would be likely to have their hands more than full at home was received as so much wet-blanketry. The Americans, they assured us, would never have allowed such a thing to happen in their country.
The arrival of Cold War conditions, though still in its infancy, is also a strong presence in the novel. With WMD’s in orbit and a cloak of mystery of what goes on behind the Iron Curtain, a perpetuating tension was already apparent before people lost their sight. Life with the triffids is unmistakeably an allegory for more realistic Cold War fears of life under a nuclear winter or a global pandemic following nuclear or germ warfare, but it also has symbolism and meaning beyond that.
There is a lot of social criticism in the novel, so much so that it is difficult to know where it begins and ends. Barry Langford, who wrote the introduction to this edition, goes as far as to suggest that Masen and Josella are being punished for their former lives as a practitioner of a ‘perverted’ science and a privileged party girl respectively. I’m not entirely convinced of that but it remains clear that the novel has much to say about modern society.
In the novel, individualism is a selfish privilege of modern society. Once the triffids are in control, the individual, and even small groups, cannot hope to survive. Collectivism is the only viable path forward. Even so, the best way to proceed is not clear. Several potential new societies emerge from the egalitarian, militaristic and religious fundamentalist.
Paradoxically, even with the turn towards collective survival, exclusion seems an inevitable part of it. Survivors struggle to know how generous they can afford to be towards those whose chance of survival is low and who will be completely dependent on the more able; about how to reconcile the competing impulses of principle and pragmaticism, of compassion and indifference. The loss of moral direction and the question of how to find it again, of when to adhere to the ethics of the world that has just ended and when to accept that the new world needs a new code if any are to survive, is a significant problem for the characters and a consistent theme of the book.
But I can see, too, that the more obvious humane course is also, probably, the road to suicide. Should we spend our time in prolonging misery when we believe that there is no chance of saving the people in the end? Would that be the best use to make of ourselves?
Society before the triffids take over may be interpreted as an arrogant one where humans, convinced of their own superiority, confidently assume they can control the natural world which is theirs to exploit. The rise of the triffids is the natural world fighting back. There seems to be a critique of technocracy; of a society that has become over-reliant on technology and experts. Even after its downfall, the survivors make no attempt to seek out and collect available knowledge the way they are hoarding food and fuel even though it may prove as essential.
Looking back at the shape of things then, the amount we did not know and did not care to know about our daily lives is not only astonishing, but somehow a bit shocking. I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our life had become a complexity of specialists all attending to their own jobs with more or less efficiency, and expecting others to do the same.
Followers may recall that The Day of the Triffids ended up on my 2019 Reading List as suggested reading from my wife. As usual, she chose well. I thoroughly enjoyed it. So much so, I easily looked past any minor quibbles or queries I may have had about its social critique or its biological science. The novel has clearly been influential. In our current fashion for the post-apocalyptic it is not difficult to see shadows of The Day of the Triffids in contemporary works. It is wonderfully imagined and contains much more that I can discuss here – from gender roles, reflections on loneliness and isolation, yearnings for normalcy and the human spirit to fight for survival despite incredible odds. Given that, its somewhat open ending, the questions it leaves unanswered, feels entirely appropriate.