John Wyndham’s novel, The Day of the Triffids, which was published in 1951, is one of the early science fiction novels. The author called it a logical fantasy and it is a very interesting work of speculative fiction. Written in the first-person, it is a reflective and well-written look at the ‘what if’ of a post apocalyptic world where the majority of the population suddenly goes blind.
Bill Masen chances to be in hospital swathed in eye bandages when the spectacular green meteor showers lit up the sky. When he awakens the next day – the day his bandages are scheduled to be removed – it was to find that everyone who has witnessed the meteor shower has lost their sight.
In the ensuing chaos, bioengineered plants – the venomous, mobile, and carnivorous triffids, already adapted to a sightless existence – use the opportunity to assert control.
‘It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that ‘it can’t happen here’ – that’s one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms. And now it ‘was’ happening here.’
The Day of the Triffids has been on high school reading lists in Australia and New Zealand, even quite recently, and I can understand why. In many ways the story is timeless. Genetic modification, biological warfare, and environmental concerns are even more relevant today than they were in John Wyndham’s time, but the author’s penetrating observations of the human psyche, morality, and social structures is what I found most compelling.
An essay comparing Wyndham with another British science fiction author, H.G. Wells, said of the former:
‘…by fastidiously shrinking back from the sensational, Wyndham found a unique literary voice. He described the odd rather than the fantastic, the disturbing rather than the horrific, the remarkable rather than the outrageous. He dealt in menace, not terror. This quietness of tone was to prove effective and likeable.’
On order & civilisation:
‘I was not yet ready to admit, after nearly thirty years of a reasonably right-respecting existence and law-abiding life, that as long as I remained my normal self, things might even yet in some inconceivable way return to their normal. Absurd it undoubtedly was, but I had a very strong sense that the moment I stove-in one if these sheets of plate-glass I should leave the old order behind me for ever: I should become a looter, a sacker, a low scavenger upon the dead body of the system that had nourished me. Such a foolish niceness of sensibility in a stricken world! – and yet it still pleases me to remember that civilised usage did not slide off me at once, and that for a time at least I wandered along past displays which made my mouth water while my already obsolete conventions kept me hungry.’
‘I think we’ll all have to try to see ourselves not as the robbers of all this, but more as – well, the unwilling heirs to it.’
Some classical allusions:
‘In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.’
‘Oh, yes, Wells said that, didn’t he? – Only in the story it turned out not to be true.’
‘The crux of the difference lies in what you mean by the word country – patria in the original,’ I said. ‘Caecorum in patria luscus rex imperat omnis – a classical gentleman called Fullonius said it first: it’s all anyone seems to know about him. But there’s no organised patria, no State, here – only chaos. Wells imagined a people who had adapted themselves to blindness. I don’t think that is going to happen here – I don’t see how it can.’
‘Now, for the first time I began to feel the horror that real loneliness holds for a species that is gregarious by nature. I felt naked, exposed to all the fears that prowled…
Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative – an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary…That day I had learned it was much more. It was something that could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed one as an atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time it’s chance to frighten and frighten horribly – that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do…’
On leisure & knowledge & utilitarianism:
‘…from my reading of history, the first thing you have to have to use knowledge is leisure. 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 are, in fact, a long term investment…’
Linking this post to Back to the Classics 2016 – fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic.