Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

Wow, a great book that packed quite a punch.  I had read some good reviews of the book somewhere - I think on Tor.com - so I added it to my list.  I was not disappointed. I vaguely remember bits and pieces of the film from childhood; I don't think I have ever seen the entire thing, and kind of remember a woman screaming in that 1950s creature feature Them sort of way, and of course, the giant shuffling asparagus that were more funny and campy than scary.  The Day of the Triffids book, however, isn't some campy Little Shop of Horrors monster book.  The triffids themselves aren't actually all that frightening - it's the idea of the triffid, a man-made horror, an invasive species, the botanical experiment gone wrong - as well as the hidden threat, waiting patiently to take advantage of  societal or human weakness.  Much room for allusion and metaphor there.

I actually kept wondering why the triffids were included in the book at all.  The whole idea that the majority of the world - including animals! - goes blind in one feel swoop and the aftermath of this is an incredible interesting plot point (and horrifying thought).  But what makes the book quite brilliant is that Wyndham (in true classic science fiction mettle), uses the triffids as a plot vehicle to force the characters into situations that they wouldn't otherwise have gotten into.  Bill, the main character, is forced by the triffids to examine what constitutes the best kind of social contract that can be made when a society is under siege.  And while Wyndham could have used other humans as the siege engine, the idea of something alien forcing social change is much, much more interesting.

Dies the Fire and that whole series is a descendent, I think, of The Day of the Triffids.  Stirling's world without electricity explores some of the same topics about social contracts and society as Triffids, only without the blind people (and the triffids).   World War Z is also an evolutionary cousin, with zombies as a stand in for triffids, in some respects.    Both of these, which I liked (Dies more than Z) are not as subtle in their exploration as Triffids though.  Triffids is quiet horror.  The first person narrative allows you the reader to read between the lines and come to some realizations that Bill hasn't yet.  He's worried about the triffids, but the dear reader realizes sooner than Bill that plants that produce millions of seeds are going to take over the world.


The Day of the TriffidsThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Subtle, quiet horror; that's the brilliance of this book.  The triffids aren't Little Shop of Horrors glam camp -- this isn't a creature feature. In fact, the triffids themselves and their lumbering gait and poisonous stingers aren't really that scary.  It's idea of the triffid as the man-made horror and  the genetically modified botanical experiment - or scarier, the triffid as fifth column patient watcher, waiting for to exploit a weakness.  Books like Dies the Fire and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War are certainly descendants (or at least evolutionary cousins) of The Day of the Triffids; while Triffids has some violence, the scare doesn't come from blood and guts. Wyndham uses the plot vehicle of the triffids to explore some sociology as well; namely, what happens to a well ordered society under siege. He could have used fellow humans as the siege engines; but it was far more interesting to use something alien to do that job.  Is there a genre of science fiction crossed with horror?  Triffids fits that bill.    


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