Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review of The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is a classic novel depicting London laid waste by alien catastrophe with an underlying commentary on the social, political, psychological, and religious state of Britain.  Most certainly a work heavily influenced by Wells’ 1898 novel, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) likewise lays waste to London in apocalyptic style.  The novel a hero’s tale, however, it forgoes thematic layering to tell the conventional tale of one man against the odds—as contrived as they are. 

Awakened in a hospital bed by silence, Bill Masen can’t wait to remove the bandages covering his eyes to know the reason.  Partially blinded while researching triffids, a carnivorous, poisonous plant which spreads aggressively, he was forced into the emergency ward.  Removing the bandages, Masen finds the reason for the silence: catastrophe.  One of the lucky ones, a meteor shower that passed Earth has rendered all those who stared at its iridescent beauty, blind.  The sightless stagger the streets, groping for food and companionship, some choosing to end it all with a jump out a window.  Masen eventually coming across a woman who can also see, the two make their plans together.  But with blind gangs roaming the streets led by others who can still see and death and chaos all around, their survival is anything but certain.
Wyndham well imagining the chaos that would be unleashed were 95% of the population to suddenly go blind, the majority of the tension in The Day of the Triffids derives from the unknown—man acting and behaving in desperation with other men.  This in itself unnerving, added to the mix is the slip-step slither of triffid plants as they cross the lawns and pavements of London, striking helpess victims with their poisions and waiting while the flesh putrifies to feed.  The sightless unaware of the threat, humanity becomes a feeding ground. 

Genre indeed, at precious few points does Wyndham pause to contextualize these nearly unfathomable changes to society.  Ill formed or only half thought out, on the occasions he does attempt elaborate on the imprecations, the story quickly pulls him back, carrying the reader to the next point of action.  The love story which develops is in particular a B-movie touch.  Romance blossoming at the hero’s rescue, the story goes on to make some very dated assumptions regarding female autonomy and does not engender (ha!) discussion on liberal values.

Additional problems with The Day of the Triffids are in structure and conceptualization.  Seeming to lack confidence or a proportioned outline, there are a couple jarring changes in the narrative, as well as presumptions and major coincidences pushed on the reader.  The first is the opening two chapters.  Waking to the silence of a London blinded by a meteor shower is a powerful scene; I can see why Wyndham chose to include it first.  But in the next chapter, yet another strange phenomena is foisted on the reader: the triffids.  The two coming together too neatly, a pall of CONTRIVED! hangs over every scene thereafter.  (The Day of the Triffids and Meteor Shower would be a more appropriate title.)  And there are other moments of indulgence thrown at the reader—Coker’s fire ruse, the “reunion”, and the premise of the climax, for example.  The territory of big budget Hollywood, the novel amounts to popcorn sci fi. 

Wyndham does try to interject philosophical discussion into the situations created.  Near the beginning there is one interesting question raised: in times of such catastrophe and chaos, is it the individual’s responsibility to protect themselves or to provide for others?  The hero’s story, or in this case, the classic British gentleman’s story, takes over, diluting the narrative with pretension, Wyndham never quite taking any major stabs at unpacking the quandaries created.

In the end, The Day of the Triffids is a half-baked idea that survives based on the contrived—ahem, uniqueness of its premise.  Humanity’s blindness and the triffids which prey upon it making for light reading, all else about the book is standard plot filler.  The love story, the political machinations, and Masen’s overall story arc are conventional fiction.  The reader must thus approach the story as simple entertainment if they are to appreciate it.  Were this story to be published today, I’d be curious whether it would be as successful…

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