And just like that, book two is complete. I started this one as a small interlude between the first and second half of Moby Dick (which is turning out to be quite a slog).
John Wyndham’s 1951 The Day of the Triffids is a post-apocalyptic novel written before they became all the rage. And I’m happy to say that this one is much better written than a lot of what is on offer today. Wyndham has carefully thought through his apocalypse (which remains vague at best with Bill, the protagonist, having a theory as to why it happens but the narrative in no way explicitly endorses this theory), what happens next (there is some uncomfortable survivalist stuff here), and what humans might be prudent to take note of in the reader’s present. While I’m not convinced that this novel shows me that post-apocalyptic narratives are a failure of the imagination (as an academic friend of mine once said), it does go some ways to imagining a world beyond its current capitalistic/consumerist contours.
The plot is both simple and, from a 21st century perspective, strange at the same time. A strange event happens that blinds most of humanity and what once appeared to be a useful if somewhat obnoxious plant sweeps across England to take advantage of humanity’s blindness. I’m sure readers in the 1950s took the 8 foot tall walking carnivorous plants as strange and the effect remained for me. Although, with the rise of B-science fiction films and the like, they seem less threatening and perhaps more quirky or ridiculous. Anyways, the novel follows Bill as he attempts to survive what is humanity’s ultimate apocalypse. There is no outside to this disaster and no deus ex machina comes along to save them.
The narrative travels along at a fair clip and kept me turning pages. I remembered why I used to read a lot of science fiction and fantasy while I read this book. The imaginative world that Wyndham creates is compelling and I sympathized with Bill (if only because he appears the most humane). The novel has some interesting sections that deal with the problems of overpopulation, the morals involved in an crisis, and the problem of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The novel predates widescale nuclear armament, yet the problems with such a fact are visible in this novel. In many ways, the novel has become more relevant in the current climate of ubiquitous (if somewhat over hyped and definitely strategically biased) terrorism.
The grad student in me had a few problems with the setup, notably the kind of unconscious embrace of the survivalist ethos. It is easy to summarize: in the apocalypse, a man (and it’s always a man) must do whatever he has to do (almost always violence, often but not always gendered) to survive (often in the shape of a nuclear family … I hated the ending of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for this unsatisfying conclusion). Now Wyndham doesn’t totally embrace this, he modifies it a fair bit and the ending points in a different direction. However, what was uncomfortable for me was the kind of easy assumption that in an apocalypse, women must make babies and men must work. From an abstract species perspective this is true, and yet I’m not convinced that this is how we operate now or would operate in such a crisis. Such mindsets too often lead to abuse of power. That’s enough ranting for me.
I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick post-apocalyptic read that has some intellectual substance to it. I’ve heard that there are a couple of movie adaptations, but I’d skip them and stick to the source material. The first chapter alone is worth reading because Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later opens with a very similar scene (Boyle credits Wyndham’s novel for inspiring the scriptwriter).
Wyndham, John. The Dayd of the Triffids. Toronto: Doubleday & Company, 1951. Print.