Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Books with Friends – The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham – reviewed by Chris King

And today we have another guest review by Mr Chris King. To read his last review, please click here.

What strikes me most upon first reading that seminal, yet oft forgotten book ,The Day of the Triffids is how different it is from the movie. I already mentioned that the War of the Worlds movies are very different to what happens in the book; it’s the same with The Day of the Triffids. While the triffids fall from a meteor in the film and scatter themselves across the planet, the book has the triffid seed originate in a much stranger place known as ‘Russia’.

The story begins as a blinded man wakes up on a Wednesday which famously feels like it is a Sunday. The blind man comes to realise that everyone around him is blind too. This is as a result of watching the celestial event of the Earth travelling through comet dust which burns around the atmosphere, creating the most wonderful bright colours. Unlike the others, Bill Masen was blinded before the comet shower and so when he takes off his bandages, he is a seeing man in a blind man’s world. After discovering this, the story shifts back to before the comet debris when Bill worked as a bioengineer cultivating and growing triffids for their fuel uses and the coming of the triffids was certainly a slow invasion. First they appeared, then one or two people were stung, then they were pruned back from stinging and everyone became used to them, humans being frivolous and their nature... ooh a new shiny thing!

What was I saying? Ah yes the triffids. Now, the triffids are not the main problem through the course of the book. Rather it is the deterioration of society. With so many blinded people who are not able to cope, factions form around sighted people. Sighted people are abducted from other groups to lead their own groups of blind people and food becomes a greater problem than it was before the mass blindness. While scavenging on the streets of London is fine in the short term, it is unsustainable and food is not being collected and distributed. After all, without sight humans struggle to do the most basic unfamiliar tasks without assistance. By showing the value we have on eyes and the way people with sight in a sightless world are treated as having superpowers Wyndham makes it abundantly clear that we over-rely on our eyes. That is the most obvious part of humanity Wyndham comments on.

Much like The War of the Worlds – from which Wyndham derived much of his influence – science-fiction sets up a fantastical occurrence to better analyse the human condition. In The Day of the Triffids various human values are criticised: the desire to give up; the feeling of anger we seem to have towards someone failing to help us overpowering the feeling of hatred to our enemies; our constant readiness for violence even while preaching and hoping for peace; and the paradoxes of fear. So, when missiles are sent up to orbit Earth that could launch viruses and kill people, the United States is praised for saying straight away that it has no intention of setting up orbiting missiles to directly release viruses onto the people of the world. When many major powers do not make similar declarations the people of the United States turn to criticise their government for not preparing for a way of warfare that others clearly had.

Unlike in my review of The War of the Worlds, I do not think the title is appropriate. ‘The day our eyes were closed’ is what I would have gone for. The book is much more about the loss of sight and human warfare than it ever is about triffids. Triffids are certainly strange creatures, as is frequently pointed out – but they only become anything close to a threat because humans cannot see. It also lasts far longer than a day. The triffids have to grow back their pruned stingers and try to reproduce before they are able to hurt humans, who had long been able to defeat them with a pike or pointed rock on the end of a long stick. The triffids spread only because of the breakdown of human society; they are de-facto in charge through coincidence, while humans have to re-learn self-sufficiency and keep trying to assign gender roles.

Title aside, the book is well worth a read. Although, given the choice, I would take The War of the Worlds over The Day of the Triffids. This may be due in no small part to three-legged fighting-machines with heat-rays being cooler than three-rooted plants with stingers. Either way these early science-fiction books are well worth a read. And with the grasping nature of The Day of the Triffids’ first chapter keeping you interested through the exposition-laden second chapter – which is nevertheless filled with juicy foreshadowing – you will be hard pressed to put the book down.

After all, this is basically a zombie apocalypse book, except the slow moving triffids replace the shambling zombies in a broken-down society where people are scavenging for survival supplies. If you are sick of zombies and want to move away from them (no real rush, they tend to be slow moving) then The Day of the Triffids will easy you out but keep the themes.

Once again I will finish on a quote to illustrate a key theme in the book as I leave you to get on with your lives:

‘The human spirit continued much as before – ninety-five per cent of it wanting to live in peace; and the other five per cent considering its chances if it should risk starting anything.’

Thanks again to Chris King for this review.

Next week it'll be back to me (Katie); as Christmas approaches, I think instead of reviews I may give a run down of my favourite ever books. Much as I've been absolutely loving reading all these contemporary books, I do want the opportunity to waffle on about Victorian novels. Well, some. I promise they won't all be Victorian.

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