Book Review: The Day of the Triffids

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

It’s the perfect opening line for this book – ominous, cryptic, even slightly humorous (in a dark sort of way). Just the thing to draw the reader in. Because once you’re in, there’s no getting out. Your fate is sealed.  You will be hooked from start to finish as you explore a strange and unsettling new world.

Published in 1951, John Wyndham’s classic (but oft overlooked) sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids begins in London, detailing the events following a strange “comet shower” which leaves the majority of humanity stricken blind. Those few with sight must come to grips with this new way of life, as they struggle to survive and rebuild their shattered society.

But there’s more.

Enter the Triffids, a species of genetically altered plant. Their exact origin is a mystery, but people suspected they were the result of biological experi-
mentation in the USSR. They can walk around on their three “legs”. They seem to be able communicate with one another. And they eat flesh. Each one is armed with a poisonous whip-like sting that allows it to kill and
feed on the decomposing carcass of its prey.

Before the cataclysm, the Triffids were a nuisance. Now – with most of mankind rendered helpless – they pose a serious threat; not only to the sightless, but to the sighted as well.

The premise is a tad unorthodox, and to some it may even be laughable. But trust me, once you start reading, the story is anything but laughable. Wyndham infuses his work with well-crafted sense of tension and down-to-earth realism. He makes the implausible sound completely and utterly possible. And that is good sci-fi is all about.

The characters of the story come across as genuine human beings rather than cardboard cutouts, and they’re easy to sympathize with. The protagonist, William Masen, deftly summarizes their shock and dismay at this sudden calamity when he remarks,

Standing there, and at that time, my heart still resisted what my head was telling me. Still I had the feeling that it was all something too big, too unnatural really to happen. Yet I knew that it was by no means the first time that it had happened. The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts and obliterated by the jungles of Asia. Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them. But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modem city seemed to me…

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here”- that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms.

Confronted with the need to begin rebuilding society, London-based survivors band together for that very purpose. But when considering the question of how to go about it, there is sharp disagreement and a split develops. Interestingly enough, the reason is a purely ideological one.

One faction argues that “morality” is subject to the times; that “right and wrong” are relative to the sort of world in which one lives. They believe the survivors must adapt their sense of morality in the interest of self-preservation. For instance, if this means that the sacred institution of marriage must be laid aside, and fornication permitted in order to increase the number of pregnancies, so be it. Life must go on.

The other group rejects this humanistic approach, and counters it with an appeal to God’s law. They believe that right and wrong are not mere societal inventions to be altered as man sees fit, but rather objective, God-given values. Tampering with them will only lead to ruin.

None of this is to say that Wyndham is writing from a Christian worldview. Unable to reconcile their differences, the two opposing parties separate, and the author is largely silent on the issue of which worldview he considers correct. (It is interesting to note, however, that the protagonist adheres more to the latter stance than he does to the former, even if he is not a distinctly Christian character.)

The book draws to a close on a hopeful – if rather unsatisfactory – note. Apparently, Wyndham intended to write a follow-up but died before he could do so. Eager readers are left with a cliff-hanger finale. It nearly drove me crazy with frustration. Come to think of it, I may just have to write the sequel myself someday, so I can see how things turn out in the end.

As far as objectionable content goes, Triffids is fairly clean, though I would still only recommend for older readers. The themes dealt with are dark and mature. Mild language is scattered throughout, and there’s some violence, though nothing very graphic. One character is the author of a book with a somewhat questionable title. (Much to her chagrin and the reader’s amusement, she has a bit of trouble living down her subsequent reputation.)

All in all, I highly recommend Wyndham’s book as an intense, thoughtful, superbly written piece of science fiction. It’s worth reading, and if you’re an avid sci-fi buff like I am, you’ll probably wish to visit it more than once.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Day of the Triffids”

  1. Although I’m becoming more and more of a sci-fi fan, I don’t know if I would actually read this, but you do make it sound intriguing!
    You’ll probably not be interested in my Saturday Review of Books posting for this week, although the book is NOT what it appears to be at first glance. (Hop on by if you’re curious, but I’ll understand if you pass this time!)

    Cindy at Cindy’s Book Club

  2. It’s also one of the all-time great Cheesy Sci-Fi movies (probably only exceed by The Blob and Soylent Green). But your review makes me want to read the book.

    BTW, if you like the source materials for other cheesy movies, I have to recommend Planet of the Apes. Great book, and it makes a good deal more sense than either film adaptation, though I have to say I love the Heston version.

    1. I had heard that it was made into a cheesy film; believe me though, there’s nothing even remotely cheesy about the book. It’s a very serious piece of sci-fi. :)

      I watched the original Planet of the Apes and didn’t care for it too much, but I may have to check out the book since you recommended it.

      1. I love the original film, mostly for its send-up of skepticism, even though I think it’s intended to send up religion. But it cuts both ways. And my major gripe with the film (“If you crash on a planet where apes speak English, why are you surprised it’s Earth?”) doesn’t occur in the book. There’s good sci-fi about how an ape society might develop, too.

  3. “Because once you’re in, there’s no getting out. Your fate is sealed. You will be hooked from start to finish as you explore a strange and unsettling new world.” THAT’S what I’m afraid of… I have things to do and places to go, and I’ve just got to figure out how I can clone myself, so one of me can read all day while the other me of me does everything else. But I have a feeling that I shall not be enough even then. Great review, btw. :-)

  4. I’m listening to a BBC unabridged version of the Day of the Triffids and I find it completely absorbing. Wyndham raises deep ethical questions about survival in a post-apocalyptic world in a way that is easy to follow, but very thought provoking. He has some tough things to say about learned helplessness too. The characters are well-drawn, some likeable, some less so, and some terrifying. I’m nearing the end of the book now, and dreading the final sentance. Relating the content to current society, I’d say we are a great deal less equipped to deal with the kind of scenario Wyndham describes now than at any time in history.

  5. I read this book for High School and it always struck me that the humans were more of a threat to each other rather than the triffids themselves…who kind of lurks in the background for the majority of the book. The gist I get is that the humans are too busy fighting instead of co-operating and the triffids kind of wait to pick off the eventual weakened survivors.

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