The Day of the Triffids is not just an archetype post-apocalyptic story but also an all time great sci-fi books, and a classic work of literature. Many of the themes have been re-used since (28 Days Later, Danny Boyle says, was partly inspired by this novel), to the point of seeming cliché, but even if you’re familiar with the story the novel remains immediately gripping and unique. Coming fresh into the tale, you’re led to believe it’s a disaster story about giant plants. It’s not: it’s about Cold War paranoia, and the frailty of modern civilisation. The titular triffids, in fact, play only a small role in this story of survival.
What it’s all about
In brief, the story follows Bill Masen, one of few people left in London who still has the ability to see. And that is crux of the tale: when everyone loses their sight (after the effects of a supposed comet), society crumbles. He makes friends and enemies as he runs around London trying to make sense of things, and through Masen’s eyes we find a very vivid, and very believable, account of how quickly the societal norms and given luxuries of civilisation can crumble.
The carnivorous triffids, an engineered natural predator, become suddenly considerably more dangerous when people cannot see, giving the novel an overarching sense of nature supplanting the human race. However, it is simple blindness that brings on this apocalypse, not the plants themselves. With one of our main senses removed, it becomes apparent that people are no longer equipped for survival, and chaos reigns. In questioning what would happen if the human population suddenly went blind, Wyndham builds a frighteningly realistic portrayal of how helpless we really are. There are no zombies, there’s no weapon that kills the masses – the world is transformed by the simple removal of a given advantage.
Why The Day of the Triffids is worth reading
For the most part, this relatively short novel is expertly crafted. It’s a post-apocalyptic book that ticks all the boxes of a recent societal collapse: well-defined characters with conflicting goals; exceptional attention to detail with the pitfalls that suddenly become apparent, and an increasingly bleak plot driven by slithers of hope. The subversive orator, Croker, is a particularly well-realised secondary character, who becomes a voice-piece for exposing theories about what the disaster means for the world, and what people will need to do survive.
There are many themes covered in this tale: miss-used technology, senseless destruction, gender roles and social consciousness, but to my mind the most effectively explored is Croker’s awareness of the importance of leisure. Without the world in decay, it is a constant fight for survival, and Croker notes that it removes all the free time the human race needs to advance. In fact, without leisure time the human race is destined to regress. Knowledge cannot be fostered, and that is the ultimate long-term damnation of this apocalypse.
This book remains popular (as seen by its numerous radio, film and TV adaptations) for its universal themes, and the very real human influence on the apocalypse. The triffids are an inspired threat, but they are not what it’s about. It’s not a horror story, the giant plants don’t take over the world – we lose the world. The plants don’t succeed, society fails.
It’s post-apocalyptic fiction at its best, a timeless classic that won’t take you long to read.