If you’ve seen 28 Days Later or read Jose Saramago’s Blindness or Stephen King’s The Stand, you’ll no doubt see something familiar in John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids.
The novel begins with a man waking up in a London hospital and discovering that there are no longer any doctors and nurses around. The man, William Masen, soon discovers that everyone around has suddenly become blind. For some reason, he and a few others are immune to this worldwide onset of blindness. As the days pass, different groups of sighted and blind people form to build a new society that will allow humanity to continue. In the meantime, the strange deadly plants called triffids detach themselves from their roots and go on the attack.
Before I read this book, all I knew about it was that it involved killer plants. In actuality, the plants are merely a complication; the sudden-onset blindness is the more serious problem. There are some suggestions that the triffids are somehow behind the blindness, but these suggestions are not explored in much detail. Survival of the human race is the paramount issue for the people of this book; why they are in this situation is beside the point.
Because survival of the human race is at stake, the people in the novel find that they must rethink all of their assumptions about right and wrong and how society should be structured. If, for example, women vastly outnumber men, and humanity is dying out, does monogamy continue to make sense? If an entire segment of society needs such extensive care that others have no time to pursue any activities other than caring for those in need, does it make sense to continue to provide that care? And in such a situation, who really has—or should have—the power to make decisions for the good of all?
Wyndham’s novel has all the strengths of the best science fiction. It raises difficult questions without giving obvious answers. It provides moments of terror and glimmers of hope. It forces readers to question their most basic assumptions about what it means to be human and what it means to be good. It deserves a place among the sci-fi classics.
Triffids is not, however, a perfect book; it has many of the flaws typical of science fiction. The central characters are likable enough, but they rarely rise above being types. Throughout the book, William Masen, the main character, moves from place to place, witnessing many different groups who have established their own ways of coping with the crisis. In most cases, he leaves quickly, sometimes just as things are getting interesting. I sometimes found this frustrating, but I think it’s a limitation inherent in the use of first-person narrative. Either Masen sees lots of different groups of people for a short time each or he only encounters a few, leaving certain interesting ideas out of the narrative completely.
Overall, I liked this book quite a lot and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction or dystopian fiction. I’m looking forward to reading more Wyndham in the future. My next choice will probably be The Midwich Cuckoos, which was adapted into the seriously spooky film The Village of the Damned, but I’ve also heard good things about The Crysalids. Any Wyndham fans out there with other recommendations?