One of those unique visions of apocalypse is British author John Wyndham’s 1951 genre-masterpiece The Day of the Triffids. Depicting the total global collapse of society after a celestial event strikes the majority of the world’s population blind, The Day of the Triffids chronicles the story of a handful of sighted survivors attempting to cope with a changed reality. Even more bizarre — yet crafted so well the reader finds it surprisingly plausible — is the main premise, that once blindness afflicts the majority of the world’s population, genetically-engineered plants — poisonous, carnivorous, huge and capable of movement — known as ‘triffids’ begin to attack and consume the now-helpless populations.
Considering the novel was written over 60 year ago, Wyndham’s premise seems fresh even today, suggesting the engineering of a dangerous plant to help solve the world’s pressing need for an alternative to various oil-related applications. Once the world is blind, however, the triffids gain the upper hand and begin to eradicate humanity on a grand scale.
Widely regarded as one of Wyndham’s finest novels and easily his most famous, the story has been adapted into the 1962 feature film of the same name, three radio drama series in 1957, 1968 and 2008, and two TV series in 1981 and 2009. Wyndham is also known for his novels The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955), and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), which has been filmed twice as Village of the Damned.
According to director Danny Boyle, it was the opening hospital sequence of The Day of the Triffids that inspired Alex Garland to write the screenplay for the popular apocalyptic outbreak film 28 Days Later (2002).
An originator of the so-called “cozy catastrophe” sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction — a sub-genre often critically disparaged by other science-fiction authors — Wyndham’s novels have endured to still maintain a measure of contemporary popularity even in the 21st century. The label “cozy catastrophe” is meant to describe a post-apocalyptic situation in which society is destroyed save for a handful of survivors, who are able to enjoy a relatively comfortable existence.
Although there are aspects of this in The Day of the Triffids, and indeed almost all Wyndham novels, it is dismissive to describe them as exclusively lacking in dangerous obstacles to overcome. It would be remiss to describe the onslaught of the triffids as anything but horrifying to the average reader — there is little that is “cozy” about the escape of the novel’s protagonists.
Still, it is often the pure weirdness of Wyndham’s vision of a future catastrophe that is transversely so compelling about The Day of the Triffids. Looking on the surface like something out of a 1950s science-fiction author’s discard box, the world Wyndham paints — coupled to a 1950s contemporary English middle class setting — seems entirely believable even to a casual science-fiction reader. A strangeness of premise and plot, married deftly to subtle undertones of the mundane, presents The Day of the Triffids as one of those few master works that is entirely science fiction, while never really seeming to be science fiction at all.
Shuffled expertly into the text of the novel, and often voiced by the memorable character of Coker, Wyndham attempted to point out that in a situation faced by a small group of survivors in a largely annihilated world, some contemporary moral and social values would be next to obsolete in any new version of society. For instance, attempting to care for great masses of the blind is constantly demonstrated through plot developments as foolhardy in the extreme. Although some groups come to care for small contingents of the blind, it becomes clear to all that many will not be able to be saved, and must reluctantly be left to their fate, meaning death by starvation, disease, exposure, or the menace of the triffids. Groups of survivors which choose not to adhere to this hard-nosed but practical philosophy are invariably wiped out in The Day of the Triffids.
One of the more subtle themes of the novel, but one which is touched upon often by other authors in the post-apocalyptic genre, is the prospect of the inevitable descent into ignoble barbarism of survivors’ succeeding generations, at least of those left only in small groups. The incredible amount of menial work involved with simply surviving, it is often argued by these authors, would leave little time for study, or seemingly even the desire or need for it. It is this fear — that simple survival isn’t enough to preserve a dying world that has lost the benefits of knowledge — that permeates the final chapters of The Day of the Triffids.
Although touched on in The Day of the Triffids, those seeking perhaps the finest example and exploration of this profound sociological theme in post-apocalyptic fiction should seek out George R. Stewart’s 1949 masterpiece Earth Abides. But that, of course — without resisting the urge to pun salaciously — is another story. Similar in premise to the The Day of the Triffids, Portuguese author Jose Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness (adapted to film in 2008) also depicts a world slowly breaking down after suffering an epidemic of blindness, and has often been compared to The Day of the Triffids.
Exceptionally well written and never lacking in variating themes of social commentary, adventure, horror, despair, and resurrection, Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids will not disappoint the hardcore science fiction enthusiast, nor offend the more contemporary reader. A thrilling classic in the genre, and hardly a daunting read at a mere 272 pages, The Day of the Triffids will serve to excite the imagination of even the most atrophied literary traveller.