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The Day of the Triffids (20th Century Rediscoveries)

The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham (purchased at Powell's bookstore in Portland, OR; at the famous GR Portland Babes' Reunion)I don’t mean to nitpick but the story introduces us to triffids- motile plants with lethal stings, which feed on human flesh. Nobody knows where they came from. Outer space? An engineered bio-weapon? They just sort of show up. At first, their threat isn’t appreciated; they are even harvested for the useful oils they produce. But eventually the stinging and man-eating part comes to light. That's a pretty big premise, but it's only the set-up. The story really only takes off after a mysterious comet blinds everybody and throws human civilization into a tailspin. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now the triffids are real hazard, because- you know- once you’ve been blinded, you could easily walk into one. For a long time reading this, this double premise (triffids and a blinding comet) bothered me. Science-fiction has been rightly described as the literature of thought experimentation. "What if X happened?… " At the beginning of the story, the triffids are the "X", and that’s a strong premise for a story. But then Wyndham evokes the comet -a second fictional event , and to me that’s essentially introducing a second variable, which you should never do. Any good scientist will tell you that you shouldn’t conduct an experiment with two unknowns. I’m not as versed in sci-fi as many GoodReaders, but this strikes me as a sort of heresy… and The Day of the Triffids is supposed to be one of the genre’s classics. I kept faith and didn’t give up. Sometimes great works break the rules and part with convention. I reserved judgment and pressed on, expecting to be completely dazzled by what lay in store… but the payoff to redeem all the rulebreaking was a bit weak. Once most of the population was blinded, the reader is treated to 150 pages of post-apocalyptic wandering about, looking for food, and occasionally hooking up with other survivors… Cormack McCarthey’s The Road, but with less cannibalism (well, no cannibalism actually) and lots more alcohol. Remind me again why this story is such a classic.Since I’m feeling charitable, I’ll admit there are comedic moments in here. When our protagonist Bill Masen breaks into a London apartment, looking for food and shelter, he launches into an improbably detailed critique of the interior decorating (p.67): "…the decorators had been, I guessed, elegant young men with just that ingenious gift for combining taste with advanced topicality which is so expensive. Consciousness of fashion was the mainspring of the place. Here and there were certain unmistakable derniers cris, some of them undoubtedly destined- had the world pursued its expected course- to become the rage of tomorrow; others, I would say, a dead loss from their inception. The overall effect…" It actually goes on for another paragraph about the luxurious sofa and the delicate cream carpeting. I kind of love that. If civilization crumbles and the world as I know it descends into a primal chaos, I don’t imagine I’ll spend much time critiquing the wallpaper some long-dead stranger selected to put up in his guest bedroom; but I like that John Wyndham apparently would. (side note: Masen harshly dismisses the mirror on the ceiling above the master bed as tacky and ostentatious. I’m just saying, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; that‘s some fun shit right there.) I may be making too much of this, but around page 150 or so, our hero Bill and some friends are wandering around the countryside, looking for some fellow survivors they’ve been separated from. A minor character comes up with the idea of finding a helicopter, to make an aerial search. Improbable as it is, the group not only locates a functional helicopter with a full complement of fuel, but -despite nobody having experience flying- one of the group "figures it out" easily enough, with no mishaps. Sorry, that’s a bit too convenient for me, and what’s most outrageous is that Wyndham didn’t have to write it like that! He could have made one of the survivors a former helicopter pilot. That would have also neatly explained how a fully-fueled helicopter was so easily located. Another improbable stroke of luck: the group discovers military-issue flamethrowers. *Groan* What is this? A Schwarzenegger film? (Quip for the movie: Arnold, playing Bill Masen, asks the triffid "Want a light?" before turning the flamethrower on it ...these scripts practically write themselves!) I had such inflated expectations for this novel, yet we’re getting dangerously close to "Shit shelf" territory here! The only thing that could save this novel by page 200 was if Wyndam provided a satisfying explanation for where the triffids came from, and what the comet was exactly. In the last twenty pages or so, he sort-of does that, and it goes a long way towards rescuing the story. Suddenly things start to make a little more sense, and I’m feeling a lot better about Day of the Triffids. The double premise is explained by a single unifying plot point which makes it all go down a bit easier. It's not great, but better than I was thinking most of the way through. Still, my strongest overall impression is that The Day of the Triffids is proto-zombie lit, and that doesn't really excite me.So what’s the final assessment? Well, on one hand, the novel is filled to the point of fetishism with ponderous descriptions of a post-disaster Earth falling into disrepair and decay. On the other hand, the end really brings it together. The book has some historic interest, just because it’s one of the earlier in a long line of cautionary Cold War stories. Unfortunately, most of the book isn‘t very engaging, and until the very end, the most interesting aspects of the premise are ignored. Honestly, I think The Day of the Triffids is only so well regarded only because it got in at the ground floor of the genre, having been published in 1951.