While in Adelaide last Christmas, my partner Mardi and I had dinner with Sean Williams and his wife, the lovely Amanda Nettlebeck. Unsurprisingly we got to talking about work, and the projects we were (and weren’t) working on. As usual Sean was working on about 15 things at once, but the one that he seemed most engaged by was a novel loosely inspired by John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.
I don’t think Wyndham is much read these days. While contemporaries such as Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard have been rehabilitated over the past decade (Dick even gaining entry to the Modern Library of America) Wyndham remains firmly in the dustbin of genre history. Exactly why I’m not sure, but I think it’s fair to say that unlike both Dick and Ballard, who owe at least part of their newfound respectability to their counter-cultural associations, and to their interest in the paranoid surfaces of contemporary culture, Wyndham is seen as hopelessly stuffy and conventional.
It wasn’t always this way. Even when I was at high school in the early 1980s, Wyndham was still necessary reading for Australian schoolchildren (or at least Australian schoolboys). Of course in the 1980s, with nuclear annihilation only a heartbeat away, novels about the end of the world, even the oddly muted, workaday ends of the world Wyndham specialized in, were an inextricable part of the zeitgeist. Indeed in many ways the books I remember reading as a teenager – A Canticle for Leibowitz, Z for Zachariah, John Christopher’s Tripod novels or The Death of Grass – might equally serve as an introduction to the motif of the apocalypse in young adult literature. But nonetheless it is Wyndham’s novels, and The Day of the Triffids in particular, which seem freshest in my memory.
The plot of The Day of the Triffids is devastatingly simple. The morning after the world is treated to a sudden and unexpected display of lights in the night sky, Bill Masen, who has just had an eye operation, wakes to silence. Removing the bandages covering his face, he ventures out to find the entire city, indeed the entire world, has been struck blind.
As Masen moves through the city he begins to comprehend the scale of the disaster. The world as we have known it is over, destroyed in an instant. For the blind the future holds only starvation and death, for the sighted – for there are a few others who have, like him, survived unscathed – the only realistic option is to take refuge away from the cities and begin again.