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.
It is a scenario which might well sustain a novel in its own right, and indeed Wyndham offers some unsettling glimpses of the choices facing the survivors. But the book then introduces one further complication: Triffids.
Triffids are plants, but plants unlike any other. Approximately eight to ten feet tall, they are carnivorous, the trunk which sits atop the muscular mass of roots at their base ending in an extended funnel, or pitcher, filled with sticky fluid which, like the pitfall trap of pitcher plants, serves both to entrap and digest any insect or animal unfortunate enough to enter it.
In itself their carnivorousness is relatively unremarkable, if somewhat repulsive. But unlike other carnivorous plants, Triffids are not passive collectors of food. Rather, concealed in their funnel, they keep a poison sting, with which they lash any animal unfortunate enough to stray into their range.
Yet it is not their carnivorous nature nor even their sting which makes Triffids truly unique. Rather it is the fact that they are – improbably, horribly – mobile, able to use the three stumps that emerge from the rootlike mass at their base to move about in search of mates and prey.
In an age more used to the sleek, lightning-fast horrors of Giger’s aliens, or Spielberg’s Velociraptors, there seems at first something absurd, even ludicrous about the Triffids and their motion. But in fact it is precisely their clumsiness that makes them so repulsive and unnatural, as Wyndham himself understood:
“When it “walked” it moved rather like a man on crutches. Two of the blunt “legs” slid forward, then the whole thing lurched as the rear one drew almost level with them, then the two in front slid forward again. At each “step” the long stem whipped violently back and forth; it gave one a kind of seasick feeling to watch it. As a method of progress it looked both strenuous and clumsy — faintly reminiscent of young elephants at play. One felt that if it were to go on lurching for long in that fashion it would be bound to strip all its leaves if it did not actually break its stem. Nevertheless, ungainly though it looked, it was contriving to cover the ground at something like an average walking pace.”
Discovered only a few years earlier, Triffids have, despite their unpleasant habits and bizarre appearance, spread around the world. Some are kept as ornaments and amusements in gardens, their stings docked for safety, but the vast bulk live in huge plantations, bred for the oil they produce in vast quantities.
Initially the few sighted survivors are dismissive of the threat of Triffids. But Masen, who has spent much of his adult life working on Triffid plantations, understands how quickly they can spread, and how dangerous they become be if left to wander free.
One of the masterstrokes of The Day of the Triffids is its relative lack of interest in the origin of its eponymous creatures. Like the suggestion that the display of lights which blinded the world may not have been the meteor shower they were originally supposed to be, but a space-borne weapon of some sort which malfunctioned, the origin of the Triffids is left deliberately vague. For his part Masen supposes they were created in a lab, possibly by the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko, perhaps as a deliberate result of gene-splicing experiments, perhaps as an accidental byproduct or mutation of some existing species.
Yet this disinterest is of a piece with the novel’s desire to unsettle not by transporting the reader to a world unknown to them, but by taking the world they know and exposing the assumptions at its core. Indeed despite the common criticism of Wyndham’s novels, that they are too polite, too bourgeois, too English (Brian Aldiss famously described them as “cosy catastrophes”) his visions of a ruined world do not suffer because of their muted ordinariness; rather they are unsettling precisely because of that ordinariness.
It is impossible, of course, to divorce The Day of the Triffids from its period. First published in 1951, it operates, like all of Wyndham’s novels, not least The Chrysalids, which takes place in a nuclear wasteland, and The Kraken Wakes, with its alien invaders, in the shadow of the Cold War and its escalating nuclear threat. Certainly the unnatural and misshapen Triffids are close relatives of the mutant and alien menaces that marauded through American and Japanese culture in the same period. Likewise the curiously, even disturbingly matter-of-fact responses of the survivors to their predicament, the ease with which they make the choice to abandon the blind to their fate, seems to speak to a society still hardened by the savagery of the war just ended, just as the shadow of the Blitz hangs over the novel’s images of a silent and ruined London.
Yet these concerns are underscored by the novel’s deeper, and more thoroughgoing environmental critique. Unlike the more fevered dreams of nuclear apocalypse, with their inescapable echoes of Christian fantasies about the end of days, The Day of the Triffids simply allows the brutal, inexorable logic of Darwinian science its head. Despite the suggestion they might possess some rudimentary form of intelligence, if not individually then as part of some larger, hive-like organism (as their numbers multiply it becomes clear the drumming sound they make by beating their appendages against their trunks allows them to communicate), the disinterested, opportunistic Triffids do not overwhelm humanity because they are superior creatures, but by being better adapted, and breeding faster than their human prey.
Compared to the Promethean fantasies of many more high-concept visions of humanity’s fallibility, the Malthusian logic of The Day of the Triffids is notable for its unsentimental bleakness. Yet this does not diffuse or undercut the potency of its critique. Indeed if anything it makes it more powerful, and certainly more prescient.
As a novel, The Day of the Triffids is distinguished as much by its sheer economy as by the terrifying vision it presents. Although it was his first, and greatest success, by the time Wyndham (who was born in 1903) came to write it he had already been making a living for almost two decades writing science fiction and detective stories and serial fiction for American pulp magazines, usually under the name John Beynon, or John Beynon Harris (although he is now remembered as John Wyndham, he was impressively christened John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris).
This apprenticeship no doubt has more than a little to do with the concision of the storytelling in The Day of the Triffids. Certainly its second chapter, in which Masen’s childhood and the story of the origin of the Triffids is related, is a textbook example of effective deployment of backstory, establishing the fundamentals of the novel’s reality with deceptive ease.
But Wyndham’s apprenticeship in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s is also evident in the novel’s remarkable opening chapter, in which Masen wanders out into a silent London. It is a sequence replicated in Alex Garland and Danny Boyle’s hauntingly visceral 2002 film, 28 Days Later (which also borrows much of its structure and many crucial elements from The Day of the Triffids), in which Cillian Murphy’s Jim awakens from a coma in a London scoured clean by a mysterious virus.
Just as much of the power of 28 Days Later comes from its often eerily beautiful images of an abandoned London, many of The Day of the Triffids’ most enduring images are of the empty cities and towns of southern England, and, as time passes, of their gradual reclamation by the wild.
What’s interesting, to my mind, is the manner in which these images are identifiably part of an English – or perhaps British – tradition. Since Wells at least, British speculative fiction has tended to imagine our end in similarly muted terms. Indeed the image of an abandoned London has recurred repeatedly, perhaps no more powerfully (or deliberately) than in Ronald Wright’s delightful riff on Wyndham and Wells, A Scientific Romance, and its vision of a St Paul’s over taken by water and the wild:
“Wren’s temple is whole except for the dome, scalped like a boiled egg. Aesthetically this is not disastrous. Light spills in, splashing on marble and mosaic. The smoked colours and gold tesserae; the angels; Christ in his majesty above the vanished altar – even in decay these give the place a Byzantine glow I had forgotten, as if this were St Sophia’s, and not St Paul’s”.
This vision stands in stark contrast to American visions of world’s end, and their apocalyptic fervour. Whether in the long tradition of post-apocalyptic novels such as The Road, A Canticle for Leibowitz and Z for Zachariah, with their images of a ruined world, or in the destructive spectacles of films such as Cloverfield, or Spielberg’s uneven but often extraordinary and beautiful War of the Worlds, American popular culture and literature has preferred to imagine conflagration and destruction, rather than the gradual ebbing away of human supremacy.
Part of this may be a function of the different media in which each national imagination tends to operate. Hollywood, with its bigger budgets and technological prowess, not surprisingly tends toward the spectacular, just as American pulp fiction tended towards the sensational and the titillating.
But I also suspect it reflects something more fundamental about the culture of the two countries. Perhaps not surprisingly for a country in which religion looms so large, America is haunted by the apocalyptic imagination of fundamental Christianity, a cultural belief that has not been supplanted by science, but simply mutated into the sort of apocalyptic fantasies which are given shape in The Road or even Battlestar Galactica (if you’re interested in this question you can read an article I wrote on the subject for The Age back in 2007 here).
By contrast, novels such as Wyndham’s can be seen as part of a larger anxiety about the waning of British power from the beginning of the 20th century on. The end of the world, for Wyndham and his countrymen is more about a larger historical process than the more fervid, religious fantasies of the Americans. Like Ozymandias’ statue in Shelley’s antique land, the silent streets and cities of England speak to the folly of human ambition, and to the British sense of Imperial decline.
It’s also possible, I suspect, to see novels such as The Day of the Triffids as part of the same desire to create a national mythology founded in the imagined past of Albion one sees at work in Tolkien, or even writers such as E. Nesbit. This desire – explored with some potency in A.S. Byatt’s remarkable novel, The Children’s Book – can be seen moving in the margins of even such seemingly unsentimental works as The Day of the Triffids, and their images of the forests reclaiming the “sterile” space of England’s cities and towns, as indeed it can be in the novel’s broader unease with modernity and its creations, and its suggestion in its final pages of the founding of a new, agrarian society, not that different, in its way, from the sort imagined by William Blake two centuries earlier.