Monday 3 February 2014

REVIEW: The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham (4*)

(Penguin, 2008)

"... if it were a choice for survival between a triffid and a blind man, I know which I'd put my money on."

This was my second John Wyndham novel (my first being The Chrysalids - read my review here) and once again I found myself in the grip of an absorbing, well-plotted, complex and all-round interesting story.  It didn't scare me stupid - not after the first chapter, at least - like it did some people, but it did make me think and I thought the triffids were fascinating.

Let me also just say that the plot wasn't at all what I was expecting.  I thought there was some kind of alien conspiracy at work, and that the triffids were something akin to the tripod thingies in The War of the Worlds.  In actual fact, they are bio-engineered carnivorous plants with long stings that lash out at their victims, delivering a deadly welt to the face or hands.  They can also, bizarrely, raise themselves out of the soil and 'walk', lurching across the ground, and even seem to communicate.  Probably the biggest surprise for me as I started reading was the fact that the triffids are already a huge presence on earth before the book begins.  In some areas they're a menace; in others, large nurseries exploit their potential for scientific and medicinal use, and in affluent countries, properly tethered and with their stings regularly docked, they're a popular garden novelty. The events of the novel don't in themselves create a triffid rampage - they just send them to the top of the food chain...

The novel opens with protagonist Bill waking up in a London hospital the night after a brilliant green meteor shower.  Not only has he not been able to watch the freak cosmic firework display that the rest of the world's been raving about, thanks to having treatment after a near miss in his job working as a triffid researcher, but the entire hospital seems to have shut down since he fell asleep.  It quickly becomes apparent that something's very wrong, and when he plucks up the courage to remove his own eye bandages he realises he's the only person who can still see.  All around him, other patients are waking up blind, and chaos ensues as panicking people stumble through the streets.  Within hours order has broken down and Bill has already witnessed several suicides by people who have understood the futility of their situation.  These early chapters are perhaps the most harrowing of them all, as despair sinks in and people realise that there's no one to help them survive and that at best they're probably going to starve to death in their homes.

Aaaand then the triffids begin to arrive, lurching in from the surrounding countryside, breaking out of their nurseries and homing in on their suddenly vulnerable sustenance of choice.  For Bill and the companions he acquires, still sighted, well aware of the dangers triffids pose at the best of times, a little care is all that's required.  For the blind, there is no such chance of survival.  Actually, the triffids are probably less scary than I expected them to be.  The stings are instantly lethal, so they're actually quite merciful as far as horror-novel monsters go.  For people who are helpless and waiting to die, death by triffid - especially a death that can't be seen coming, can't be anticipated and feared - is almost a better way to go, I'd have said.  There are still some horrendous attacks, some really heartbreaking and heartpounding moments, but I should have known better than to think Wyndham would resort to cheap thrills and relentless carnage...

Mostly the dystopian element of the novel comes from the blindness, the disintegration of society and the attempt at rebuilding something from the remnants of life as we know it.  The triffids are a menace, but they're almost a side-plot a lot of the time, and in some ways that's probably what makes Wyndham's novels more subtle and less scary than some of his sci-fi-horror peers.  As in The Chrysalids, the writing is fantastic, the plot is thoughtful, the characters (and their reactions to the crisis) are complex and varied, and the story feels surprisingly modern given that it was first published in 1951; it has that timeless era-vague quality that makes all the best books so enduring.  I'm not sure which of these books I've preferred so far, but I still have The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos on my shelves and there are more at the library, so I'm definitely not done with Wyndham yet!

For a more coherent review I recommend checking out Ellie's thoughts over at Lit Nerd!

Notable Quotables:
  • "It's humiliating to be dependent... but it's a still poorer pass to have no one to depend on."
  • "Absurd it undoubtedly was, but I had a very strong sense that the moment I stove-in one of those sheets of plate-glass I should leave the old order behind me for ever: I should become a looter, a sacker, a low scavenger upon the dead body of the system that had nourished me.  Such a foolish niceness of sensibility in a stricken world!"
  • "The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts, and obliterated by the jungles of Asia.  Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them.  But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modern city seemed to me...  It must be, I thought, one of the race's most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that 'it can't happen here' - that one's own little time and place is beyond cataclysms.  And now it was happening here.  Unless there should be some miracle I was looking on the beginning of the end of London."
  • "Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative - an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary....  That day I had learned that it was much more.  It was something that could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind.  Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care... it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly..."
  • "Growing things seemed, indeed, to press out everywhere, rooting in the crevices between the paving stones, springing from cracks in concrete, finding lodgements even in the seats of the abandoned cars.  On all sides they were encroaching to repossess themselves of the arid spaces that man had created.  And curiously, as the living things took charge increasingly, the effect of the place became less oppressive."

Source:  I bought this book in an epic pre-birthday buying spree in 2011.