The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951) 272 p.

I first read The Day of the Triffids in early high school, and I’m fairly sure that it’s the first apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel I ever read – and therefore the catalyst for my long-running interest in the genre, as both a reader and a writer. It’s highly regarded as a classic of science fiction, and easily John Wyndham’s most well-known book. I recall preferring The Kraken Wakes, but we’ll see when I re-read that one.

The novel opens with the protagonist, Bill Masen, in a hospital in London after having surgery on his eyes. He wakes up one morning, head still swathed in bandages, to the sound of complete and utter silence. Nobody has come to give him breakfast or remove his bandages, and when he calls for help he receives only terrified screams and moans in return. Driven by fear and panic, Bill carefully removes his bandages himself, and soon discovers that a spectacular meteor shower the previous night – which he felt sulky about missing out on – has blinded all those who witnessed it. He staggers out of the hospital into a motionless London, spared the death that will now come to millions. (This hugely gripping sequence was of course the inspiration for the memorable opening scene of the film “28 Days Later,” in which the protagonist similarly awakes in an empty hospital and ventures out into a deserted London, and presumably that scene inspired in turn the pilot episode of “The Walking Dead.”)

The concept of most of the population being rendered blind – and the collapse of civilisation that follows – is excellent in and of itself, but much of the book also deals with the titular “triffids.” Bioengineered in the Soviet Union and subsequently spread across the world, triffids are alien-like mobile plants with poisonous whipping stings. Cultivated for their valuable oils, triffids are kept in nurseries and plantations all over Britain, and with nobody to tend their stakes and fences they soon break free and multiply, presenting a second challenge to the survivors of the blinding. Reading this book the second time, I was struck by how incongruous the two concepts are. They do relate to each other in the thematic sense of man being burned by his own creations, as it’s implied that the “meteor shower” was actually a malfunctioning weapons satellite, but for the most part it still feels quite odd, like two science fiction concepts crammed together in one book.

The other thing I noticed which I missed as a 14-year old was Wyndham’s sexism. There are a few moments where he appears to be giving lip service to the concept of feminism and equality, such as when Bill rescues a captive sighted woman from her blind tormentor:

“I’m damned ashamed of myself. I’m not a bit like that, really – like you found me, I mean. In fact, I’m reasonably self-reliant, though you might not think it. But somehow the whole thing had got too big for me. What has happened is bad enough, but the awful prospect suddenly seemed too much to bear, and I panicked. I began to think that perhaps I was the only person left in the whole world who could see. It got me down, and all at once I was frightened and silly, I cracked, and I howled like a girl in a Victorian melodrama. I’d never, ever have believed it of me.”

And yet she did break down, and had to be rescued by a man. And then there’s the prim old-fashioned woman who insists that a community of survivors sticks to their Christian decency. Or the ditzy girl besotted with Hollywood who believes that they only need to hang in a few weeks until the Americans come save them. Or the girl who sits sewing in the dark rather than figuring out how to start a “dirty old” generator, and finds herself on the receiving end of a spiel from one of the male characters. It’s not completely clear-cut, but in general, woman in The Day of the Triffids tend towards being hysterical or hopeless or ignorant, while men tend towards being resourceful or wise or forward-thinking. Even the male antagonist introduced towards the end is perfectly efficient and intelligent, just ruthless as well.

I don’t want to blame Wyndham too much for this, though – he doesn’t entirely reduce women to caricatures, and after all, the book was written in 1951 and the author himself was a product of the conservative stiff-upper lip British Empire. Which brings me to the second point, which is the fundamentally quaint Englishness of the novel. Brian Aldiss famously accused Wyndham of writing “cosy catastrophes,” which I can sort of understand – despite featuring many suicides, reflections on the horror of losing a whole civilisation, outright murders and tragic deaths, he does tend to skim over the grisly nature of a post-apocalyptic world. In particular, after Bill leaves London and is driving through the countryside, he often mentions witnessing “many unpleasant sights,” yet never details what they are. It doesn’t do to dwell on it, you see? Let’s pull together, have some tea and this will all be over by Christmas.

Okay, it’s not that bad – it’s not bad at all, if you look at the book in the context of its era. The characters display resilience in the face of armageddon, but they don’t kid themselves about the long-term consequences of their situation. When I first read the book I chalked it up to that comfortingly nostalgic British attitude that any Australian schoolboy picks up from the ABC, but now that I think of the book as a product of its time, it’s probably a lingering effect of World War II stoicism. Speaking of which, the horror of blindness in the face of danger is reminiscent of the enforced blackouts of the Blitz, which probably also influenced scenes of a ruined and devastated London. Or perhaps – with one character quoting “Ozymandias,” and Bill comparing the ruins to Ancient Egypt and Greece – it simply speaks to that great British anxiety of the 1940s and ’50s: imperial decline.

In spite of its flaws, I would never dream of giving The Day of the Triffids less than a glowing review and a 10/10 score. Perhaps this is because it is so firmly lodged in my childhood memory as one of the greatest books I ever read, or perhaps it’s because it really is a taut, convincing post-apocalyptic story that presents a number of fascinating themes and concepts tied into a highly readable and concise narrative. The Day of the Triffids is one of the finest science fiction novels of the 20th century, and I can easily forgive Wyndham the occasional old-fashioned bump in the road.