Tuesday, February 21, 2006


It didn’t make the Best of the 20th Century List. Yet John Wyndham’s THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS is a great example of apocalyptic literature.

This 1951 science fiction classic, reminiscent of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, is creepier and more entertaining than Wells’s more famous masterpiece. Wyndham isn’t a greater stylist than Wells: his prose is workmanlike--no flourishes. The plot, however, is riveting. My spouse advised me not to read THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS at night, claiming it was too damned scary. But I was glued to it for a couple of evenings, notwithstanding my fears.

Wyndham begins the third paragraph: “The way I came to miss the end of the world--well, the end of the world I had known for close on thirty years--was sheer acccident: like a lot of survival, when you come to think of it.”

The narrator’s philosophical observations enhance this end-of-the-world narrative. While mysterious green lights flash and blind the majority of the world’s people one night, the narrator is hospitalized for an eye ailment. He awakens to a strange silence and leaves his room to find the remaining patients blind. He takes to the streets, one of the few sighted people left in London, and saves a sighted woman, Josella, who has been enslaved by a blind man to help him forage for food. The narrator and Josella, horrified by the chaos and riots, form a relationship and quickly fall in love.

Gangs and looters are not the only danger. Walking plants called triffids, once farmed for oil, have escaped and are killing people. Yes, it sounds far-fetched, but Wyndham’s long pseudo-scientific chapter persuaded me.

An organized gang separates the narrator from Josella. After a plague decimates London, he escapes to the country in search of her and other survivors. He observes:

“The sight of the open country gave one hope of a sort. It was true that the young green crops would never be harvested when they had ripened, nor the fruit from the trees gathered; that the countryside might never look as trim and neat as it did that day, but for all that it would go on, after its own fashion. It was not, like the towns, sterile, stopped forever. It was a place one could work and tend, and still find a future. It made my existence of the previous week seem like that of a rat living on crumbs and ferreting in garbage heaps. As I looked out over the fields I felt my spirits expanding.”

Wyndham is brilliantly imaginative. The atmosphere is definitely ‘50s--there’s a glum post-atom-bomb certainty of the inevitablility of man’s destruction, combined with a lack of hipness --but the story still speaks to us. Are we more or less optimistic about the future than Wyndham was? Possibly more, possibly less: I’m out of touch. Wyndham’s dystopian tale is also a thrilling adventure of survival.

And, I must add, it has been richly plagiarized by the writer of the film 28 DAYS LATER. No infected monkeys in THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, but both heroes survive because they are in the hosptial when other human beings are stricken.

The photo of John Wyndham was found at: http://www.billsparks.com/assets/images/Sci-Fi/wyndham.j

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