The Day of the Triffids

Another book for the Flashback challenge. Day of the Triffids is an odd book for me, as I have a very distinct memory of disliking it intensely the first time I read it. I was about 13 or 14, and it was a set-text at school. Now I'm not really one for set texts, I HATE being told what to read, so this may have contributed to my emotions re this novel, but I can't remember feeling such an aversion to any other novel of my schooldays.

It was probably the first science fiction novel I ever read, and again, it's extremely odd that I didn't enjoy it. I was born in the mid-'60s, and in that period from the late '50s to the late '70s there was a wealth of quality sci-fi on British tv - I grew up with the original Star Trek, Dr. Who, the wonderful and much neglected Blake's 7, Quatermass, The Martian Chronicles, and the eerie original Survivors, which I found extremely scary but compulsive viewing.

Many of my earliest memories are bound up with the space race - I still clearly remember being pulled out from under the dining-room table, where I'd set up a moonbase, to watch Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, and I have a soft spot for Apollo 13, as I recall my father explaining to me in language suitable for a 6 year old the problems the astronauts were facing.

So, you would have thought that someone who was so into sci-fi would have loved their first contact with John Wyndham, but no, I hated the book, found it very hard to get into, and I'm not even sure if I ever managed to finish it in that school year. A couple of years later, the BBC did a wonderful dramatisation of the novel starring John Duttine and Emma Relph - if you're looking for a film/tv version of the book - go for this one
It's much better than either the earlier Hollywood B-movie version, or the much more recent BBC version, which is not particularly faithful to the book.

I watched the BBC dramatisation and enjoyed it, and decided to re-visit the book, and was it worth it? Definitely yes - I became a huge John Wyndham fan, and have read most of his books since then. The book has its roots (excuse the triffid pun) firmly in the Cold War - where paranoia and suspicion reign. Wyndham interestingly though doesn't lay firm blame for the accident that precipitates the apocalypse of his novel on either side, each could be equally guilty. The opening passages are chillingly scary, and he evokes the smells and sights and terror of such a sudden change sparsely, but incredibly well. It would be a scary novel anyway, but throwing the triffids (carnivorous mobile plants - it sounds as though it should be funny, but isn't) into the mix provides an additional catalyst for change, and again examines the responsibility of man, and his/her ability to contribute to his/her own destruction.

There has been some criticism of Triffids from feminist critics, who claim that some of the attitudes towards women are old-fashioned - most of the women involved do seem to end up back in the kitchen or having babies, but against this, two of the strongest, most intelligent, and most organized characters in the novel are female - the heroine Josella, and the young girl, Susan, who is by far the most observant person where triffids are concerned. It must also be seen as a creation of its time (the early 1950s), although in many ways it is ahead of its time when thinking of the dangers associated with satellite weaponry, and the possibility of targeted nuclear/biological weapons, not to mention genetic manipulation.

By its nature any apocalyptic novel must have a certain level of bleakness, but there is less of the desolation here than there is in A Canticle for Leibowitz which has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog. There are many challenges, but most are overcome, and the novel ends upliftingly. Wyndham was a master of the apocalyptic novel, he could also be extremely funny. Triffids is probably his best novel - start here, and keep reading, and welcome to the wonderful world of British sci-fi.


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