The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Must remember to weed the garden…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bill Masen wakes up in hospital, he’s surprised that none of the nurses have been along to get him up and ready for the day. It’s to be a big day – the bandages that have covered his damaged eyes for a week are due to be removed and Bill will find out if he can see. He missed the big meteor shower last night – amazing green streaks shooting across the sky in a wonderful light-show – but most everybody else in the world had watched them. Bill is about to discover he’s one of the lucky few…

Gosh, I had forgotten just how brilliant this book is! I’m sure everyone has an idea of the basic story even if they’ve never read it or seen a film adaptation, because it’s one of those books that has become a cultural reference point for so much later literature and film. When Bill removes his bandages, he discovers that the vast majority of people have been blinded by the lights in the sky. Only a small number of people like himself who, for various reasons, didn’t see them have retained their sight. It’s a tale of survival in a world turned suddenly dystopian. And with the breakdown of society, the strange walking plants known as triffids have been set free to prey on a suddenly vulnerable humanity.

The 1962 movie…

First published in 1951 and set in a future not far distant from that date, it’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia. The world’s first nuclear bombs had been dropped just six years earlier, and the arms race between the US and the USSR was well underway, with each building up stocks of weapons which it was believed could destroy the world. Nuclear bombs were only part of that; Wyndham looks at another aspect, perhaps even more frightening – biological warfare, as scientists turned their brains and technology towards discovering new and horrific ways of destroying their nations’ enemies. Man hadn’t yet made it into space, but that achievement was on the near horizon, again as part of the race for superpower status between the two dominant military mights. And, in a seemingly more peaceful and benevolent manner, man was mucking about with nature in ways that were unprecedented – developing new plants, fertilisers and pesticides without much consideration of possible unintended consequences. All concerns that still exist, though we’ve perhaps become too blasé about them now, but that were fresh and terrifying as Wyndham was writing.

1962 again… and yeah, the woman in the book really doesn’t dress like that to fight monsters…

The joy of this book is that the science horrors are more than balanced by an exceptionally strong human story, with excellent characterisation. On leaving the hospital where he woke up, Bill soon meets a young woman, Josella, also sighted. The book tells their story, and through them of the various ways in which humanity attempts to survive. Wyndham looks at questions of morality and society – should the sighted people try to save the blind, hopeless though that task will be given the huge disparity in numbers? Or should they try to save themselves and create a new world for their children? Should they form small communities or gather together to forge whole new societies? How should they go about preserving the knowledge of the past? What knowledge deserves to be preserved? What form of government should be recreated? Are marriage and monogamy appropriate in a severely depleted population or does childbirth take precedence over all else? What role does religion play in this new world? Now that the flesh-eating triffids vastly outnumber the sighted human population, will man remain in his position at the top of the food chain, or has his time passed?

The 2009 TV miniseries version…

Josella has as strong a survival instinct as any of the men and an equal ability to adapt to new ways of living. She’s witty and amusing and occasionally a little wicked. She’s a true partner for Bill, rather than a pathetic encumbrance that he has to protect. She is, without exception, the best female character I can think of in science fiction of this era and indeed for decades to come. She feels utterly modern, as if she were written today. And Wyndham makes it clear this is no accident – he uses one of his characters to discuss the relative positions in society of men and women and how women’s perceived weakness has arisen out of convention – a convention that women have used to their advantage as much as men have to theirs. And he suggests strongly that if women want to be equal, they can be – they just have to decide that they will be and stop playing the feminine weakness card. A bit of tough love, perhaps, and the teensiest bit patronising, but… not bad at all for a man in the 1950s!

Book 30 of 90

For those of you who automatically dismiss science fiction as not your kind of thing, I promise you this book – any of Wyndham’s books, in fact – will make you change your mind. The writing and characterisation is first-class, and the science is in there because we live in a world where science is important, and where it can be a force for either great good or annihilation of the species. Questions we should all be aware of and thinking about, and all packaged up in a fantastic story – it’s as much literary fiction as any other book that seeks to examine the “human condition” and, frankly, better than most. Great book!

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74 thoughts on “The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

  1. Excellent review thank you. I was trying to decide whether to re-read this or not, and you have definitely my mind up for me. Wrexham is overdue a revival i think. .

  2. Without thinking about it, I had the feeling I’d read this classic, but your review makes it clear I haven’t – and must! You write such helpful reviews FF 🙂

    • Thanks, Christine! 😀 That’s been happening to me with loads of these old classics, but happily it turned out I actually had read this one before! It’s well worth your time…

      PS How’s the blog coming along? Will you be opening it up to the public soon?

      • OK, so I’ve been avoiding the question 😐 I’ve allowed myself to become involved in some other projects (e.g. family history exploration – I’m currently immersed in WW1 trying to find out more about some great uncles’ stories). Hopefully I refocus soon?

  3. You’re right, I think this is one of those books that transcends the Sci-Fi genre as a result of the qualities you’ve mentioned. A truly great novel in many respects.

    • I think Wyndham and Wells both had so much to say that their books can’t really be pigeon-holed as sci-fi. But I had truly forgotten how good this is – now I can’t wait to re-read his other stuff…

  4. I agree, Wyndham was an excellent writer. I suppose the problem with science fiction is that they’re such page-turners we can sometimes take for granted the other elements. Your beautifully thorough review reminds me I must read it again.

    • Thank you! 😀 Certainly, I think when I read them in my teens I just saw them as great adventure stories – it’s only re-reading them now (in my dotage! 😉 ) that I’m realising how much they really had to say about their time, I’ve been loving re-reading Wells recently, and now I can’t wait to re-read all the other Wyndhams too…

  5. A wonderful story, easily Wyndham’s best, and a blueprint for modern dystopia stories. I must reread and think about the story from Josella’s view, although I do seem to remember thinking even in my high school reading that she was a strong and resourceful character, and a good match for Bill. I also liked how the cause of the “meterorite shower” wasn’t explained completely. Was it bio-weaponary, or nuclear weaponry in orbit breaking down, a combination of both, or even something else? But the greatest long term threat is not the plants but the humans (much like The Walking Dead show) and the social structure best suited for survival. You touch on all this – great review!

    • Thank you! 😀 Absolutely! Not to mention all the various survivor-type TV series there have been. I really didn’t remember how good this was nor that Josella is such a great character – he was decades ahead of his time with her, and unlike some of the heroines in modern sci-fi/fantasy, she’s actually believable. She doesn’t stop being a real woman. Yes, the meteor shower was beautifully ambiguous and of course the breakdown of society meant they didn’t have the scientific resources to work it out. I loved the way he packed so much in about different forms of society and government without allowing it to feel like some kind of seminar – what a writer! Can’t wait to revisit his other stuff now…

    • Hahaha – schools are really the curse of reading! I still hate most of the stuff they forced on me too. But this one is well worth revisiting as an adult – I think you probably would feel very differently now, and might love Josella… 😀

    • I know – I always wonder if we really would revert to that kind of behaviour so quickly in the event of a major disaster, but when you look at the various war zones around the world I think the answer is probably yes…

        • Good grief! Do you think someone was trying to murder you? Perhaps you’ve accidentally seen some crucial event that you haven’t yet realised is the vital evidence against a mobster!! 😱

          (More seriously, I hope you weren’t hurt.)

  6. I’ve read the book, thought it was crap, watched the black and white movie in highschool, loved it and I see from this review there is a recent mini-series?
    Have you seen that? I’m wondering if it’s worth checking out…

    • I actually can’t remember if I’ve seen the film – I have images in my mind but I think they might be from some old creaky TV adaptation from my childhood. I’m going to watch it soon though. The book is brilliant though – well worth a place on your TBR!

    • Thanks, Jennifer! 😀 There are a few sci-fi books that really transcend the genre – Wyndham and HG Wells are really fiction writers who just happened to use that format to tell their stories. But I’m going to go on and on till I wear down everyone’s resistance. I’ll make sci-fi fans of you all one day… bwahaha!

  7. What a story! And such an interesting exploration of character, too. To me, that’s part of what makes a great story. It’s also what helps this one go beyond just ‘sci-fi.’ It’s really a human story if I can put it that way. Glad you enjoyed re-reading it, FictionFan!

  8. Great review! I saw the film on TV when I was a kid and thought it was good. (Didn’t see the miniseries, though a miniseries seems perfect for the premise.) So the book sounds great indeed!

    • I can’t remember if I’ve seen the film – I have images in my mind but I think they might be of some ancient TV adaptation when I was a kid. I’m going to seek the film out now though. The book is fantastic – I had forgotten how good! 😀

  9. I have to find time to go back and re-read Wyndham. He was probably my favourite author during my late teenage years. While I like this novel my favourite has always been ‘The Crysalids’, which captures the worst of human frailty so accurately.

    • I loved him in my teens too and have re-read a couple over the years, but this is my first re-read of this one as an adult, and I had totally forgotten just how good it is! The Crysalids is another I haven’t re-read since my teens so that will be on my list now. I loved Chocky best back then, I think…

  10. How did I miss this one?? I don’t usually read much sci-fi, but this sounds so intriguing. I find it amazing how forward-thinking some writers are, envisioning entire worlds and the potential problems that might arise decades in advance. Drat, I’m starting off the week with another TBR-addition!

    • This is like the HG Wells books I’ve been banging on about for months – it’s only sci-fi in the sense that it’s “speculative fiction”. The science is definitely way less important than the humanity – go on! You’ll love it… 😉

    • Thanks, Laila! 😀 Josella is a great female character – so much better than most of the women in action fiction at that time. In fact, she’s better than most of the women in sci-fi or fantasy even today – more believable. She doesn’t turn into a super-hero – just a strong woman! It’s well worth a place on your TBR… 😀

  11. I really like the film but I’ve never read the book. At the moment, I’m not sure I could – I’m struggling with anything vaguely dystopian! Maybe if I swear off the news for a week I could manage it…

  12. I almost get the feeling that some of those comments were aimed in my direction… I haven’t read this one, although I do of course know the basics and I’m more tempted with the idea that the author had some idea of what feminism really needed to overcome, and why I feel, it hasn’t got there yet… more tough love needed in my (humble) opinion!

    • 😂 Funny you should say that – the review did contain your name at one point, but I edited it out in case you hit me! 😉 Couldn’t agree more re the whole feminism thing and I loved that Josella could be such a great character – a real equal for Bill – without having to stop being a woman…

  13. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this book. I read it many (many, many!) years ago when I read almost nothing but science fiction. I remember thinking how amazing the writing was.

    I think I overdid the science fiction because my reading in that genre came to a complete halt and I rarely read any science fiction now.

    • I was the same actually – read my way through all the greats and a lot of the less-than-greats in my teens and early twenties and then just stopped. It’s only in the last year or two I’ve been re-reading some of the sci-fi classics and discovering my love for them all over again… 😀

  14. I liked this a lot when I read it a few years ago – so far, it has been the only Wyndham novel that I really enjoyed, although I still have a few to go. I agree about Josella. She’s a very compelling character and incredibly capable – I think Wyndham dealt with gender politics better than most male SF writers of the era. Did you find the explanation for the origins of the triffids convincing? I always thought it was a little bit muddled as to the actual cause, but then again I haven’t read it for a while so I might have forgotten.

    • I love most of his stuff but this one really is special. Have you read Chocky? I haven’t read it in years but I seem to remember it being my favourite back in the day. Yes, indeed – I re-read Asimov recently and his women are so Stepford-wife style ’50s women – Wyndham’s characterisation of Josella was so refreshing after that! I don’t think his science is particularly well-defined – again a lot of them didn’t bother much about the credibility of the science back then (and actually I prefer that to today’s slavish obedience to the possible). But I took it to be a form of genetic manipulation gone badly wrong… 😱

  15. Again, never heard of this book or author-which makes me realize I am missing sooo much! This sounds like a good book, and even though I don’t normally like science fiction, this appeals to me!

    • A lot of science fiction doesn’t work for me – most of it actually. But the ones that have achieved classic status really transcend the genre usually. This one definitely does! Go on, you know you want to… 😉

  16. All those questions that you asked really got me thinking. My first thought was of course the sighted people should help the blind people, but with these monsters roaming around and eating people, are the blind people just a waste of space at this point–or even way pray, a diversion for the sighted? I’m going to see if I can find an audiobook version of this story. I’ll bet whoever narrates it does it good job because the story is already so good!

    • Yes, that’s what I loved about it – it didn’t give all the answers but it asked the questions and you end up pondering yourself. In the book, different people have different views so they discuss and argue all these moral issues. I hope you can find a copy… 😀

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