Thursday, May 21, 2009
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
I have a long fondness for Apocalyptic novels. The Stand was one of my early favorites from junior high school, and I really enjoyed its cousin by Robert McCammon, Swan Song. There's something about the End Of The World that just grabs me and won't let go. Maybe it's the thought that, should the world end, I would be one of the survivors. The rule of law would break down, all shackles of modern life would be loosed, and I would finally be free to choose my own destiny. Which, knowing me, would probably be very short and end up with me getting shot by some kind of Mad Max pirate tribe.
I can say with some certainty, however, that in this book's scenario I would not be coming out on top. Because I love astronomy.
Let me explain. This end of the world came in two parts, at least one of which was definitely of our own doing.
It started with a comet. Or a meteor shower. Or something, but whatever it was, it lit up the sky. Green streaks of light brightened the night skies around the world, and everyone who could go and watch them did so. I'm a sucker for a natural light show, so I probably would have spent the night watching the skies and enjoying myself. And I would have woken up stone blind the next day.
That in itself - the vast, vast majority of the human population on Earth being blind - would have been a pretty good apocalypse. Wyndham describes rashes of suicides, accidental deaths and, of course, murder in just the first few days. Without vision, the carefully crafted world we've made kind of falls apart. But it would have been survivable. Co-operation groups spring up pretty quickly, both voluntary and otherwise, where sighted people assist the blind in surviving. It would have been tough, yes, but not impossible, for the world to go on. If not for the Triffids.
While we don't know what caused the green comet, the Triffids were definitely our fault. The product of bioengineering gone haywire, the Triffids are ambulatory carnivorous plants with a poison sting that can kill a grown man from ten feet away. And while they're not intelligent, they are remarkably... aware. They follow sound, they learn and co-operate in hunting, and are very difficult to eradicate.
But by themselves, they're manageable. Their stingers can be removed, even though they grow back eventually, and they make interesting garden plants. And they're immensely profitable - the oil derived from a Triffid outdoes every other kind of vegetable oil available. In normal times, the Triffids are under human control and benefit humanity greatly.
The two problems, when put together, make for a truly terrifying end - an unstoppable, unthinking army of carnivorous plants, finally freed from their shackles. A world in chaos, half-blind and not sure if they have to save themselves, or if someone else will do it for them. And an exciting story.
The message of this book is pretty clear, and Wyndham wastes no time in making sure we get it, lest the adventure part of the book get bogged down. Don't mess with nature. That's pretty much it. Don't mess with nature, because nature will inevitably come 'round and mess right back with you.
Wyndham has created a brave new world for us, with a wide variety of characters who all react to their new situation in different - and realistic - ways. Starting in London, we meet a diverse cast - from the girl who believes that the Americans will save her to the man who believes that polygamy is the way to a brighter future, everyone has an idea on how to survive. The narrator, Bill Masen, knows just enough to get the reader up to speed, but not nearly enough to know if he's even going to make it out of this alive. With the help of other sighted survivors, he is determined to make a stand, not only for England, but for the human race as a whole.
But first they have to deal with the Triffids....
"When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. "
- John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids
Day of the Triffids at Wikipedia
John Wyndham at Wikipedia
Day of the Triffids at Amazon.com