The Day of the Triffids

John Wyndham
The Day of the Triffids Cover

A Cozy Catastrophe

Scott Laz

In Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss’s 1986 history of science fiction, Aldiss describes the mostly British subgenre of SF he terms the “cosy catastrophe” story: “The essence of the cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off. The best and most memorable example of this subgenre is American: George Stewart’s Earth Abides, but it was the British writers—less preoccupied with aliens than their American counterparts—who specialized in Wyndhamesque comeuppances.” Wyndhamesque, because the best-known and most popular purveyor of cozy catastrophes was British writer John Wyndham, who had been writing stories for the pulps since the 1930s, but whose career was reinvigorated (even reinvented) by the publication of The Day of the Triffids in 1951. The book was very popular, and crossed over into the literary mainstream, seemingly due to the combination of its smooth, engaging writing style, and its relatable setting and characters.

It’s interesting to consider the possible reasons for the appeal of this type of novel in postwar Britain. Having just endured the German bombardment and the disastrous destruction of World War II, readers would certainly have given some thought to “end of the world” scenarios. But why revisit such feelings as the country recovered? Maybe this is where the “coziness” comes in. Despite the near destruction of the human race, these stories’ characters don’t break down or give up (though they may come close before regaining their resolve), but rather maintain a stiff upper lip while doing what’s necessary to keep the race going, just as the British people did while fighting the war. The experience of war is also known to build a sense of community. People must work together, trust each other, and rely on each other, in order to survive. This sense of a common purpose and the need to cooperate in order to survive is a notable theme in this novel. As Wyndham writes: “To deprive a gregarious creature of companionship is to maim it, to outrage its nature. The prisoner and the cenobite are aware that the herd exists beyond their exile; they are an aspect of it. But when the herd no longer exists, there is, for the herd creature, no longer entity. He is a part of no whole, a freak without a place. If he cannot hold onto his reason, then he is lost indeed: most utterly and fearfully lost, so that he becomes no more than the twitch in the limb of a corpse.” The triffids themselves can even be seen as “evil mirror universe” counterparts to this aspect of humanity, since the threat they pose seems to be due in part to their ability to operate as a hive mind of sorts. Individually, they are dangerous but easy to kill; working together, they threaten the recovery of the human race.

The triffids are not the cause of the disaster, but are lurking in the background until they see their opportunity to finish the job begun by the actual catalyst of the catastrophe—a mysterious appearance out of the sky of streaking green lights that blind everyone who sees them. This accounts for the vast majority of the human race. After all, who can resist a free light show? The few people who emerge unscathed are temporarily incapacitated while this is happening. Our hero Bill, for example, is recovering from temporary blindness in a hospital, so his eyes are bandaged, and he can only listen as others describe the green lights. The other main character, Josella, has shut herself away in a dark room as she recovers from a severe hangover, and is unaware of the lights. Another is hiding from the police in a cellar crawlspace. These “lucky” few can only watch as society falls apart. Attempts to help the blind on a large scale are doomed to failure, since the ratio of the dependent to those who can successfully forage for food is too great, and such problems would only grow as people ultimately return to producing for themselves. The end is hastened by a mysterious contagious plague, which the sighted are better able to survive by avoiding contact with those who have caught this disease. In order to do what is needed to save the race, the blind must be abandoned by the sighted, in the main moral dilemma faced by the novel’s characters. The causes of the strange lights and the plague are never established with certainty in the story, but by the end Wyndham makes it clear that they are likely the result of the rumored but secret orbiting weapons satellites that several countries have sent into space. Thus, unlike in Stewart’s Earth Abides (to which The Day of the Triffids is an interesting contrast throughout), we have brought the disaster on ourselves.

Equally mysterious, but also apparently self-inflicted, is the plague of triffids that the survivors must deal with: eight-foot-tall walking plants with long whip-like poisonous (and usually deadly) stingers. It is hinted that the triffid seeds were stolen from the Russians and accidentally let loose, after which they propagated throughout the world. How they originated is never explained. (Could this be read as a precursor of illicit traffic in biological weaponry?) The source of valuable oils, triffids were cultivated, but had to be kept under strict control. Once people no longer had the capacity to maintain that control, the triffids wandered off, seemingly with the intention of finishing off the remains of the human race. As communities reestablish themselves, defending themselves from the multiplying triffids becomes a growing priority.

This, then, is the “comeuppance” Aldiss refers to. We have brought disaster down on ourselves. Our survivors, however, despite a series of tribulations, seem capable of creating a better world out of the ashes of the old. Again unlike Earth Abides, in which there is a sense of loss as civilization loses its hold on humanity, The Day of the Triffids ends with the feeling that civilization will reassert itself. Both books, however, have as a theme the importance of family and community in maintaining the individual’s will to live and persevere. Both Ish and his family in Earth Abides and Bill’s in The Day of the Triffids reflect on the fact that, in some ways, life after the disaster is better and more meaningful than before.

Wyndham’s novel is historically interesting, but is it still worth reading? The premise is supremely silly, but Wyndham’s storytelling carries the reader along. As Aldiss puts it: “Rarely has there been a less promising start to a story. Yet there is magic in The Day of the Triffids, and in the excitement of the hero and his girl moving through a collapsing London.” David Pringle has a similar take: “In summary it sounds absurd, but Wyndham makes it all surprisingly convincing.” My review dwells on the subtext, which makes reading the novel today much more interesting but, as Pringle points out, “it would be a mistake to stress the ‘moral’ in what is first and foremost an exciting escapist romp.” I wouldn’t rate The Day of the Triffids as a great novel, but it’s a quick, enjoyable, and exciting disaster story, which somehow comes across without too much unpleasantness (despite the violence and rotting corpses). It’s easy to see why it has been so popular.