Fiction Reviews

The Day of the Triffids

(1951/2014) John Wyndham, Penguin, £8.99 / Can$19.99 / Aus$16.99, pbk, 240pp, ISBN 978-0-241-97057-7

(1951/2016) John Wyndham, Gollancz, £9.99, hrdbk. ISBN 978-1-473-21267-1


This Penguin edition is a very welcome reprint (as is the subsequent Gollancz SF Masterwork edition) – as it they are now less frequent (and two new editions in three years is something of a change) – of John Wyndham's 1951 SF classic. So do not be put off by the 2014 Penguin edition's cover's garish, almost cartoon, artistic portrayal of triffids: the cover for the 2016 Gollancz SF Masterworks edition is far better. And for those with poor eyesight or are younger and so prefer larger print, alas you will have to put up with this Penguin edition's small font size. Nonetheless, The Day of the Triffids is a genuine SF classic of mid-twentieth century British science fiction at its best.

Set in the near future (as far as the 1950s were concerned), William Masen wakes up in a hospital after eye treatment and takes off his bandages to find the rest of humanity blinded. The Earth had passed through the tail of a comet, and the resulting bright green meteor shower was a spectacle that nearly everyone on the planet enjoyed. But alas there was an after effect as within a few hours they were blind. Only a few escaped seeing the meteors, hence escaped being blind, and eye-bandaged Masen was one of them.

With 99% of the global population without sight, civilization instantly grinds to a halt. If that were not enough, there were the experimental triffid plants bred for their oils. They had been confined to special farms, but now they were free to roam: yes, the triffids could move! Worse, triffids had a whip-like structure that they can use to immobilise prey, for like the Venus Flytrap they were carnivorous. Unlike the Venus Flytrap (which feeds on small insects) the triffids were large and could consume humans. Quite simply, the now-blind population were extremely vulnerable to the roving triffids and even a sighted person had problems when encountering the plants.

And so William Masen leaves the hospital to try to survive in this new world. But if, as people fell prey to the triffids, the increasing desolate landscape was not enough, there were the problems of some of the ruthless minority of sighted survivors and who were doing everything they could to make themselves comfortable and rule the remnants of civilisation…

Wyndham's story explores the fate of society with its supporting infra-structure undermined and mankind's thin veneer of civilization removed. As for the triffids themselves, Wyndham's writing successfully conveys real menace, unlike the awful 1963 film of the same name by writer/producer Philip Yordan (so bad that late in production it had a separately-shot, lighthouse storyline added with a different director); though the 1981 BBC TV drama series – adapted by Douglas Livingstone and directed by Ken Hannam – was more faithful. In 2009 the BBC broadcast another version in two one-and-a-half hour episodes starring Dougray Scott and Joely Richardson along with Vanessa Redgrave and Eddie Izzard. This took liberties with the story but did capture the triffids' menace and had better special effects with Izzard giving a powerful performance as someone who would do anything to survive and for power.

The 2016 SF Masterworks edition comes with a three-page introduction by Stephen Baxter. In this he refers to Brian Aldiss' classifying Wyndham as a writer of 'cosy catastrophes' and – as does Ken MacLeod in his introduction to Wyndham's The Chrysalids – he opines that this is a little unfair especially as, Baxter notes, that Wyndham lived through WWII. The bottom line is that the introduction to the 2016 edition is a useful one.

As for the original 1951 novel, it has stood the test of time in that, apart from a few anachronisms, it could have been written today. It was continually in print right through to the end of the 20th century and actually reprinted almost every year and even (several times) twice a year through to the mid-1980s. It has continually been available through to the present but recently (early 21st century) reprints have been less frequent, hence this 2014 edition is welcome. But its in-print longevity does qualify it for an entry in Essential Science Fiction: A Concise Guide. Having said that, Penguin with this edition skimping to keep the page count down so necessitating a smaller font is regrettable, and the garish cover is quite simply infantile that does neither the story, the author, nor even the publisher, any justice. This is all the more so as The Day of the Triffids is one of the comparatively few SF books to have been accepted by mainstream literary critics back in the 20th century when science fiction was very much sneered at by the mundane literati as an inferior genre. But make no mistake, this is a genuine genre classic.

Jonathan Cowie

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