Wednesday, 17 April 2002

John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids (1951)

Edition: Penguin, 1954 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1084

"When a day you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere." The opening sentence of John Wyndham's famous novel is one of the best in the whole science fiction genre. It is, unfortunately, one which is getting out of date, as Sunday becomes more and more a day just like any other. In the days when shops were closed in England on Sundays, when there was nothing to do except to go to church, then a Sunday would be marked by comparative silence, a lack of traffic noise in particular. The reason that the sentence is so good is that it establishes not just the situation - clearly some catastrophe has taken place overnight which has affected somewhere (possibly just post-) Christian, and it is a disaster survived by the narrator - but the tone of the novel.

By the 1950s, the nuclear holocaust was the catastrophe which would have been on people's minds, but Wyndham chose a different one as the trigger for his novel. This has accidentally proved a bonus, as any depiction of a nuclear war would now almost certainly seem much more out of date, given the limited public knowledge about the atom bomb at the time. (I've seen a film of the time which seriously suggested that sunglasses were sufficient protection from a blast only a few kilometres away.) The nature of the catastrophe has more modern resonances: the blinding lights from space are thought by characters to be a weapon rather like an aggressive version of Star Wars, and the triffids themselves are products of modern farming technology and laboratory experiments with unforeseen consequences.

In other ways, however, The Day of the Triffids now seems rather old fashioned. The first important science fiction novel about surviving a catastrophe is of course H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, and there are several similarities between the two novels. The most striking of these is the restriction of both stories' geography to southern England. Wells completely ignores the rest of the world (all the cylinders containing the invading Martians land in Surrey), but Wyndham has a running motif where people expect rescuers to arrive imminently from America. (This is actually rather likely, since the light show seems to have had to be at night, and so was not at the same instant across the globe, and it is inconceivable that warning would not spread faster than the rotation of the earth, even if only as radio transmissions ceased.)

A less superficial similarity is to do with the nature of their style, as first person narratives by upper middle class Englishmen under exceptional circumstances. They are also both much more about surviving the catastrophe, as opposed to rebuilding afterwards (as is the subject of, say, Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Wyndham is better at involving the reader in what is happening in his novel; Day of the Triffids is far more vivid than War of the Worlds. Wells writes in a very journalistic manner; few of his novels pay much attention to character. Wyndham is much more interested in this than in the description of events, which marked him out from other science fiction writers of the time, particularly Americans, whose major concern was the sense of wonder at scientific and technological marvels. This is probably the reason that Wyndham has remained a science fiction author popular with those who are not fans of the genre.

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