Sunday, February 04, 2018

John Wyndham – ‘The Day of the Triffids’

Talking of apocalypses, here’s one from 66 years ago, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, but after Hiroshima, and very definitely of the modern technological era. Rockets have led to satellites, and these, thirty-odd years before Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ project, led to speculation:
From time to time there would be a panicky flare-up of expostulation when reports circulated that as well as satellites with atomic heads there were others with such things as crop diseases, cattle diseases, radioactive dusts, viruses, and infections not only of familiar kinds, but brand-new sorts recently thought up in laboratories, all floating around up there.
Factor number two feels more contemporary still:
Every year we were pushing the northern limit of growth for food plants a little farther back. New fields were growing quick crops on what had historically been simply tundra or barren land. […] For food was then our most pressing problem, and the progress of the regeneration schemes and the advance of the cultivation lines on the maps was followed with almost as much attention as an earlier generation had paid to battle fronts.
It is technology which allows this expansion to happen, and the novel’s narrator, Bill Masen, is a biologist working in a related area. His speciality is triffids, tall walking plants with lethal stings, but also source of a new wonder oil which has replaced fish oil on the food market. They have been around since his boyhood, when he was stung by a small one, and are, he says, ‘the outcome of a series of ingenious biological meddlings’ (Russian meddlings, he hints). The impetus behind triffid farming is commercial rather than existential, though: it is the fact that triffid oil can undercut fish oil that brings it to dominance, and brings about all the triffid nurseries which cause so many problems when it happens.

I was surprised that it – the moment when the world stops functioning – is not caused by the triffids at all. Green lights are seen in the sky, and for everyone who does see them they cause blindness. The blind are easily picked off by triffids, who can feed on the bodies once they have decayed sufficiently. There is also a mysterious plague which wipes out a large proportion of those who escape the triffids. For a monster talking over the world, the triffids are having an awful lot handed to them on a plate, I thought. This, though, is the point: technology creates many dangerous things, manageable under normal circumstances, but take away that crutch, and they can get out of control. Bill suspects that both the wave of blindness and the plague (a bit like typhoid, but with a shorter incubation period) are the result of the weapons satellites malfunctioning. The triffids simply take advantage.

Within a very few weeks, England (and we are to presume the wider world) is reduced to a skeleton population of scavenging survivors, who live initially on supplies raided from cities, but later move to the countryside to avoid the plague. While Bill is still in London, he faces a dilemma to either help the blind to scavenge, and prolong their lives by a short while, or desert them with an organised group of mostly sighted people, with the idea of setting up a community than can survive long-term. He chooses the latter, but is kidnapped with the rest of the party in a raid organised by Wilfred Coker, who forces them all to look after a group of the blind, handcuffed to minders. Once forced, he has enough humanity to continue to look after his group even when free of the minders, abandoning them only when plague gets them and it is pointless to stay. Coker realises the error of his hard-line tactics, but there is another group which continues militant, using Brighton as its base, and intending to build up an army in order to conquer other depleted countries at the first opportunity. This is the real cynicism of the book: not that technology can go wrong, but that even reduced to a stump, the human race would still contain that contingent (about 5%, Bill reckons) convinced that it knew best and was entitled to stamp its authority on the majority.

In London, Bill meets and falls in love with Josella Playton, notorious author of ‘Sex is My Adventure’ (perhaps the most modern touch of all – that, and the gentrified farm house in the commuter belt), but loses her during Coker’s raid. Much of the rest of the book is the story of his search for her, but late on comes this description of a blind man taking a walk to the village shop, which is the most effective account of triffid terror in the book:
Most of the next day Dennis devoted to contriving a kind of helmet for himself. He had wire net only of large mesh so that he had to construct it of several layers overlapped and tied together. It took some time, but, equipped with this and a pair of heavy duty gauntlet gloves, he was able to start out for the village late in the day. A triffid had struck at him before he was three paces from the house. He groped for it until he found it, and twisted its stem for it. A minute or two later another sting thudded across his helmet. He could not find that triffid to grapple with it, though it made half a dozen slashes before it gave up. He found his way to the toolshed, and thence across to the lane, encumbered now with three large balls of gardening twine which he paid out as he went to guide him back.
There is plenty that is daft here: not least, mobile plants that kill for food but can’t actually eat it until it has decayed, by which time they are probably somewhere else (though Bill does say that in common with insects, ‘Separately they have something which looks slightly like intelligence; collectively it looks a great deal more like it’). People committing suicide on a mass scale immediately they realise they are blind. The blindness, caused by looking at the sky at the wrong time, affecting quite such a large proportion of the population (weren’t any of them inside?) There is definitely something in this, though:
My first tentative trip [to London] I took alone, returning with cases of triffid-bolts, paper, engine parts, the Braille books and writing machine that Dennis so much desired, the luxuries of drinks, sweets, records, and yet more books for the rest of us. A week later Josella came with me on a more practical search for clothing.

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