The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The population cleansing end of the world scenario has always been a popular theme with readers of science fiction. Sometimes the prospect of looking at the social inadequacies in the human condition is less significant unless society is purged to the point of extinction. But sometimes, be it a natural disaster or a zombie plague or a stray meteor, the end of the world can just be fun.

The Day of the Triffids coverThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham was first published in 1951 by Doubleday. A lot was going on in the eyes of fandom that year. This fantastic story appears the same year Paramount Pictures releases the movie version of author Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s cult classic novel When Worlds Collide (one of my childhood favorites by the way – both the book and the movie). It is also the same year the fantasy short story collection Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier hit the shelves (I only mention this because it beat out Triffids for the 1952 International Fantasy Award).

In the midst of a space race, public fears grew under the speculation of orbiting atomic and biological weaponry. But the developments on the ground could be the means to the end in The Day of the Triffids as a growing population eats away the food supplies.  When eccentric pilot Umberto Christoforo Palanguez presents a new edible oil derived from an unexplained vegetation, it turns heads in the world trade market. But after news breaks that he had smuggled the product from Russia, Umberto mysteriously disappears. Our hero William “Bill” Mason believes Russian planes shot down Umberto, the ensuing explosion disperses a cloud of seeds from the vegetation – and a short time later, the creepy triffid plants appeared.

Similar to the beginning of the popular Walking Dead series, Mason wakes up in a hospital to a shocking discovery. The difference? No zombies. Bill had been temporarily blinded by the poison secreted from a triffids. When he removes his own bandages, he finds all but a handful of people are stricken by permanent blindness, supposedly after witnessing a spectacular meteor shower. Oh, and the triffids have now multiplied by the thousands cross the lands.

The rest of the story revolves around Bill’s journey to go on in this new world. It is a land where the sightless rely on those who can see. Those who can see, battle for social dominance. After meeting author Josella Playton (who wrote a controversial book titled Sex Is My Adventure), the two work together to rebuild a life amongst the survivors and the triffids.

It’s hard to isolate the strength of this story, but that does not mean that it isn’t entertaining. Its richness arises from its complexity. The title is The Day of the Triffids, and the plants do present a frightening element. The harshest tragedy however is caused by a mysterious meteor. And in the end, the theme is more about the morality of the survivors in a harsh new land.

Why has The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham remained a classic? In my mind, it has everything to do with ambiguity. There is plenty of conjecture about where the triffids came from. There is no clear explanation how the meteor caused the epidemic of blindness. But that is okay. It is our job to hypothesize as readers – and we welcome the challenge. Wyndham just offered us the “what if” and left the rest up to us. It was fun the first time I read it, it was fun the last time, and it will be fun when I read it again.

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  1. An absolute classic book. I read it only for the first time, a couple of years ago. Brilliantly written; haunting and menacing. And a huge inspiration to SF in the decades following it’s publication.

    A modern and timeless premise, and so well written. It could have been written yesterday.

    The BBC’s 1980s adaptation absolutely terrified me when I was young!!

    1. You’re spot-on about this book being timeless. It is more about the characters growth in the face of adversity rather than the “out of the ordinary” aspect many people confuse as the basis of science fiction. I think this is why some post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world type stories are so successful. They hold up over time.

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