The Day of the Triffids

Raw Feed (2006): The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951. 

Cover by Richard Powers

Brian Aldiss referred to the work of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”. I don’t think, in retrospect, he meant that the disasters of Wyndham’s works are improbably nice and clean. I think he was referring to the narrative strategy Wyndham used in this and The Kraken Awakes: first person narratives centering around one or two individuals who have limited knowledge and explanation of the disaster they face. For instance, the narrator here has no definite proof that the blindness which strikes most of humanity is the result of satellite weapons — an interesting idea for the beginning of the satellite age — or that the lethal plague which breaks out after the blindness is an engineered disease — and limited means of dealing with it. This stands in direct contrast to the best-seller idiom of later American works like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.  (I don’t know enough about styles of the time to know if something similar to Niven and Pournelle existed in disaster fiction prior to this book.) 

John Christopher, another English writer from the time, fits into this style, and a prior American work, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, does too. In fact, as the story progresses and we hear about how the houses and roads and bridges of England were being eroded away by nature, I was very much reminded of Stewart’s novel. Tonally and thematically, though, there is nothing cozy or comfortable about this novel.  There is something very visceral about the blinding of most of humanity, an unclean disaster that requires, for disaster fiction, an unusual amount of lifeboat ethics in that the narrator and some of his fellow survivors realize they are not doing the blind any good by temporarily saving them from death. 

Wyndham’s genius, of course, is combining the blindness with the “invasion” of genetically engineered, ambulatory, poisonous triffids. As with Wyndham’s Re-Birth and The Midwich Cuckoos, we are constantly reminded of the Darwinian struggle for life, of competing species and supplanters in our midst. As the narrator memorably remarks in a book of many memorable, philosophical lines, custom and tradition have been long mistaken for natural law. 

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Convergent Evolution in Post-Holocaust SF and After London

Science fiction scholar John J. Pierce is still around and still producing work on his blog The Seventy Year Itch.

His post “Science Fiction Invention and Reinvention” looks at convergent literary evolution in the post-holocaust story. It’s long but well worth a look.

He has extensive excerpts from various works including Richard Jefferies After London, so, for the occasion, I’ll post my review, from August 29, 2011. Pierce’s posting, though, provides a lot better sense of the work and its influence.

Review: After London; or, Wild England, Richard Jefferies, 1885.

After LondonAfter watching the original version of the BBC’s Survivors series, which aired from 1975 through 1977, I decided to read this, one of the first post-apocalypse novels.

To be sure there were earlier stories that killed off most or all of humanity including Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826) and Edgar Poe’s “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839), but Jefferies may have been the first to create and describe new social orders in the world after the apocalypse. Here, England befalls some unknown disaster which empties London and creates a vast lake in the center of the country.

The first five chapters of the book are Jefferies’ future historian narrating how the ecosystem of England has changed, and there is no mention of the hero of the rest of the novel: Sir Felix Aquila. And they stand at the beginning of a line of speculation about the decay of the world after humanity that continues through the cable tv show Life After People.

As for Felix, he’s the usual impoverished aristocrat who wants to impress the daughter of richer aristocrats, and he leaves home seeking fame and fortune. His story ends rather abruptly and, frankly, it’s not that interesting. You can get a nice sense of the book’s strengths by reading the first five chapters and chapters 23 and 24.

The ecologically centered post-apocalypse tale wasn’t to achieve these heights again until George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.