The Day of the Triffids
First edition hardback cover
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||304 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-7181-0093-X (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||Planet Plane|
|Followed by||The Kraken Wakes|
The Day of the Triffids is a 1951 post-apocalyptic novel about a plague of blindness which befalls the entire world, allowing the rise of an aggressive species of plant. It was written by the English science fiction author John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, under the pen name John Wyndham. Although Wyndham had already published other novels using other pen-name combinations drawn from his real name, this was the first novel that was published as John Wyndham. It established him as an important writer, and remains his best known novel.
The story has been made into the 1962 feature film of the same name, three radio drama series in 1957, 1968 and 2008, and two TV series in 1981 and 2009. In 2003 the novel was listed on the BBC's survey The Big Read.
The protagonist is Bill Masen, a biologist who has made his living working with triffids – tall plants capable of aggressive and seemingly intelligent behaviour. They are able to move about by "walking" on their roots, appear to communicate with each other, and possess a deadly whip-like poisonous sting that enables them to kill their victims and feed on their rotting carcasses. Due to his background, Masen has developed a theory that they were bioengineered in the USSR and then accidentally released into the wild when a plane smuggling their seeds was shot down. Triffids begin sprouting all over the world, and their extracts prove to be superior to existing fish or vegetable oils. The result is worldwide cultivation of triffids. The first Triffid Nursery was in Worthing (West Sussex).
The narrative begins with Bill Masen in hospital, his eyes bandaged after having been splashed with droplets of triffid poison in an accident. During his convalescence he is told of the unexpected and beautiful green meteor shower that the entire world is watching. He awakes the next morning to a silent hospital and learns that the light from the unusual display has rendered any who watched it completely blind (later on in the book Masen again theorises that both the "meteor shower" and subsequent plague may have been orbiting weapons systems that were triggered accidentally.)
After fearfully unbandaging his eyes, he wanders through an anarchic London full of almost entirely blind inhabitants, and witnesses civilisation collapsing around him. He meets a sighted woman, wealthy novelist Josella Playton, who was being forcibly used as a guide by a violent blind man. She and Masen begin to fall in love and decide to leave London. Lured by a single light that they see shining in an otherwise darkened city, Bill and Josella discover a group of sighted survivors at a London university building. The group is led by a man named Beadley, who plans to establish a colony in the countryside. Beadley wishes to take only sighted men who will take several wives, sighted or otherwise, to rapidly rebuild the human population. Bill and Josella decide to join the group.
The polygamous principles of this scheme appall some of the group, especially the religious Miss Durrant. Before this schism can be dealt with a man called Wilfred Coker takes it upon himself to save as many of the blind as possible. He stages a mock fire at the university and during the ensuing chaos kidnaps a number of sighted individuals, including Bill and Josella. Each is chained to a blind person and assigned a squad of the blind, then forced to lead them around London, collecting rapidly diminishing food and other supplies. Bill and his squad find themselves beset by escaped triffids as well as by an aggressive rival gang of scavengers led by a ruthless, red-haired man.
Masen nevertheless sticks with his squad until its members all begin dying of some unknown disease. He leaves and attempts to find Josella, but his only lead is an address left behind by the now-departed members of Beadley's group. Joined by a now repentant Coker, he drives to the place, a country estate named Tynsham in Wiltshire, but neither Beadley nor Josella are there; Durrant has taken charge and organised the community along orthodox Christian lines. Masen and Coker fruitlessly search for Beadley and Josella for several days, before Bill remembers a chance comment Josella made about a country home in Sussex. He sets off in search of it, while Coker returns to Tynsham.
Bill is joined by a young sighted girl named Susan; they succeed in locating Josella, who is indeed at the Sussex house. Bill and Josella consider themselves to be married, and see Susan as their daughter. They attempt to make the Sussex farm into a largely self-sufficient colony, with reasonable success. The triffids grow ever more numerous, crowding in and surrounding their small island of civilisation. Years pass, during which it becomes steadily harder both to keep out the encroaching plants – at least two triffid break-ins are recorded during the novel – and to continue fetching essential supplies (such as oil) from the decaying cities.
One day a helicopter pilot representative of Beadley's faction lands at the farm and reports that the group has established a successful colony on the Isle of Wight, and that Coker survived to join them. Despite their ongoing struggles, the Masens are reluctant to leave their home, but their hand is forced by the arrival of a squad of soldiers the next day who represent a despotic new government which is setting up feudal enclaves across the country. Masen recognises the leader, Torrence, as the redheaded man from London. Torrence announces his intention to place many more blind survivors under the Masens' care and to move Susan to head office, essentially as a hostage. After feigning general agreement, the Masens disable the soldiers' vehicle and flee during the night. They join the Isle of Wight colony, and settle down to the long struggle ahead, determined to find a way to destroy the triffids and reclaim Earth for humanity.
In the United States, Doubleday & Company holds the 1951 copyright. A 1951 condensed version of the book also appeared in Colliers Magazine. An unabridged paperback edition was published in the late 1960s in arrangement with Doubleday by Fawcett Publications World Library, under its Crest Book imprint.
In regard to the triffids' creation, some editions of the novel make brief mention of the theories of the Soviet agronomist and would-be biologist Trofim Lysenko, eventually thoroughly debunked. "In the days when information was still exchanged Russia had reported some successes. Later, however, a cleavage of methods and views had caused biology there, under a man called Lysenko, to take a different course" (Chapter 2). Lysenkoism at the time of the novel's creation was still being defended by some prominent international Stalinists.
The novel contains many themes which are common in Wyndham's work: a depiction of the Soviet Union as an opaque, inscrutable menace is presented in Chapter 2, a central problem made worse by human greed and bickering, and a firm determination on the part of the author to not explicitly detail the origin of the threat faced by the protagonists. Other themes include the dissection of human nature from a range of standpoints, and male and female gender roles.
Wyndham's narrative also focuses on the pragmatic issues of self-sufficiency facing survivors of such a catastrophe. Simply living off of scavenged canned food from London shops is not a viable survival strategy on a scale of years. The enclaves that survivors set up in the countryside to attempt to rebuild civilisation cannot simply use scavenged ploughs forever, but eventually need to develop the capacity to build their own.
In his book Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss coined the term cosy catastrophe to describe the subgenre of post-war apocalyptic fiction in which society is destroyed save for a handful of survivors, who are able to enjoy a relatively comfortable existence. He specifically singled out The Day of the Triffids as an example of this genre.
Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas praised it, saying "rarely have the details of [the] collapse been treated with such detailed plausibility and human immediacy, and never has the collapse been attributed to such an unusual and terrifying source.". Forrest J Ackerman wrote in Astounding Science Fiction that Triffids "is extraordinarily well carried out, with the exception of a somewhat anticlimactic if perhaps inevitable conclusion."
However, Groff Conklin, reviewing the novel's initial book publication, characterised it as "a good run-of-the-mill affair" and "pleasant reading... provided you aren't out hunting science fiction masterpieces."
Allusions in other works
Triffids are referenced in the opening number of the stage/film musical The Rocky Horror Show: "I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott fight a triffid that spits poison and kills." Janette Scott played the role of Karen Goodwin in the 1962 film adaptation.
The short story "How to Make a Triffid" includes discussions of the possible genetic pathways that could be manipulated to engineer the triffids from Wyndham's story.
The web series Welcome to Sanditon references triffids numerous times, in particular the novel and 1981 BBC adaptation.
The novel was adapted by Giles Cooper in six 30-minute episodes for the BBC Light Programme, first broadcast between 2 October and 6 November 1957. It was produced by Peter Watt, and the cast includes:
- Patrick Barr – Bill Mason
- Monica Grey – Josella Playton
- Malcolm Hayes – Coker
- Arthur Young – The Colonel
- John Sharplin – Michael Beadley
- Molly Lumley – Miss Durrant
- Duncan McIntyre – Dr Vorless
- Gabrielle Blunt – Susan
- Richard Martin – Denis Brent
- Sheila Manahan – Mary Brent
- Margot Macalister – Joyce Tailor
- Trevor Martin – Torrence
A second version of Cooper's adaptation, for BBC Radio 2, was first broadcast between 20 June and 25 July 1968. It was produced by John Powell, with music by David Cain of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and the cast includes:
- Gary Watson – Bill Mason
- Barbara Shelley – Josella
- Peter Sallis – Coker
- Anthony Vicars – Colonel Jacques
- Michael McClain – Michael Beadley
- Hilda Kriseman – Miss Durrant
- Victor Lucas – Vorless
- Jill Carey – Susan
- David Brierly – Denis
- Freda Dowie – Mary
- Margaret Robertson – Joyce
- Hayden Jones – Torrence
This version was released on CD by BBC Audiobooks in 2007.
An adaptation by Lance Dann in two 45-minute episodes for the BBC World Service was first broadcast on 8 and 22 September 2001. It was directed by Rosalind Ward, with music by Simon Russell, and the cast includes:
- Jamie Glover – Bill Mason
- Tracy Ann Oberman – Josella Playton
- Lee Ingleby – Coker
- Geoffrey Whitehead – The Colonel
- Richenda Carey – Miss Durrant
- Lucy Tricket – Susan
Episode 2 was original scheduled for 15 September 2001, but was rescheduled due to the September 11 attacks. Each episode was followed by a 15-minute documentary on the book.
A 20-minute extract for schools was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 21 September 1973, adapted and produced by Peter Fozzard. There were readings of the novel in 1953 (BBC Home Service – 15 x 15 minutes, read by Frank Duncan), 1971 (BBC Radio 4 – 10 x 15 minutes, read by Gabriel Woolf), 1980 (BBC Radio 4/Woman's Hour – 14 x 15 minutes, read by David Ashford), and 2004 (BBC7 – 17 x 30 minutes, read by Roger May).
It was adapted in Germany in 1968 by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) Köln (Cologne), translated by Hein Bruehl, and most recently re-broadcast as a four episode series on WDR5 in January 2008.
It was adapted in Norway in 1969 by Norsk Rikskringkasting (NRK), translated by Knut Johansen, and most recently re-broadcast as a six episode series on NRK in September and October 2012. The Norwegian version is also available on CD and iTunes.
London-based film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Irving Allen purchased the film rights and in 1956 hired Jimmy Sangster to write the script. Sangster believed that Wyndham was one of the best science fiction novelists writing at the time and felt both honoured and "a little bit intimidated" that he was about to "start messing" with Wyndham's novel. Sangster claims he was paid for his work but never heard from the producers, and the film was not made. He has since admitted that he doesn't think his script was any good.
In December 2009, the BBC broadcast a new version of the story, written by ER and Law & Order writer Patrick Harbinson. It stars Dougray Scott as Bill Masen, Joely Richardson as Jo Playton, Brian Cox as Dennis Masen, Vanessa Redgrave as Durrant, Eddie Izzard as Torrence, and Jason Priestley as Coker. An estimated 6.1 million people viewed the first episode. The elements of repopulating the Earth and the plague were overlooked in this adaptation; another difference in the plot was that the Earth was blinded by a solar flare.
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