Friday 27 November 2009

'in the country of the blind...'

Day Of The Triffids
by John Wyndham

You know you've communicated the fact that you like reading when someone buys you a great wodge of Penguin modern classics for your birthday. They were a varied selection ranging from Bond to Bagheera but my first pick was made for a couple of reasons. I was six when the BBC adapted Wyndham's novel into a TV series so I'm sure it wasn't something I was allowed to watch and yet I have a very clear memory of John Duttine running about, those bright exotic flower heads and their whip like sting (leaving its signature red dots on the face of its victims), and an all pervading sense of genuine terror. Drunk on the success of other TV revivals (Dr Who, etc) the BBC announced that The Day of The Triffids would be getting a remake too, although it seems to have missed its initial scheduled release of, well, about now actually. Before it hits the screens I wanted to sample the source material and see whether it still stood up as a classic of its genre.

What I didn't expect was that it might be able to stand on its own two feet (much like the titular cannibals) regardless of genre. Sure, there are some bits that date it, and the dialogue is pretty wooden on the whole but reading it you stumble into example after example of films or books that it has influenced. When Bill Masen wakes in an empty hospital, removing the bandages from his face to find he might just be the only man left who can see in a world where the human race seems to have been blinded by a meteor shower, he walks out into a deserted London, just like Cillian Murphy did in the stunning opening of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. The sheer strangeness of such a populous city being emptied is well realised and when Masen enters Westminster later in the book, 'The deadness, the finish of it all, was italicized there.' For anyone who has lived in London there is something very effective about the naming of specific places and the detailing of the devestation that occurs simply from a lack of human upkeep. The only drawback with this localisation is the occasionallly earnest statement such as, 'That's why we're going to Clerkenwell. There's a place there that makes the best triffid-guns and masks in the world', which cannot help but raise a slight smile.

As he struggles to survive in the chaotic fallout of what may well have been an accidental attack from man-made satellite weaponry rather than an act of god, Masen realises the importance of sight, not only to his survival but to the dominance of the human species.

Man's supremacy is not primarily due to his brain...it is due to the brain's capacity to make use of the information conveyed to it by a narrow band of visible light rays. His civilization, all that he has achieved or might achieve hangs on his ability to perceive that range of vibrations from red to violet. Without that, he is lost. I saw for a moment the true tenuousness of his hold on his power, the miracles that he had wrought with such a fragile instrument...

Once this is taken away of course there is scope for a shift in the food chain, a moment the triffids are well positioned to exploit. Flesh-eating plants are a tough sell on the face of it but Wyndham's totally logical plotting makes perfect sense and has a certain frisson for the modern reader with GM crops in mind. A plant developed and bred for its vegetable oil has one major drawback it seems; easy enough for humans to control and manage until their own major advantage is taken away. Even more successful is the tension created by what isn't known about them: the curious stick-like protuberances that they beat against their stamens begin to seem something like language or communication and how is it that they manage to work together and know where and when to strike with most impact?

The post-apocalyptic world created by Wyndham is no less terrifying than that found in Cormac McCarthy's extraordinary The Road. Both men tap into the barbarism that comes with a breakdown of civilization and what helps Day Of The Triffids to retain its relevance today are those passages which make you question ho much we've really learnt in spite of our efforts to get connected to the real world around us.

When getting on for half a lifetime has been spent in one conception of order, reorientation is no five-minute business. Looking back at the shape of things then, the amount we did not know and did not care to know about our daily lives is not only astonishing, but somehow a bit shocking. I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our life had become a complexity of specialists all attending to their own jobs with more or less efficiency, and expecting others to do the same.

The post-apocalyptic world is always sparsely populated and Wyndham knows that the other crippling factor for such a 'gregarious' species is loneliness. For Masen in particular, loneliness is as large a foe as the threat of violence from other survivor communities or the triffids themselves, and he learns to his surprise how important companionship and love really are to him.

Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative - an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary...I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed as one atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly - that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do...


Unknown 16 August 2010 at 12:17  

I was expecting this book to feel really dated too, but as you mention there were hardly any sections that would be out of place in a book written today. I was very impressed an look forward to reading many more of his books.

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