“You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realize how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.”
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969) first published pulp stories in the 30s, but it wasn’t until this novel was published and he changed his pen name to just “John Wyndham” (thought by many to be a new writer because of it) that his career first took off. Triffids came from a long tradition of British science fiction, dating back as far as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), which features disaster stories. Brian Aldiss refers to this narrative type disparagingly as “cosy catastrophes,” and Triffids is often held up as the quintessential novel of this type–middle-class values couched in mindless adventure narrative. Personally, I don’t think that’s necessarily a fair description of Wyndham’s work, but this story is certainly about whites rebuilding white civilization.
The storyline is easy. Bill Masen, the narrator, wakes up one day in a hospital after a terrible tragedy (think 28 Days Later). Seemingly everyone but him is blind from a comet explosion/weapons system gone wrong/unknown reason. He was lucky enough to have been recovering from an eye injury during the event and thus avoided the effects. Anyway, London, Britain, and perhaps the world have gone crazy from the disaster. And then the triffids rise up. A triffid is an ambulatory plant perhaps developed by Trofim Lysenko or from outer space or originating from god knows where. They were once regarded as quaint by the Brits, showing up unannounced in cherished garden plots when Masen was a boy. Later it became clear that they could be dangerous–they can lash out with seriously damaging sting-y “tongues.” And they get totally out of control after the blinding event. Along the way, Masen finds others with sight, takes a trashy novelist to be his lover, considers joining a community based around plural wives, has a run in with a man who enslaves the sighted to care for the blind, is disgusted by a puritanical commune, deals with an out-of-control military unit, and finds lots and lots of triffids.
The novel is entertaining as all, but also quite strange. Wyndham never really explains things: where the triffids come from, what the blinding event was, whether the triffids are sentient, what’s going on outside of the UK (though many are unwisely convinced the mighty US was spared or is too resourceful to be in chaos), and even details about some of the more important characters in the book. Many folks in the novel make odd decisions, and there is much less emphasis on philosophical implications as there is in a book like Earth Abides. But that’s almost part of the fun. Wyndham’s narrative allows the mind to wander, which I often find is the point of such a disaster piece. He’s particularly full of innuendo and leading comments in the area of sexual relations and gender, and who can beat that (no pun intended)?