I grew up reading the likes of John Wyndham, John Christopher and, later, JG Ballard, drawn to their post-disaster scenarios, enthralled by their characters' struggles to survive and, perhaps most of all, by the clean canvas presented to humanity, the chance to start all over again. This is exemplified about a quarter of the way through The Day of the Triffids when the protagonist, Bill Masen, says:
Okay, so millions or, rather, billions of people had been cleaned off this canvas to make it possible, but they were incidental to the scenario, to the adventure.
These days, writing this kind of fiction, I'm equally drawn to the opportunities presented by disaster. Currently in the early stages of planning a novel set in this genre, I hesitate, particularly after the events of September 2001, with disaster striking at the heart of western democracy: is it fair game to wipe humanity's slate simply to stage a survival tale?
As a writer, I'm inclined to say that it's not if it's simply a ploy to get people out of the way: any post-disaster work should address the implications of that disaster, and of disaster in general; it's lazy to do otherwise, to fail to fully explore one's fictional setting.
As a reader ... well ... naturally I'd like a novel to work on many levels and it would fail if it didn't look at the implications of its main premise, but the post-disaster genre does have a frisson of its own. Put the moral issues aside and these books can't help but entertain and grip. I've read many bad novels in this genre, but have always been entertained.
These issues were present in different ways when Wyndham wrote what the jacket blurb describes as "the first, and definitive, great disaster novel". They loom darkly behind the text of the book as it was written in a world emerging from global war, not long after the first use of nuclear weapons, as the possibilities and dangers of twentieth century technology were emerging as one of the main concerns of the time.
But they were present in a different way because Wyndham didn't have to contend with the baggage of countless predecessors in the genre: what has been described as the "cosy disaster novel" was pretty much Wyndham's own invention.
So, yes, The Day of the Triffids is fully concerned with the nature of disaster, but not overly so. At base it's a straightforward survivalist adventure, with little pretension to be anything else.
Fifty years after first publication seems to me as good a time as any for a hardback reissue of this novel, although it's only fair to express some reservations about this publication, and the series of hardback SF Masterworks in which it appears. All are packaged beautifully, with a fine set of covers -- in this case, a fine Fred Gambino cover, with the triffids set against a London skyline and the shooting stars that trigger the book's central disaster.
And yet... the text itself, apparently reproduced from an earlier edition, is heavily-inked, with uncorrected typesetting errors (stray characters misaligned and so on) -- interior production values at odds with the otherwise attractive packaging. The Day of the Triffids does seem to suffer worse in this respect than most of the others in the series, but it's disappointing that that such a series should suffer in this way.
And why have Gollancz decided to call this set of ten hardback reissues "SF Masterworks" when it has some titles that also appear in the paperback reissue series of the same name (but with different numbering) and some that appear only in this set? It wouldn't have taken any great leap of the imagination to make the two series a little more distinct...
The novel? Well, you probably know a bit about it. It is, after all, a defining novel of the post-disaster genre, and one of the all-time greats of British sf.
The opening finds Bill Masen in hospital when the world as he has known it comes to an end. From the beautifully loaded opening paragraph, we know this:
A stunning display of lights in the sky caused, apparently, by debris from a passing comet, has left almost the entire population of the world blinded. Amazingly enough there was no warning from those parts of the world first affected, while those on the other side of the globe knew to await the display but did not know its effects. Put that, and a number of biological quibbles, aside -- to the story!
Masen, a biologist hospitalised by a triffid sting to the eyes, lies in bed while nurses describe the stunning displays to him. His eyes bandaged, he can't watch and so his sight -- only temporarily lost as a result of his accident -- is saved. The next day, he waits for the routine of the hospital to kick in but it never does.
Eventually he overcomes both his fear of exposing his recovering eyes to light and so damaging them further and his inhibitions about doing anything that would break the rules of hospital life, and removes the bandages to find a world transformed. So many helpless people! So many moral dilemmas: who to help, how to help, how to balance his own survival against the tragedy of so many.
Getting together with other sighted survivors, Masen's warnings about the triffids are at first treated as paranoia, but then they are forced to take him seriously as these motile plants with the deadly sting and apparent intelligence become ever more of a threat.
Sometimes, re-reading old favourites betrays those fond memories: either the book itself does not survive renewed attention or the person you have become is no longer so powerfully drawn to this particular book.
But The Day of the Triffids grips from that opening paragraph and does not let go. Wyndham's measured prose leads us into Masen's puzzlement and fears, seductive and cruel in its steady unravelling of disastrous change. Masen is as specific and personal as an Everyman figure should be: he could be you, his predicament could be yours.
The structure of the novel does seem a little unsophisticated: a gripping opening chapter is followed by a lengthy chunk of backfill, outlining the spread of triffids across the world. Now, a writer would almost certainly make more effort to interweave the data-dumping with the actual story instead of leaving it as a great lump to digest.
Inevitably, too, The Day of the Triffids appears dated in many ways. Women, for instance, just need to be looked after -- this highlighted by Masen's bewilderment when he encounters a strong woman. This could, in fact, be seen in a positive light: the values are those of the time of writing, yet Wyndham confronts them both stoutly and wryly -- suggesting between the lines of Masen's confusion that it may actually not be such a bad thing if some of the old sexist crap were to be dumped. Although, by today's standards, there was still a whole lot more still to be dumped...
Returning full circle, it's impossible to avoid the questions of moral and ethical values when considering works in this genre. This plague, that war -- their effects may appear random, but the author here is more godlike than ever, each plot choice loaded with moral judgements. Who should survive and who should not?
This, perhaps, is where Wyndham gets it most right: in portraying the dilemma of a decent man in indecent surroundings, the fundamental truth of it is that Masen must learn to cope with the need to adopt drastically new values. Wrestling with the moral dilemma of whether or not to loot the spoils of a wrecked civilisation, Masen says, "I think we'll have to try to see ourselves not as the robbers of all this, but more as -- well, the unwilling heirs to it."
And that, after all, is the abiding guilty attraction of this genre: to inherit the world from those less deserving. Unwilling, perhaps, but undeniably exciting!
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© Nick Gifford 1 December 2001