Gaia 2022: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Triffids:… horrible alien things which some of us had somehow created and which the rest of us in our careless greed had cultured all over the world. …somehow they had been bred….(and they) seemed able to profit and flourish on our disaster…

The Day of the Triffids was first published in 1951 and adapted for the big screen in 1962, however my first contact with Wyndham’s classic was through a television series screened sometime during the 1980s. At the time I don’t even think I was aware that it had been based on a book until I came across it some years later. I can’t even remember when I first read it, but it was one of my rereads for 2022. With its dystopian themes of scientific exploitation gone wrong and humanity’s propensity to be the architect of their own doom, it seemed like a fitting choice for the Gaia Reading Challenge. As I did read it last year, I am claiming it as the last of my Gaia reads for 2022.

Most readers are probably familiar with the plot, however here is the blurb:

When Bill Masen awakes blindfolded in hospital and carefully removes his bandages, he realises he is one of the few who can see; almost everyone else has been blinded by a meteor shower. Now, with civilisation in chaos, the triffids – huge, venomous plants, able to “walk”, feeding on human flesh – can have their day. This stark vision of a desolate world infested by deadly, monstrous plants has lost none of its power to horrify.

From its entry as a science fiction monster, the humble walking, thrumming and venom blasting triffid has assumed a place in our everyday lexicon. Sharon (from Gum Trees and Galaxies) recently applied the term to pumpkins, probably for their tendency to spread rapidly and take over the veggie patch. I think it could be equally applied to cucumbers and probably any number of weeds that infiltrate our gardens and natural environments. I was wondering about the origin of the word “triffid” – was it simply a creation of Wyndham’s imagination or does it have some basis in science? Fortunately for me, google provided the answer. Apparently it does have scientific roots, originating from the latin term “trifidus” which means, split into three.

The development of the triffids is a warning to us all about what can happen when scientific development and exploitation are allowed free reign. While the origin of the triffids remain shrouded in mystery to some degree, it is suggested they were “the outcome of a series of ingenious biological meddlings.” As protagonist Bill muses, it was a “Golden age” for scientific progress, “pushing the northern limit of growth for food plants… growing quick crops on (previously) tundra or barren land.” There seemed to be no limit to what humanity could achieve – reach for the stars, extinguish disease, put an end to famine once and for all.

Supposedly propagated and farmed for their high quality oils, it was some time before their walking and stinging abilities were discovered. As with all bright ideas, (remember cane toads?), they adapted brilliantly to a wide variety of environments, and with almost no predators, except for the silly humans, quickly became the scourge of the earth. Even worse was the suspicion that these leafy carnivores on legs were actually intelligent.

there’s certainly intelligence there, of a kind. Have you noticed that when they attack they always go for the unprotected parts?….they know what is the surest way to put a man out of action…take away our vision, and the superiority is gone. Worse than that – our position becomes inferior to theirs because they are adapted to a sightless existence, and we are not.”

Humanity’s dependence on vision and more importantly its technological progress leaves it woefully underprepared when catastrophe hits. A highly urbanised population has lost contact with the basics required for human survival. How do you think we would fare if some disaster knocked out our institutions and systems for delivering power, water, food and medical aid? As Bill notes,

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.”

Once abandoned the cities soon become victim to the forces of nature. We can see this for ourselves when we take a drive out through regional and outback Australia. How many stone ruins do we see, tumbling down, overgrown with weeds, occupied by native species. When humanity moves out, nature moves back in. Just one year later, “almost every building was beginning to wear a green wig” as nature could be seen pressing out, rooting in, springing from the cracks to reclaim and repossess the land.

The Day of the Triffids is also a text of its time with references to the Cold War with Russia and attitudes towards women that come across as quite sexist today. Remembering that this was first published in 1951, in the aftermath of World War Two and during the reconstruction period and post-war baby boom, women’s procreative role is not only awarded a high priority in the fight for survival, but is seen as a woman’s “natural function.”

All have our parts to play. The men must work – the women must have babies…We can afford to support a limited number of women who cannot see, because they will have babies who can see. We cannot afford to support men who cannot see.

Interesting isn’t it, how human values of compassion, tolerance, acceptance and inclusion are quickly put to the test when human survival is on the line. For any person with a disability it must send a ripple of fear down their spine as they wonder if they would be so easily sacrificed for the greater good. By the end of the book Bill and his group of survivors join forces with another remnant on the Isle of Wight, where they will…

regard the task ahead as ours alone. We think now that we can see the way, but there is still a lot of work and research to be done before the day when we, or our children, or their children, will cross the narrow straits on the great crusade to drive the triffids back and back with ceaseless destruction until we have wiped the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.

Hmm. Ceaseless destruction. One wonders if we will ever learn.

Since my edition of the book sported the rather mundane orange and white cover of the Penguin Classics, I have included a number of covers from over the years, as well as one designed to tie in with the television series that first introduced me to this classic text. If you enjoy reading about the environment consider joining in with the Gaia Reading Challenge hosted by Sharon at Gum Trees and Galaxies.

Happy Reading!


3 thoughts on “Gaia 2022: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

  1. I first read Triffids when I was very young, it was my gateway to the wonderful world of sci-fi and I have had a fondness for Wyndham ever since but you are right the attitude to disability is chilling. It is a great Gaia choice and I love those old sci-fi covers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read a lot of sci-fi in my early teens. Not any of the classic sci-fi, just what was in my high school library. I never understood why the other girls wanted to read that mushy romance rubbish. And, well, being a long-time fan of Dr Who…sci-fi has been one of my favourite genres. I have The Chrysalids on my list for this year and am interested in seeking out some more Wyndham. It is quite interesting sometimes to see where attitudes towards disability crop up in books, even if they aren’t really any disabled characters. That’s not to suggest that the authors themselves hold those attitudes, but perhaps are exposing the things that lurk in our human psyche. The attitude towards the blind, considering the original time of publication, was probably pretty accurate. During WWII when children were being evacuated from London, it was actually raised in the British parliament as to whether children with disabilities were “worth saving.” I have a book by a British historian exploring that issue on my TBR. Anyway, some great themes in Triffids, and still so pertinent today.


  2. Pingback: Gaia/ nature reads catch up – Gum trees and Galaxies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s