Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dystopia Challenge Review #7: Day of the Triffids

There's nothing like the end of the world, and there's nothing like it happening in London. It was the setting for recently reviewed The Death of Grass, and also the most awesome zombie movie 28 Days Later and the even better 28 Weeks Later*. Now, in Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951), the population of London (and the rest of the world) has been blinded and the triffids are closing in.

Bill has been hospitalised and his eyes bandaged after a run-in with a triffid, a monstrous walking plant with a deadly stinger. He wakes to find that (almost) everyone has gone blind and is wandering around like despairing, clumsy zombies (without the flesh-eating thing). He and another seeing girl, Josella, are faced with a dilemma: stay and help the blind population as best they can, or escape the putrefying city and form an enclave with other seeing people.

The themes in Day of the Triffids are similar to those in The Death of Grass: civilisation is much more fragile than you think. Sitting here with my indoor heating and patent leather handbag and feminist ideals in a first-world country, it's hard to believe that anything could disrupt my way of life. Barbarism and savagery are a distant concept, something to be read about in history books. But really, how long would civil order and social niceties really last in the event that the world as we know it ends? Natural disasters can, and have, caused mass extinctions. The comet that causes blindness in The Day of the Triffids echoes the extinction of the dinosaurs: the beasts that ruled the Earth are wiped out by a catastrophic event, and the creatures who have been waiting in the wings emerge and take over the world. After the dinosaurs, mammals reigned supreme; after humans it is triffids.

I find gender roles especially interesting in post-apocalyptic literature. I don't take for granted that I will be safe walking the street at night, but doing so doesn't evoke any great sense of fear. At twenty-four I don't see children in my near future either, if at all. These "luxuries", in the event of a triffid-like disaster, are taken away from women almost immediately. Men just as quickly assume the roles of protector or marauder. This is especially true of mid-twentieth century dystopian fiction. But now that we've had feminism's third wave (and this isn't the bimbo, stripper-pole "feminism" as reported in the media; rather it is the feminism that we all take for granted while at the same time shun the moniker feminist as a dirty word) would a thoughtful writer portray gender roles in this same way? In The Forest of Hands and Teeth and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale it is the women who govern society; similarly, in The Declaration and Obernewtyn the protagonists are both female and strong. Interestingly, however, these last four books are all written by women. P. D. James is also a woman, and I look forward to reading how women are portrayed in Children of Men.

I just realised how off-topic I'm getting. I think a further discussion of gender roles warrants a separate post!

Back to Triffids--reading this book I could really see London falling to pieces; the sense of hopelessness that comes from universal blindness. John Wyndham can sketch a myriad of authentic secondary characters with a few well-chosen words. Bill is a sensible and likable protagonist with a sense of humour and a realistic outlook. The conveniently attractive love-interest, Josella, has something of the Everest about her: Bill seems to fall in love with her merely because she is there. Their conversations I found false and pretentious. A good part of the book he is searching for her and I found myself wondering why he was bothering. Also, Wyndham's characters tend to lapse into irritatingly didactic soliloquies, posing endless rhetorical questions to their audience. It was the same in The Chrysalids, but nowhere near to the same degree. Dialogue is not one of Wyndham's strengths.

Day of the Triffids isn't YA as The Chrysalids is, but it is an interesting addition to the genre, and a gripping read.

*28 Months Later is coming soon. I just watched the trailer on YouTube and I'm sorry to say that it looks like it's been actionofied to the MAX: guns, guns, guns, and that annoying British actress whose only talent is looking angry and horny at the same time. Lets hope there's still a story and the odd foibled character present.


  1. One note: I'm pretty sure that women do NOT govern society in A Handmaid's Tale. In fact, that's sort of the whole point, isn't it?

  2. 28 MONTHS later?! They just won't stop.

    Also, agree with downtown guy. It's men who are governing society. The whole thing is like the Taliban comes to Canada.

  3. Whoops! Think you're right. It's been so long since I've read it.

  4. oh I didn't even know that the 28 Months Later trailer is out! Going to youtube asap! I hope it doesn't suck. The first two are just so amazing. Definitely my favorite zombie movies.