Jefferson Chase looks at a ground breaking 50s novel.
So you think you’re having a bad day?Imagine if you woke up to find that 99 per cent of humanity had gone blind, and giant, man-eating, ambulant plants were poised to take over the Earth?That’s the scenario faced by Bill Masen, the hero of John Wyndham’s groundbreaking 1951 science-fiction novel The Day of the Triffids.Like any right-thinking person, especially in a novel set in England, Masen’s first reaction is to head a pub. There he encounters a group of fellow imbibers who are having trouble, without eyesight, avoiding the gin and locating the good stuff.Masen obliges by finding the correct drink.I looked at my companion. He was taking his whisky neat, out of the bottle.“You’ll get drunk,” I said.He paused and turned his head toward me. I could have sworn his eyes really saw me.“Get drunk! Damn it, I am drunk,” he said scornfully.This tiny scene encapsulates what makes Wyndham’s work worth reading for non-science fiction fans. The Day of the Triffids is less concerned with fantastic scenarios than with human nature, with how we react – for better or worse – when our normal daily routines are disrupted.Global catastrophe, from Masen’s point-ofview, is an eye-opener.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.Reading those words, I realised, neither did I.With humans deprived of their most useful means of sensory perception, society quickly goes to pieces. And the question for the sighted survivors is how to rebuild it.Not surprisingly, there’s little agreement.Rationalists vie with religious fanatics; misguided Cold War Warriors even plan future military strikes against other nations.Meanwhile, Masen witnesses gruesome sights of human beings dying in the streets and draws the necessary conclusions.Horrible though some of them were, I was hardened to such things by now. The horror had left them just as the horror which broods over great battlefields fades into history. Nor did I any see these things as part of a vast, impressive tragedy. My struggle was all a personal conflict with the instincts of my kind.Though written more than half a century ago, The Day of the Triffids rarely seems dated.That because it’s concerned with the timeless question of what we, as human beings, really are.And a couple of evenings with Wyndham and a good bottle of whisky is a relatively pleasant way to find out that we may not really want to know the answer to such questions.
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