Friday, 26 February 2010

The Day of the Triffids, Book Review

By John Wyndham
First published: 1951

Pros: classic status, interesting ideas (including some feminist ones), fleshed out protagonist, novel documenting the collapse of civilization (as opposed to being straight post-apocalyptic)

Cons: slow narrative style, lots of exposition, minor characters get little if any development

This is the third novel by Wyndham I've read and the Chrysalids remains my favourite. The Day of the Triffids is written as a story narrated by Bill Masen, a survivor of the sudden demise of civilization as he knew it. The day before the bandages are removed from his eyes (due to an injury), a meteor shower robs the sight of everyone who watched the spectacle.

The world he, and a few other lucky souls, can see is much different from the one he was blinded in. People are scared, dead and dying everywhere. He happens on a young woman, Josella Playton, and for the rest of the book, both together and apart, Bill must face the realities of this new world.

A real threat to the blinded humans and well placed to take advantage of their weakness, come the triffids. The probably ends of a Russian experiment to produce better oils, triffids are meat eaters with 10 foot long stingers that lash out.

The book has some interesting ideas about how society would break down (with regards to speed and morality). His main characters are well fleshed out and some of their viewpoints are surprising given when the book was written. Lesser characters come and go so quickly I found myself forgetting who people were when they showed up again.

And the book is boring. The narrative is dry with a lot of exposition and back story told upfront, making it a hard read. Even when things start happening, it's so haphazard (on purpose given the events) that it's difficult to stay interested. Had it not been a classic I probably would have looked for something else to read rather than finish it.


John D. said...

Too bad about your reading experience. I loved this book. I read it about a decade ago and was pleasantly surprised how different it was from the schlocky film I knew from my childhood.

clover said...

I agree that the book is slow-paced, though I didn't, personally, find it boring. Actually, that's one of the things that caught my attention and kept me reading! I had expected a cheap horror novel (and picked it up reluctantly, only because I loved the Chrysalids, and knew that this book was considered a SF classic).

Much to my surprise, not only was this NOT a horror book... the narrator was too reserved and academic about his observations for the novel to ever become viscerally chilling. Personally, I liked that about the book - I like books that make me think more than books that creep me out. The bigger surprise was that it wasn't even really a book about triffids... they played a backdrop and added a minor amount of urgency, but the main dramatic tension came from the human interactions. It's a book about humans rebuilding society and pitting different social models against each other... The whole book is much more of a sociological thought-experiment than a book about killer plants.

For me, the only cringe-factor was the female characters who painfully dated the book. Even the most "liberalized" seemed painfully subservient. I guess, for a 1950s book I shouldn't expect much more, but I don't recall so much sexism in the chrysalids... maybe because the characters were all children... the best female character in the Triffids is a child too (Susan) - she has some spunk, intelligence and bravery; the other female characters seem mostly focused on preening themselves as best they can under disaster conditions.

Jessica Strider said...

Good comments. It's interesting, I'm redoing a post-apocalyptic reading list and what you said made me realize that's what Day of the Triffids is. It's such a classic SF novel that I'd overlooked that it also deals with the end of human civilization as we know it.

When I read it I kept waiting for the lame 'salt water' ending, not realizing that that was from the film. The ending in the book certainly wasn't a cop out.

I find that a lot of the 50s classics are written in a narrative style that makes hard to keep my attention. The writing seems dry even when the subject matter is fascinating.