An ecological disaster of unimaginable scope…A world wide crisis over oil production…A laboratory created strain of plant life, genetically altered to increase production, proves deadly both to humans and all forms of large animal life…Biological warfare in the form of a new and deadly plague accidentally unleashed, wipes out the majority of the human population…
This sounds like a 21st Century novel, a quickie aimed at taking advantage of the latest headlines. Everything in it expresses our current fears of biological warfare, of ecological disaster, of the unforeseen results of genetically engineering (manipulation of an organism’s genetic material to modify the proteins it produces).
The novel however is The Day of the Triffids, first published in 1951. While it was immediately popular, it was popular as a good the-monsters-are-taking-over-the-earth story. It’s deeper meanings and its real quality were ignored. Unfortunately, it was then made into a really bad monster movie. If you’re only familiar with it from the 1953 movie, be aware that that movie bears no resemblance to the novel beyond the title and the general idea of the triffids. The most crucial change is that in the movie, the plot centers around a mysterious meteor shower that simultaneously blinds everyone and drops the triffids on the earth.
In the novel, it is clearly stated that man created the triffids as an easy source of high quality, cheap oil. The triffids are soon noted to be able to walk, though clumsily, on their three leg-roots(hence their name tri=three). It is further noted that adult triffids can be dangerous. They have a poisonous sting that can kill. It is not considered cause for alarm. The triffids are kept carefully locked up to be milked for their oil.
At the start of the story, Bill Meson, a young biologist who has been studying the triffids, has been temporarily blinded by their poison. While he is in the hospital, a unique meteor display begins. Brilliant green lights flash all night. Everyone watches in awe except him as his eyes are bandaged. As he puts it, “…there was a party for the world going on, with me as the only person not invited.” The next day, he can see again, were others are blind from the meteor shower
The story begins in London and takes place in the English countryside but could take place anywhere. In a touchingly realistic scene, once Bill Masen understands the situation, he spends some hours just wandering
the streets of London, at a dead loss as to what to do next. He feels he ought to do something, but doesn’t know what. He’d like to help the people around him, but doesn’t know how. He is overwhelmed. It is the same question raised by the movie, Titanic. In the movie, when all the lifeboats are launched and the ship sinks, there are 1500 people in the water about to die. Should the lucky ones in the lifeboats try to rescue some of them? If they do, what if too many try to climb aboard, sink the lifeboat and no one survives? Yet, to do nothing is to let the people in the water freeze and drown. It’s a moral question with no easy answers and it is at the heart of the book.
Within a few days he meets a well-organized group who, like him, are able to see because, for various reasons they failed to watch the meteor shower. Their leaders show a matter-of-fact ruthlessness. Survival is all that counts. The group will move to an isolated country house. One man objects violently. He wants the sighted people to help the rest of the blind population. He is so desperate in his compassion that he kidnaps as many as he can, including Bill. Once again Bill is in a quandary. He resents being kidnapped and forced to find food for a group of the newly blind. He intends to escape as soon as he can, but then he becomes involved and realizes he can’t leave people that are dependent on him. At the same time, he realizes the futility of what he is doing. He and his group are living as scavengers, taking food out of abandoned stores. It is a temporary solution to an insoluable problem.
His quandary is solved by the rapid spread of a plague of unknown origin and the arrival of the triffids. Back when he was simply a researcher, a fellow biologist had commented that the triffids seemed to show a kind of intelligence. They can move around and they seem to communicate. Now they attack, not just in London, but across the world. The triffids grasp the fact that man is no longer all-powerful and they seem bent on wiping man out. With man helplessly in chaos, it is truly the day of the triffids.
The rest of the novel is survival. Bill spends much time searching for a woman he had met the first day. For a novel written in 1951, the woman, Joselle, is remarkably liberated. She is consistently strong, sensible and thoughtful. She spends much of the novel on her own so the relationship between the two becomes that of two self-reliant people who have come to love each other. She is part of the decisions they have to make about the future for themselves, their family and friends.
An interesting definition of civilization is given. If only a few people are together, all their efforts have to go towards survival and that means their grandchildren will be overworked subsistence farmers. There’s a quote from the book that says that a workable society needs a leader, a doctor and a teacher. Bill, as a biologist begins to have ideas about ways to destroy the triffids, but there is possibility of developing his ideas unless he can find a group large enough to help him. To say what happens next would be to reveal too much of the plot.
The difference between 1952 and today is that then the triffids only as a menace. Today, with our new eco-awareness, a defense can be made for the triffids. They were created by the technology of modern man and then exploited. Like any exploited minority group in history, their true talents were ignored or abused and even their intelligence was denied. They were kept in absolute slavery until modern technology in the form of war machines that caused blindness and a plague gave them a chance for rebellion. As in all riots and rebellions by a group that has been kept down too long, what follows is an explosion of violence. The triffids have no thought but to get rid of man once and for all. The point is, while that makes them a horrible and brutal enemy, it was man that made them the enemy.