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Literature / The Day of the Triffids

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"When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere."
Opening line

The Day of the Triffids is a 1951 science fiction novel by John Wyndham, arguably the most famous of the British author's so-called "cosy catastrophes".

The book's narrator is an Englishman named Bill Masen, who details how some years previously the eponymous carnivorous plants mysteriously began appearing all over the world, eventually proving to be capable of movement and possessing the ability to attack and kill humans with their venomous stings before feeding on them; Masen's own theory is that they were deliberately bioengineered in the Soviet Union and then accidentally released into the wild, but the truth is never revealed. Whatever their origin, the plants are also discovered to produce a high-quality vegetable oil, and so an entire industry grows up around farming them. Masen works as a researcher on a Triffid farm, and winds up in the hospital after a Triffid stings him on the face. With his eyes bandaged, he misses a bizarre meteor shower that lights up the night skies all over the world.

Come morning, Masen discovers that the shower has struck blind everyone who viewed it. (He later speculates that the shower was actually a malfunctioning orbital weapons system, but again no proof is to be found one way or the other.) Wandering through a disintegrating London, he meets and soon falls in love with a sighted novelist named Josella Playton, who'd missed seeing the "meteor shower" because she was sleeping off an unfortunate party experience.

While the Triffids rapidly break free of their farms and begin wiping out the blinded population, Masen and Playton become entangled in the squabbles of other sighted survivors, leading to their unwilling separation. They are finally reunited at a small estate in the English countryside, taking up farming in a fenced enclave surrounded by hordes of Triffids. When a despotic new government appears on the scene, they join a colony of more freedom-minded individuals on the Isle of Wight, researching for the day they can defeat the Triffids and reclaim the Earth for humanity.

In 2001, author Simon Clark wrote a sequel novel entitled The Night of the Triffids, which attempted to be a pastiche of Wyndham's style, and details the adventures of Bill and Josella's son.

The novel has been adapted for the screen three times, first by a very loosely-adapted 1962 feature film; then by a 1981 BBC miniseries which, while low-budget, is quite faithful to the original work; and once more by the BBC in 2009, again with the plot deviating a great deal from the novel. There were also radio drama adaptations made by the BBC in 1957, 1968, and 2001.

The novel contains examples of:

  • Abandoned Hospital Awakening: The story opens with Masen waking up in hospital following eye surgery, his eyes still bandaged, and discovering that everybody else has gone.
  • America Saves the Day: Coldly deconstructed, as Apathetic Citizens who assume that aid will come from the United States as it did in WW2 end up triffid fodder.
  • Apocalypse How: Planet-wide blindness caused by an alleged "meteor shower", followed by killer plants picking off the hapless survivors. Class 2, as organized national governments collapse but various large-scale survivor enclaves do manage to maintain some form of technological civilization.
    • Halfway through the book it confirms that animals who looked at the strange meteor shower were also blinded, such as cows and sheep. Many animals were not, however, because unlike humans they didn't listen to radio reports urging them to watch the event.
  • Are You Sure You Can Drive This Thing?: It turns out that the radio man can fly a helicopter without any training. See But I Read a Book About It below.
  • Attack of the Killer Whatever: Killer plants, in this case.
  • Baby Factory: One of the most horrifying aspects of the plot's entire setup is that they cannot possibly help the vast majority of the population, who have been blinded. Eventually even the "good" faction of people led by Beadley sadly conclude that all of the blinded men are a drain on resources and thus a complete write-off. Conversely, Beadley's openly stated position — grudgingly accepted even by the protagonist — is that blind women of childbearing age will be kept alive and in polygamous relationships with the remaining sighted men, to try to repopulate as quickly as possible.
  • Beware the Living: The triffids are a hazard, but the most dangerous threats faced by the protagonists are humans choosing to take advantage of the associated societal collapse.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Bill Masen is initially somewhat shocked at the pragmatic abandonment of most of the blind population in London by Beadley and the Institute group, and sympathizes with Coker's more idealistic attempt to help them. Ultimately, he comes around to the Beadley position when the realistic consequences happens, as does Coker himself.
  • But I Read a Book About It: A character known only as "the radio man" learns to fly a helicopter by reading books and practicing for half an hour. Coker and Masen are dubious when he initially proclaims confidently that he doesn't expect it to be hard to figure out, but "He seemed to have complete confidence that his instinct for mechanism would not let him down", and it doesn't.
  • Celebrity Survivor: Josella Playton was briefly notorious for writing a sensational novel called Sex Is My Adventure, which was widely deplored by people who mostly hadn't read it. When they meet, Masen finds her name familiar but can't remember why until she tells him.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • The Evil Redhead who shoots at Bill's blind group later appears as a member of a new despotic government.
    • Ivan, a member of Beadley's group who found a helicopter is mentioned a grand total of one time before reappearing in the second or third to last chapter, encountering the main characters while in a scouting mission, updating them about the attempts to reform society and giving them a place to run to when things fall apart.
  • Complaining About Shows You Don't Watch: Josella Playton was notorious for writing a novel called Sex Is My Adventure. When she sees Bill Masen's reaction to realizing she's that Josella Playton, she sighs and asks him if he's actually read it. He admits he hasn't, and she says the same is true of most of the people who deplored it.
  • Cosy Catastrophe: Despite the novel being called the Trope Maker of this genre by fellow science-fiction author Brian W. Aldiss, ''Day of the Triffids" actually averts a lot of the trope's conventions. Bill actually has a pretty dangerous and rough life after the apocalypse, even as a sighted person. He can't stay in one place lest he be seized by the non-sighted people who will use him as a slave, and the triffids themselves constantly prove a deadly threat throughout the book. When he finally reaches the farm of Josella's friends and they all live there for several years eking out a life from the land, it's incredibly tough to keep things going as they have to support themselves just as much on supplies from rapidly disintegrating cities as they do from farming, plus they also have to keep finding ways to stop the triffids from getting past the fences protecting the farm. By the end of the book, and even before the threat of being conscripted by a despotic new government arises, they've decided to decamp to a colony on the Isle of Wight.
  • Dated History: Some editions of the novel (and the 1981 TV adaptation) suggest that controversial Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko may be the inventor of the triffids. While an appropriate Mad Scientist, in reality Lysenko was a crank whose "theory" rejected natural selection and even genetics in favour of a mixture of Lamarckism and ideologically-motivated Blatant Lies, and would have been rightly consigned to the dustbin of crackpottery in the Twenties if Stalin hadn't been taken in by it.
  • Deadly Lunge: Triffids have a slow means of locomotion, but once they are close they can strike a surprising distance by whipping their trunks forwards while simultaneously lashing out with their stinger.
  • Death World: What Bill fears and imagines the Earth may become through the proliferation of the triffids as he contemplates the future close to the end of the book. He wonders if humanity will be crushed into tiny gated enclaves permanently patrolled to stop the Triffids breaking in. It's not clear by the end of the novel whether or not that is going to be the case.
  • Depopulation Bomb: The combined effects of suicide after realizing nearly everyone is permanently blind, plagues, and the Triffids mean that most of humanity is dead within a fortnight.
  • Disability Immunity: Being temporarily blind for the duration of the meteor shower saves Masen from the permanent blindness inflicted on everyone who watched it.
  • Everybody Smokes: Masen dedicates a paragraph or two of narration to lighting up every two to three pages until about two-thirds of the way through the book, when the general lack of supplies means he probably ran out.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: On seeing a lit building in the otherwise uninhabited countryside, Masen sends a 'V' in morse using a portable searchlight. The inhabitants know morse well as per this trope, and respond with a detailed message... which he has no idea how to translate, because the only morse singals he knows are 'V' and 'SOS'. So he flashes back a few more 'V's for good measure and starts driving towards them.
  • Evil Redhead: Torrence is first seen casually firing on Bill's blind group so they won't compete for resources. When we next see him he's posing as a member of a restored government (actually a feudal military dictatorship).
  • Fate Worse than Death: Obviously, everyone who's been blinded. Even though Josella's heartbroken at her father being killed by a Triffid, she believes he would have preferred it to being blind - "He loved all this too much."
  • Fictional Document: Josella Playton's novel.
  • Fire-Breathing Weapon: Flamethrowers turn out to be the most effective weapon against the triffids, though since the crash of civilization it's increasingly difficult to find fuel.
  • Genre Deconstruction: The author takes the general "survive the Zombie Apocalypse" horror story (using plants instead of zombies or nuclear war), and extends it forward for several years, becoming one of the first major works to treat the issue of Apocalyptic Logistics seriously. Quite simply...scavenging for canned food in the ruins of major cities is not a viable survival strategy on an extended time scale. Crowds of blind people scavenge in the early days, but there's a finite supply of canned food and they run out eventually. Nor do the more lucky survivors simply flee to a pastoral existence raising their own crops in the countryside. The author repeatedly underlines the point that even those who survived long enough to plow their own fields, need to learn how to forge their own iron to make their own plows. If they're just scavenging old plows, they're not much better than the blind people scrabbling for cans in ruined shops. The entire set of interconnected relationships that are required for civilization are needed for long-term survival.
  • Ghost City: The eerily empty London that Masen explores in the early part of the story.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong
    • The Triffids are implied to have been genetically engineered, and made to survive in very inhospitable environments.
    • It's also implied that the 'meteorite storm' was in fact a satellite weapon that collided with something, and not only caused blindness but might have had something to do with the sudden outbreaks of viruses and diseases.
  • Hope Spot: Bill references seeing a group who did find a sighted person they were agonizing over: a baby barely old enough to talk who couldn't give them anything useful.
  • In Medias Res: The opening of the book is Masen waking in the hospital having missed the meteor shower that blinded most of humanity. The narrative then backtracks a bit to tell us what Triffids are.
  • Introduced Species Calamity: This is effectively what happens once triffid seeds become scattered around the world. Even then humans are able to control them, until they go blind and are no longer the apex predator on the planet, enabling the triffids to rapidly increase their numbers.
  • Irony: Sight being the greatest advantage humans have over triffids, the plants usually attempt to blind their prey with their stings. A triffid sting is what lands a temporarily blinded Bill in hospital, ultimately saving his eyesight and his life.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: The novel ends by saying that it's an account written in-universe by Bill Masen for posterity. He also briefly mentions another character who did much the same thing, and a third who said he intended to, but didn't survive to get the chance.
  • It Can Think: The exact level of intelligence of the genetically-engineered triffids is a subject for debate, with the protagonist rubbishing the idea that they're intelligent — after all, dissections haven't found anything remotely like a brain. Others aren't so sure. One man points out that the triffids escaped from their farms within hours of everyone going blind. In another scene a triffid is waiting outside the very door which a person would run out of if they heard someone driving down the road. Much like the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park, they're also smart enough to avoid an electrified fence...and to force it down when the electrical power is off. They even have a crude form of communication by drumming their branches against their trunk, though whether this is a crude but effective "hunting call", or an actual complex "language" is unknown. Overall, they seem to have at least the same basic intelligence level as a pack of dogs.
  • It's Quiet… Too Quiet: As per the page quote, the first clue that something terrible has happened is the silence. At first the protagonist assumes he's woken up early for some reason, because the hospital is next to a main road and the traffic is audible until well into the evening, but then he hears a clock in the distance chime eight o'clock, and realises something is dreadfully wrong.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Arguably Miss Durrant. While The Fundamentalist, overly prideful, and heavily obstructionist to the main cast (even giving them wrong directions out of spite) she did remain behind to try to nurse the people sick with the plague when she had a chance to flee, which ended up killing her.
  • Just Think of the Potential!: Used both positively and negatively; the money to be made from the Triffids' oil, while pre-disaster one of Masen's colleagues speculates about Triffids' advantages over a blinded human.
  • Kill It with Fire: Flamethrowers prove to be the most effective anti-Triffid weapon, although a lack of fuel is a major problem.
  • The Last Man Heard a Knock...: There are actually plenty of other people around the first few days after the disaster, they're just all blind. After a few weeks this is no longer the case.
  • Lifesaving Misfortune: For Bill Masen, the accident that landed him in hospital with his eyes bandaged. Other survivors also have stories about how they were saved.
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair: Coker quotes "Ozymandias" as he contemplates the fall of civilization.
  • Man-Eating Plant: At least, after we've... ripened... a bit.
  • Missing the Good Stuff: Masen initially feels this way about being blindfolded during the spectacular meteor shower. Soon enough, of course, he comes to realize what a truly lucky break it actually was.
  • Monster Organ Trafficking: Triffids are initially culled because their predatory habits pose a threat to humans, but when it turns out they can be exploited as a source of a high quality oil, they are captured, have their stingers removed, and farmed instead. Even worse, when it turns out that the oil quality improves if the sting is not removed...
  • Newsreel: Masen recalls having first heard of the triffids from a newsreel, which is depicted rather unflatteringly.
  • No FEMA Response: A plot point. The first third of the book is driven by the conflict between one faction of sighted survivors who are desperately trying to hold things together until an official relief effort of some sort arrives, and another group who have concluded that there isn't going to be one and they should salvage what they can and get out while the going is good. The second group turns out to be right, and the desperate attempts to keep hundreds of blinded and near-helpless people alive were all for nothing. Being a Cosy Catastrophe doesn't stop this book being pretty bleak in places.
  • No Name Given: Stephen's two companions, his girlfriend and the radioman.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The first chapter. Lying in bed with his eyes bandaged, knowing that something bad is happening but with no idea what it is and trying to keep his imagination from running away from him is so harrowing for the protagonist that The Reveal almost comes as a relief.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Josella and her "scandalous" novel Sex Is My Adventure. Even the downfall of society doesn't save her from meeting people who go "oh, you're that Josella Playton".
  • Planimal: The triffids are plants, but with animal attributes such as the ability to walk about on their lower branches, and some degree of cognition.
  • Properly Paranoid: At first Bill considers Stephen's efforts to gather guns and establish defenses for his group's base as unnecessary, but in the face of greater and stronger Triffid swarms, and the eventual emergence of Torrence's faction, begins to see this differently.
  • The Remnant: It's unclear as to whether the group Torrance is part of is a completely self-appointed version or did start out from some genuine structure, but they play this straight. The epilogue of the novel mentions that they themselves have left remnants, living in squalor and surrounded by Triffids.
  • Riddle for the Ages: So where did the scary plants and populace-blinding meteors come from? We'll never know.
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: The novel describes London being reclaimed by vegetation and buildings collapsing.
  • Safe Zone Hope Spot: Several times, the protagonists find groups of people who seem to be getting things together, only to have to move on because they're impractical or malicious.
  • Slept Through the Apocalypse: Both Masen and Josella were out of commission during the meteor shower that blinded everyone.
  • Sound-Only Death: While hiding in an apartment building, Masen hears a young couple commit suicide by jumping out a window.
  • Soviet Superscience: Masen speculates this might have been the origin of the triffids. While he is more knowledgeable on the subject than the average man on the street, he is still basing this on second and third-hand rumors he picked up during his work with the triffids. Still, he points out that genetic engineering is a more likely explanation than a extra-terrestrial origin for the triffids due to the fact that every specific part of a triffid's biology can be found in various known plant species.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: The U.S. specifically states that it has no satellite weapons that will directly wage biological warfare on human beings. Other countries with the ability to actually place satellite weapons refuse to even do that, because everyone can see that the U.S. is using an Exact Words denial.
  • Synthetic Plague: Speculated to be the cause of the disease that wipes out many of the survivors of the initial disaster. The symptoms are similar to typhoid fever, but unusually fast and apparently with a near perfect fatality rate.
  • Things That Go "Bump" in the Night: Invoked by Masen in the opening chapter, as he listens to the confusing sounds outside — and lack thereof — with his eyes bandaged in his hospital room.
    A nasty, empty feeling began to crawl up inside me. It was the same sensation I used to have sometimes as a child, when I got to fancying that horrors were lurking in the shadowy corners of the bedroom. When I daren't put a foot out, for fear that something should reach from under the bed and grab my ankle; daren't even reach for the switch, lest the movement should cause something to leap at me.
  • Tricked to Death: Masen overhears someone leading their blinded partner to what they're told is an exit. It is — the window of an upper story apartment.
  • Tripod Terror: The triffids have three leg-branches. The narrator goes into a bit of detail about how they move, comparing them to a man on crutches and specifically noting that it's not an especially fast or stable method of locomotion. Being plants, of course, they don't really need to move very often or over a great distance.
  • Wasteland Elder:
    • After most of the world's population goes blind, Michael Beasley (whose age is estimated to be between thirty-five and fifty) gathers a group of mostly sighted people to retreat to an island and rebuild society amidst the Apocalypse Anarchy. He's separated from the main characters soon afterward, but the success of his efforts is later described secondhand.
    • Former Unionist Coker forms an organization designed to pair blind and sighted people (sometimes involuntarily) to scavenge for food and to help the blind people survive better. His goals are portrayed as nobler than Beadley's but also less practical in the long term.
  • Undisclosed Funds: During an extended flashback, a somewhat shady individual is proposing to acquire the seeds of a Soviet-developed cash crop for a British corporation. The CEO of the corporation, idly doodling on a blotter-pad as he discusses the matter over the phone, asks for a specific price. Said shady individual, "named a figure that stopped his doodling abruptly."
  • We Just Need to Wait for Rescue: The primary source of conflict in the first third of the story. There are two notable groups of survivors of the blindness; one is trying desperately to keep those blinded alive until some official relief effort arrives, while another has deduced that there's not going to be one and that they need to get the hell out of London while they still can. A deadly plague renders the question academic after a few weeks, but the second group were quite right.
  • Weak to Fire: Bullets and piercing weapons don't have much effect on triffids, since they don't have vital organs or apparently pain receptors, but fire will get them — if you can find the fuel.
  • When Trees Attack: And how.
  • The Whole World Is Watching: The majority of the world's population is blinded through observing a strange green meteor shower that lasted long enough to be see all over the world. The protagonist Bill Masen speculates that the "meteor shower" may have been orbiting satellite weapons, triggered accidentally.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: When the first triffids start walking around the media plays it for laughs, so a young Masen decides to dig up the triffid growing in his garden to see if it will walk too. He becomes the first person in Britain to be stung by a (fortunately still immature) triffid.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: While Triffids aren't undead humanoids, in terms of behavior and threat level they share more than a passing resemblance. With civilization having collapsed, the sighted and unsighted alike struggle to scavenge a living while being hunted by this new predator. Eventually the sighted protagonists retreat to the countryside and barricade themselves inside a farm house, fending off repeated Triffid attacks. The novel is heavy with social commentary and contains a lot of memorably hellish depictions of shambling, groping masses of humanity. The Triffids themselves have a rickety, limping gait and are slow-moving, awkward creatures posing little threat individually (unless they catch you unawares). In large numbers, however, they are a serious menace; able to force their way in practically anywhere and seemingly capable of rudimentary communication and organization.
  • Zombie Gait
    • The blind, who are shuffling around mindlessly pawing at things and wailing — they were sighted a few hours ago and with no experience in living without it or anyone to help, they're stumbling around in the dark. Subverted towards the end of the book by the original inhabitants of the farmhouse, particularly Dennis, who is determined not to let his blindness imprison him.
    • The Triffids themselves lurch slowly about using their three "legs".