Sometimes classic is good.
Sometimes classic is interesting.
And sometimes, it’s classic just because it was first, not best.
For me, Triffids is a classic in the last sense, as one of the first novels in an era exploring the end of civilization. Colored by recent events of World War II, many writers in the 50s focused on nuclear holocaust. Wyndham went a slightly different direction, forseeing genetic manipulation and biological warfare. While his vision interested me, the didactic tone, the half-baked attempt at romance and the (quelle suprise) characterization of women downgraded my enthusiasm. Is an apocalypse where women don’t automatically become babymakers permitted?
(Yes, I know: he’s reflective of his time period. It just goes to show how deeply ingrained our culture can be, that he can imagine revolutionary technology and walking, stalking plants, but not a reinvention of humanity where women aren’t popping babies out until they die).
It begins in a hospital, the night after most of the world has been watching the night meteor showers, a brilliant display of natural fireworks. Our narrator, Bill, has been stuck in a ward, waiting for his bandages to come off. He’s been temporarily blinded by the poison from a triffid, a strange, semi-carnivorous plant capable of pulling up roots and walking to a better location. The day he is supposed to get his bandages removed, he’s struck by the absence of hospital staff. If you’ve seen Night of the Comet, you know the drill. His discovery, his emotional turmoil–all feels well done and believable. However, I struggled with Wyndham’s vision of the societal response of the complete uselessness and dependency of blind people.
At any rate, almost all apocalypse novels require a suspension of disbelief, so I jumped back into the story and was pleasantly surprised by the triffids’ backstory. Here is where Wyndham shone; he created an ominous tone and a sense of danger to humans from plants. By the time he brings the story around to the present, I was invested in Bill’s survival as he negotiates the new world, even if he does it with frequent stops at the pub. Unfortunately, the introduction of Josella, a modern, liberated writer–although not nearly as liberated as her Shades of Grey stories would have her seem–proved to be problematic for me. [MAJOR SPOILER:
It wasn’t just the fairy-tale insta-love, although I suppose it was to be expected, with post-traumatic stress and the pressure to keep humanity alive. It was her insistence that he impregnate a harem–although she would chose the two lucky ladies. Ah, the British stiff upper lip. /END SPOILER]
The intellectual explorations were most interesting when Wyndham broke down the issue of how a handful of sighted people could take care of the blind. It was one of those moments that seemed to expose the vast chasm between late 1940s and current time, the idea that being blind equated to useless dependency. I was interested in his ethical conundrum until he took the quick escape by a plot development.
I did like the way Wyndham refused to provide clear answers to the question of the interlocking of the multiple threats. Perhaps that is more in line with the writing of the time (thinking Canticle for Leibowitz) that assumed no records would be transmitted/ left, while current writers need to address our virtually instant communication systems.
In retrospect, the focus seems more about exploring the breakdown of society and how people chose to re-construct in the aftermath, and not about the characters or plot. Granted, that’s frequently a staple of the genre, but here emotional engagement was limited, so it didn’t reach its potential. Although, perhaps that was a good thing, as too much focus on Josella might have caused eyestrain.
Three and a half stars.