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Article  •  1 April 2020

 

Classic of the month: The Day of the Triffids

In April we went viral with John Wyndham’s 1951 thriller, The Day of the Triffids.

As the great science fiction writer Rad Bradbury once said, as human beings we are ‘an impossibility in an impossible universe’. Take into account: atmospheric conditions conducive to supporting life; water; our prolonged evolution from single-celled organisms; our unlikely survival and global diaspora through hundreds of thousands of years; the industrial revolution; space travel; a worldwide web connecting more than four billion people; the rise of artificial intelligence; robots; machine learning; facial recognition; smart everything... the list goes on. Forever. And it’s growing exponentially. How we got here and everything we’ve achieved since we arrived defies probability. But look back at the literature of the last 200-odd years and – from credit cards to the Cold War, virtual reality to ebooks – writers predicted a lot of it.

Suspend your disbelief
Consider this: the seeds of large carnivorous plants, developed in secret labs in the USSR, are accidentally dispersed into the atmosphere, and take root in the gardens and jungles of the world. These triffids pack a nasty venomous sting, and can move about, but due to the premium quality of their oil they are farmed globally. Then, after much of the human population is blinded by a meteor shower, the triffids seize the opportunity to pounce on their human oppressors and feast on their flesh. The few non-blinded citizens escape to the countryside to start over. The only thing is, the group’s leader, a man named Beadley, has some pretty unpopular ideas about polygamy. A breakaway group escapes. But with society unravelling, and the threats of triffid attack, disease and rival scavengers at every turn, how will anybody survive? And who, or what, will ever be able to stop the triffids?

The lines between fiction and reality can be narrower than we think
Now, consider this: in a fish market in eastern China an animal, possibly a pangolin, is infected with a rare type of virus found in bats. Weeks later, authorities notice a cluster of unusual respiratory illnesses in the adjacent suburbs to the fish market. The virus is aggressive, and spreads efficiently within the local community. Patients start dying. Fast forward a few weeks and thousands of cases of the virus have emerged, with a mortality rate in the vicinity of three percent. Cases are reported in other Chinese regions, and as the coronavirus –­ now officially named COVID-19 – takes a foothold in several countries around the world, governments begin to react. First comes travel bans on people having set foot in mainland China. Then South Korea. Then Iran. Then Italy. Then international travel shuts down altogether as governments close their borders. Within just a few months, the virus has spread to almost every country on Earth, with hundreds of thousands infected and several thousand dead. And, as the World Health Authority declares COVID-19 a global pandemic, the world’s population braces for unavoidable mass infection and the consequences this will entail…

Real life regularly out-weirds even the most novel scenarios
Both of the above scenarios read like the plotlines of science-fiction blockbusters, right? Except now we all know the latter to be a simplified version of our present reality. Taken at face value, scenario #1 – the premise of John Wyndham’s 1951 thriller, The Day of the Triffids – sits pretty high up the improbability scale. But when given the context of our unlikely here and now, a global ‘pandemic’ of carnivorous plants suddenly feels a lot less fanciful. As the book’s protagonist, biologist Bill Masen, points out: ‘Triffids were, admittedly, a bit weird – but that was, after all, just because they were novelties. People had felt the same about novelties of other days – about kangaroos, giant lizards, black swans. And, when you come to think of it, were triffids all that much queerer than mudfish, ostriches, tadpoles, and a hundred other things? The bat was an animal that had learned to fly: well, here was a plant that had learned to walk – what of that?’

Almost seventy years since publication, and especially in light of current events, Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids remains a stark vision of an imagined end of times. As with most science fiction, this book requires a degree of suspension of disbelief. Upon rereading this classic of the genre for our April Classic of the Month, we were delighted to find this suspension to be far narrower than the above plot synopsis may suggest. Here, we offer an early passage of the book, by way of introduction to Wyndham’s not-so-far-out concept.

My introduction to a triffid came early. It so happened that we had one of the first in the locality growing in our own garden. The plant was quite well developed before any of us bothered to notice it, for it had taken root along with a number of other casuals behind the bit of hedge that screened the rubbish heap. It wasn’t doing any harm there, and it wasn’t in anyone’s way. So when we did notice it later on we’d just take a look at it now and then to see how it was getting along, and let it be.

However, a triffid is certainly distinctive, and we couldn’t help getting a bit curious about it after a time. Not, perhaps, very actively, for there are always a few unfamiliar things that somehow or other manage to lodge in the neglected corners of a garden, but enough to mention to one another that it was beginning to look a pretty queer sort of thing.

Nowadays when everyone knows only too well what a triffid looks like it is difficult to recall how odd and somehow foreign the first ones appeared to us. Nobody, as far as I know, felt any misgiving or alarm about them then. I imagine that most people thought of them – when they thought of them at all – in much the same way that my father did.

I have a picture in my memory of him examining ours and puzzling over it at a time when it must have been about a year old. In almost every detail it was a half-size replica of a fully-grown triffid – only it didn’t have a name yet, and no one had seen one fully grown. My father leant over, peering at it through his horn-rimmed glasses, fingering its stalk, and blowing gently through his gingery moustache as was his habit when thoughtful. He inspected the straight stem, and the woody bole from which it sprang. He gave curious, if not very penetrative attention to the three small, bare sticks which grew straight up beside the stem. He smoothed the short sprays of leathery green leaves between his finger and thumb as if their texture might tell him something. Then he peered into the curious, funnel-like formation at the top of the stem, still puffing reflectively but inconclusively through his moustache. I remember the first time he lifted me up to look inside that conical cup and see the tightly-wrapped whorl within. It looked not unlike the new, close-rolled frond of a fern, emerging a couple of inches from a sticky mess in the base of the cup. I did not touch it, but I knew the stuff must be sticky because there were flies and other small insects struggling in it.

More than once my father ruminated that it was pretty queer, and observed that one of these days he really must try to find out what it was. I don’t think he ever made the effort, nor, at that stage, was he likely to have learned much if he had tried.

The thing would be about four feet high then. There must have been plenty of them about, growing up quietly and inoffensively, with nobody taking any particular notice of them – at least, it seemed so, for if the biological or botanical experts were excited over them no news of their interest percolated to the general public. And so the one in our garden continued its growth peacefully, as did thousands like it in neglected spots all over the world.

It was some little time later that the first one picked up its roots, and walked.

That improbable achievement must, of course, have been known for some time in Russia where it was doubtless classified as a state secret, but as far as I have been able to confirm its first occurrence in the outside world took place in Indo-China – which meant that people went on taking practically no notice. Indo-China was one of those regions from which such curious and unlikely yarns might be expected to drift in, and frequently did – the kind of thing an editor might conceivably use if news were scarce and a touch of the ‘mysterious East’ would liven the paper up a bit. But in any case the Indo-Chinese specimen can have had no great lead. Within a few weeks reports of walking plants were pouring in from Sumatra, Borneo, Belgian Congo, Colombia, Brazil, and most places in the neighbourhood of the equator.

This time they got into print, all right. But the much-handled stories written up with that blend of cautiously defensive frivolity which the Press habitually employed to cover themselves in matters regarding sea-serpents, elementals, thought-transference, and other irregular phenomena prevented anyone from realizing that these accomplished plants at all resembled the quiet, respectable weed beside our rubbish heap. Not until the pictures began to appear did we realize that they were identical with it save in size.

The news-reel men were quickly off the mark. Possibly they got some good and interesting pictures for their trouble of flying to outlandish places, but there was a current theory among cutters that more than a few seconds of any one news-subject – except a boxing match – could not fail to paralyse an audience with boredom. My first view, therefore, of a development which was to play such an important part in my future, as well as in so many other people’s, was a glimpse sandwiched between a hula contest in Honolulu, and the First Lady launching a battleship. (That is no anachronism. They were still building them; even admirals had to live.) I was permitted to see a few triffids away across the screen to the kind of accompaniment supposed to be on the level of the great movie-going public:

‘And now, folks, get a load of what our cameraman found in Ecuador. Vegetables on vacation! You’ve only seen this kind of thing after a party, but down in sunny Ecuador they see it any time – and no hangover to follow! Monster plants on the march! Say, that’s given me a big idea! Maybe if we can educate our potatoes right we can fix it so they’ll walk right into the pot. How’d that be, Momma?’

For the short time the scene was on, I stared at it, fascinated. There was our mysterious rubbish-heap plant grown to a height of seven feet or more. There was no mistaking it – and it was ‘walking’!

The bole, which I now saw for the first time, was shaggy with little rootlet hairs. It would have been almost spherical but for three bluntly-tapered projections extending from the lower part. Supported on these, the main body was lifted about a foot clear of the ground.

When it ‘walked’ it moved rather like a man on crutches. Two of the blunt ‘legs’ slid forward, then the whole thing lurched as the rear one drew almost level with them, then the two in front slid forward again. At each ‘step’ the long stem whipped violently back and forth: it gave one a kind of seasick feeling to watch it. As a method of progress it looked both strenuous and clumsy – faintly reminiscent of young elephants at play. One felt that if it were to go on lurching for long in that fashion it would be bound to strip all its leaves if it did not actually break its stem.

Nevertheless, ungainly though it looked, it was contriving to cover the ground at something like an average walking pace.

That was about all I had time to see before the battleship launching began. It was not a lot, but it was enough to incite an investigating spirit in a boy. For, if that thing in Ecuador could do a trick like that, why not the one in our garden? Admittedly ours was a good deal smaller, but it did look the same…

About ten minutes after I got home I was digging round our triffid, carefully loosening the earth near it to encourage it to ‘walk.’

Unfortunately there was an aspect of this self-propelled plant discovery which the news-reel people had either not experienced, or chosen for some reason of their own not to reveal. There was no warning, either. I was bending down intent on clearing the earth without harming the plant, when something from nowhere hit me one terrific slam, and knocked me out…

I woke up to find myself in bed, with my mother, my father, and the doctor watching me anxiously. My head felt as if it were split open, I was aching all over, and, as I later discovered, one side of my face was decorated with a blotchy-red raised weal. The insistent questions as to how I came to be lying unconscious in the garden were quite useless; I had no faintest idea what it was that had hit me. And some little time passed before I learned that I must have been one of the first persons in England to be stung by a triffid and get away with it. The triffid was, of course, immature. But before I had fully recovered my father had found out what had undoubtedly happened to me, and by the time I went into the garden again he had wreaked stern vengeance on our triffid, and disposed of the remains on a bonfire.


The Day of the Triffids: Popular Penguins John Wyndham

When Bill Masen awakes blindfolded in hospital and carefully removes his bandages, he realises he is one of the few who can see; almost everyone else has been blinded by a meteor shower.

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