Friday, 1 February 2008

The Day of the Triffids

Title: The Day of the Triffids

Author: John Wyndham

Number of pages: 272

Started: 29 January 2008

Finished: 1 February 2008

Opening words:

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

I felt that from the moment I woke. And yet, when I started functioning a little more smartly, I became doubtful. After all, the odds were that it was I who was wrong, and not everyone else-though I did not see how that could be. I went on waiting, tinged with doubt. But presently I had my first bit of objective evidence-a distant clock struck what sounded to me just like eight. I listened hard and suspiciously. Soon another clock began, on a hard, decisive note. In a leisurely fashion it gave an indisputable eight. Then I knew things were awry.

The way I came to miss the end of the world-well, the end of the world I had known for close on thirty years-was sheer accident: like a lot of survival, when you come to think of it. In the nature of things a good many somebodies are always in hospital, and the law of averages had picked on me to be one of them a week or so before. It might just as easily have been the week before that-in which case I’d not be writing now: I’d not be here at all. But chance played it not only that I should be in hospital at that particular time, but that my eyes, and indeed my whole head, should be wreathed in bandages-and that’s why I have to be grateful to whoever orders these averages. At the time, however, I was only peevish, wondering what in thunder went on, for I had been in the place long enough to know that, next to the matron, the clock is the most sacred thing in a hospital.

Without a clock the place simply couldn’t work. Each second there’s someone consulting it on births, deaths, doses, meals, lights, talking, working, sleeping, resting, visiting, dressing, washing-and hitherto it had decreed that someone should begin to wash and tidy me up at exactly three minutes after 7 A.M. That was one of the best reasons I had for appreciating a private room. In a public ward the messy proceeding would have taken place a whole unnecessary hour earlier. But here, today, clocks of varying reliability were continuing to strike eight in all directions-and still nobody had shown up.

Plot summary:
The triffids are a monstrous species of stinging plant; they walk, they talk, they dominate the world. The narrator of this novel wakes up in hospital to find that, by missing the end of the world, he has survived to witness a new world. But the new world that awaits him is fantastic and horrific.

Synopsis taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I already wrote about this over at my other blog, so I shall repeat it here:

I finished reading The Day of the Triffids on Friday and thought it was excellent. I would never have read it were it not for my new found quest to read a whole variety of books over the next year or so. I am now reading “If not now, when?” by Primo Levi, which is going ok, but hasn’t immediately grabbed me.

Anyway, Day of the Triffids was well worth a read and told the story of the aftermath of a comet shower which left most of the population of the world blind. The only people who weren’t were those who happened not to see the comet shower, such as Bill Masen, the main character in the book who was in hospital with his eyes bandaged due to an eye injury caused by a Triffid.

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

It is, in itself, just a good read and you can read it for the story telling power of it. But I thought it also raised a whole load of interesting issues about society. First of all was the expectation that the government, emergency services etc would be there to take control of the disaster. Only because each of those resources relies on people and they are no more immune from the ill-effects of catastrophic disasters than anyone else, they weren’t there to help.

What also struck me, which admittedly was at least in part because the main character was sighted and we were following his account of what happened, was that if you put yourself in the position of what you would do, you assume that you would be amongst the sighted. But given that probably 99% of the population was blind chances are that you would actually be amongst them.

Various ethical dilemmas came up as well. There were sighted people who saw their first and primary duty as to help those who were blind. There were other sighted people who saw that the ideal was to help those who were blind but that the sheer scale of it was beyond being able to save anyone if they did that, so they had to make a tactical withdrawal and focus on the vast minority who might make it. Then there were those who either killed themselves out of despair at what had happened, particularly their ability to cope with instant blindness or the sighted who built their own barricades and would allow no-one to get close in case they took the little that had been scavenged.

You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realise how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.

There was also the view of the law. Given that the entire infrastructure had been destroyed. Did it become ok to break into shops and houses in order to obtain items to ensure at least basic survival? Also given that there was no longer anyone in authority, what kind of society was ahead? Did people want to rebuild the same social order as before based on the same laws and morals and cultural practices – or was it time to start again, to take a pragmatic view that with so few people repopulating England, having a viable population that allowed time for some to think and to plan and not just toil was more important than say marriage laws (taking into account this book was written in 1951). Really fascinating thinking about which decisions you would make – assuming you were one of the few that was fortunate (if that is the right word) enough to have survived.

Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative-an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary. That day I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed one as an atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly-that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do.

There was also the issue of how do you cope with losing all your support, all those things that you thought would always be there – from basic utilities, to your home, to your friends and family. Instead you have to find safe places away to start again and build relationships with people who you never even knew existed before disaster struck. You have to work out whether you can trust people who are in as equally a desperate situation as yourself – is it better to work together or to rely only on your own resources? If you only rely on yourself, what a way to face a new world where you have to rely on tilling the land and with no outside communication and no-one to rely on. Food for thought.

It did end on a note of reasonable hope, but also didn’t have a nice happy ending – which would have been rather an unsatisfying end actually.

It was a really good book and was not what I would think of as science fiction, but more taking every day life and saying “what if...?”. If you want to read it, the text is online here – but I think it must have been optically read and that the reader had trouble telling the difference between “b” and “h”! Also, don’t print it because it would be about 150 pages. If you get the chance give it a go and let your mind start to imagine...

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