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“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing.

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"If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."— J.K. Rowling

'The Day of the Triffids' by John Wyndham

The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

Some books can be quite ill-served by their title. 'Not enough triffids!' would complain those lured to this book by the promise of a fun sci-fi romp centered around carnivorous sentient plants - just to find something entirely different.

But you gotta agree - a more appropriate title for this unexpected gem of a book such as "How complete disintegration of society and civilization as we know it, the sudden helplessness and the painful realization how little it takes to throw us off our tenuous perch on the top of the food chain leads to uncomfortable ethical questions about societal structures and conventions and the implications of successful survival in a forever changed world where our morals and ideas and what we think constitutes humanity may become quite obsolete" - well, it doesn't really roll off the tongue, doesn't it?

This book is really about survival in the midst of disintegrating society and all the implications of it that go against the frequent and quite stereotypical portrayal of such happenings. It's not an optimistic ode to the courageous and morally sound few who carry the torch of civilization into the future while dodging death, slaying monsters and coming unscathed out of numerous death traps, proving again and again that humanity triumphs over all obstacles. No, it's more somberly bleak than that.

In Wyndham's story, it did not take much to unravel our society. All it took was a case of worldwide blindness after a breathtakingly beautiful meteor shower that left the vast majority of humans blind, and in the resulting confusion and struggle present-day civilization found its end. Add to it a plague-like outbreak that followed, and finally the titular triffids (semi-sentient mobile carnivorous plants carelessly bioengineered by humans back when our supremacy was a given) - and the survivors of the disaster have their hands full when they try to survive and rebuild some kind of organized new world.

"Standing there, and at that time, my heart still resisted what my head was telling me. Even yet I had the feeling that it was all something too big, too unnatural really to happen. Yet I knew that it was by no means the first time that it had happened. The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts, and obliterated by the jungles of Asia. Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them. But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modern city seemed to me...


It must be, I thought, one of the race's most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that 'it can't happen here' - that one's own little time and place is beyond cataclysms. And now it was happening here. Unless there should be some miracle I was looking on the beginning of the end of London - and very likely, it seemed, there were other men, not unlike me, who were looking on the beginning of the end of New York, Paris, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Bombay, and all the rest of the cities that were destined to go the way of those others under the jungle."

The questions that must be faced once the end of the world as we know it arrives are not heroic (How do we triumph over the monsters?) but quite prosaically practical and yet staggering in their implications: How do we go on as a society - and is there even a place for society as we know it? What do we preserve? What do we have to discard? How do we deal with realizing our own weakness and fragility as a species? Is there a place for the old values and ideas of good and evil, of morals, of responsibility - or does the changed society make us necessarily evolve with it? How much can we move on in the world that has moved on? 

And the titular triffids lurk just around the corner, hiding in the background until you expect them the least, presenting a slow but steady threat to any attempts to regroup and rebuild, rising up the suddenly vacated niche of the top predators as humans are busy surviving - but they are not the only monsters around.

The real challenge to the survival of humans are, of course, other humans. As they come to grips with what happened, every group of survivors - seeing and blind alike - all have their own ideas where this new world should be heading to. Conventional morals and usual laws collapse with the society that created them. That's where Wyndham in a very detached, frequently deceptively neutral and sometimes even deadpan delivers the examples of various conventional and not-so-conventional societal set-ups (none of them even remotely ideal) which all challenge ethical principles and societal conventions in so many different ways - and the trouble is, some of them may be necessary in this forever changed world.

Of course, written in 1951, this book is very much the product of its time. The eventual threat of the triffids originated, as one would expect in the Cold War society, from the unexplainable and mysterious depths of the enemy Russia. The attitudes of characters are frequently quite paternalistic, especially when any woman is concerned. The attitude towards disability are very appropriate for that time - and, needless to say, not for our day and age.

And yet despite the dated attitudes there is a time-transcending quality to Wyndham's storytelling and its purpose, and that's what makes this book survive to the present day as a classic that does not stop being relevant, that still makes you think critically about humanity and society and question things that we are so used to taking for granted, and that treats humanity despite all of our clear flaws and arrogance as something that deserves to survive and persevere.
“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.