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10 August 2005

The Day of the Triffids

A Science Fiction book that grabbed me all day

Yesterday I've spent all day reading a book. "The Day of the Triffids", by John Wyndham, which I found among the books in this little house on Limnos island. I'm staying this August here, and this house I live in is full of books. A lot of them are not to my taste (I'm not much of a theater fan) and some range in my opinion from boring to depressing. So I was surprised to find a paperback that I can describe as Science Fiction. Much to my taste, "The Day of the Triffids" starts in a world that is not so different from ours now. A patient wakes up in a hospital, to find out that something is wrong with the world...

The daily hospital routine stopped and he has to get out, only to discover, that the rest of the world has gone blind. Civilization stops here. What remains could be a simple story of "survivor of the world", maybe even in a setup a la Jules Vernes, where all the right tools appear just as needed. There would be an obvious line of the plot, with a smooth rhythm.

But the book does not stop there. Our hero steps through the rubble of our civilization trying to get half a chance of survival for himself as well as for the human race. A world full of people turned blind at an instant has a poor chance of making it. Blind human beings can survive, but they have to learn new skills and still are dependent on others (of course we are all dependent on others then, as few of us kill our own cows to make hamburgers). This is also the theme in "The City of the Blind" by Jose Saramago a much bleaker and heavier experience. Both books share the "Gedankenexperiment" of a society full of newly blind people, with a few seeing ones (in "The City of the Blind" only one seeing person really, but with a much smaller setup). John Wyndham's view is much more Science Fiction, much more Suspense, less Literature and social critique.

Wyndham puts his hero and his world into even more trouble. A new race of plants had appeared on the planet, presumably out of some laboratory. They have spread everywhere, since they are an agricultural breakthrough, discovered to be the solution to feeding the overpopulation on the planet. But they are dangerous, poisonous, they can feed on flesh and attack animals and humans. Again, this is not so different from other SciFi books. It reminded me of "Der Krieg der Lurche" of a Czech author (if I recall correctly, read that book as a kid). A weird life-form appears on the stage, with some abilities that help it challenge human superiority on Earth. But Wyndham sets it up properly. It doesn't strike me just as another SciFi device. It fits into the world. As the hero is reminiscing about how the world ended up in this situation, I followed him and nodded in approval: Gradual changes go through in this world, often without our conscience catching up. And now our hero is caught between two interacting catastrophes.

Spoilers aside, a lot of Science Fiction books are better off if you have read the cover-text, if you have some idea what is going on. I did read the blurb on the back of this book. It set the stage, though I don't think it would have been necessary for me on this one. When Wyndham starts with his first sentence, I was immediately thrown in the scene, every sentence, paragraph, page leading to the next to unroll the story:

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

Wyndhams style is easy to read, fits well with the suspensy plot. Here is a writer at work who wants to tell his story. A few times in the book, philosophical points are driven home. This is mostly done in the form of characters discussing on a matter. I did notice this as a writers device being used while I read it. But it was not as disturbing as to have stopped me or bored me. A few times I hit on long sentences or a complicated run of shorter sentences that stopped me and sent me looking for the verbs and nouns. But this is to be expected, as English is not my first language.

Every book of Science Fiction is somewhere anchored in time. As the days of writing the book, of first publishing it, go back further into the past, it is sometimes interesting to see how well the point in time holds up. "The Day of the Triffids" does quite well in this respect. It is absent of the little gadgets that many SciFi books need to propel us into the future: "Hey, everybody got a radio phone, we must be in the year 2173." Wyndham doesn't need that, as his world is just one or two steps further than the world in 1951, when the book first appeared. What strikes me today as an anchor into the past are a few things only: The novelty of satellites, coal on railroads, a tv set being referred to as a "television projector"...

The book is a pageturner. I read it in one day, could not put it down. At some points it had my adrenaline flowing. Summing it up, not high literature, but a good read. And I will read it again, even now writing this little review and thumbing through the pages, the book draws me in.

Posted by betabug at 10:18 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)
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Re: The Day of the Triffids

bad book

Posted by: hi at July 09,2006 06:25
Re: The Day of the Triffids

Care to elaborate?
Because, if we base our impression of your oppinion only on two words without some reasoning, nobody will take you much serious.

Posted by: betabug at July 09,2006 14:38
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