The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Audible, 2009 (audiobook version)
RosettaBooks, 2000 (eBook version)
Originally published by Michael Joseph, 1951
Price I paid: $2.99 (audiobook), I don’t remember (ebook)
Bill Masen, bandages over his wounded eyes, misses the most spectacular meteorite shower England has ever seen. Removing his bandages the next morning, he finds masses of sightless people wandering the city. He soon meets Josella, another lucky person who has retained her sight, and together they leave the city, aware that the safe, familiar world they knew a mere 24 hours before is gone forever. But to survive in this post-apocalyptic world, one must survive the Triffids, strange plants that years before began appearing all over the world. The Triffids can grow to over seven feet tall, pull their roots from the ground to walk, and kill a man with one quick lash of their poisonous stingers. With society in shambles, they are now poised to prey on humankind. Wyndham chillingly anticipates bio-warfare and mass destruction, 50 years before their realization, in this prescient account of Cold War paranoia.From the audible.com publisher’s summary
I’m sure not diving into the depths of unknown literature this week, am I? I figure there are plenty of people who are familiar with triffids and their eponymous Day, at least among people who would be bothered to check out my little WordPress in the first place. I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with it via the 1962 film with Howard Keel and Nicole Maurey, which I’m told isn’t a faithful adaptation other than a few story beats and some things called triffids. I haven’t seen it, nor have I seen the 1981 or 2009 television series. I intend to fix that as soon as I can.
I had the idea to read The Day of the Triffids while I was surfing through my e-reader’s back catalog looking for something to read. (Cool story, right?) Anyway, the reason I stuck with it is that I noticed there was also an audiobook, and that it was fairly cheap.
I love audiobooks…in principle. I adore what they do for people—the visually-impaired, folks who find it difficult to read text, or people who are just busy and like to knock some reading out on the way to work. I see too many people trying to maintain that audio reading “doesn’t count.” I am not one of those people.
Usually it’s people putting themselves down? Like, you’ll say it’s cool that they read such-and-such because you really liked it, and then they’ll say something like “Oh, I just listened to the audiobook,” like that’s something to be ashamed of? It’s weird. I also have a strong memory of a classmate in high school who was convinced that he was gaming the system by listening to the audiobook version of the required reading. He was very impressed with himself.
But you might have noticed how I said “in principle.” There’s one simple and annoying fact: I keep forgetting to listen to them. I just don’t think about them when I think about my own reading. When I listen to stuff, it’s usually podcasts or music. Audiobooks don’t even enter my mind as a possibility.
This has been changing lately. I recently trimmed down my podcast subscriptions (don’t worry, I’m probably still listening to yours) and got all caught up there. I started my audiobook journey with Failure is an Option by H. Jon Benjamin. I got it because he reads it himself and he has an incredible voice. I usually grab audiobooks because of who reads them. I have a copy of Johnny Cash Reads the New Testament queued up.
So here’s where that gets relevant. I saw that there was an audiobook edition of The Day of the Triffids and thought maybe it would be an interesting experiment to review a book that I listened to. I can’t do that too often because so many books I read are so obscure that I can’t imagine anyone thinking there’s a market for an audio edition. But Triffids was right on that line.
So I clicked on the link that I thought would take me to the store so I could look at who reads it. That link did not do that. All it did was buy the audiobook.
I know I could have changed my mind and returned it and got my three bucks back, but I figured what the hell, let’s do this thing. And here we are.
This audiobook was narrated by a fellow named Graeme Malcolm, whom I’d never listened to before. I was prepared to listen to him for a half hour to decide whether I wanted to continue with this harebrained scheme or return the book. I made it much longer than a half hour. He’s very good! This is perhaps not surprising to people who are more into audiobooks than I am, since I looked him up and he’s a prolific and oft-celebrated narrator. I hesitate to say he made a good book better, but he certainly didn’t make it any worse. He brought out the good that was already in the book. I think that’s the best way I can put it.
The Day of the Triffids, which I keep for some damnfool reason wanting to call The Night of the Triffids, is an apocalyptic tale that surprised me in both how original it was and how modern it felt. The latter probably has more to do with the fact that technology disintegrates rather rapidly as the story goes on, so it never really feels dated. Also, it’s British as all hell, and in my mind Britain is always stuck in the mid-fifties anyway. Unlike the US, which seems dead set on going back to the 1850s.
As for its originality, I’ll get to that in a second.
We first meet our hero while he’s in the hospital. His name is Bill Masen, and he’s been temporarily blinded following an accident. All the while he’s lying in bed, he’s listening to people talk about a spectacular light show in the sky. He’s upset to be missing it. It’s said that Earth has passed through the tail of a comet. It is, by all accounts, incredible. It ends and he goes to sleep.
He awakens in the morning to find that everything is strange. Quiet. The opening lines of the book convey this nicely:
When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.
Now, I know I already told you about the light show and all that, but here the book begins with that creeping dread? Well, hold onto your butts. This book really likes telling us things in hindsight. It does this constantly and I’m not going to say I hated it, but sometimes it wore thin. Pages on pages of “this is what happened earlier” and I feel like the story took too long to ever really move forward. I don’t think Triffids is necessarily a book about moving forward. It’s a book about trying to survive in the moment, but even that is detracted from with all this backstory exposition. And in one particular case it really took me by surprise.
See, Bill wakes up and notices that something is wrong. He fights back panic. He realizes that today was supposed to be the day his bandages come off, and he works up the guts to take them off himself after it becomes clear that no one else is coming to do it. What he finds is that he can see, and also the world is in chaos. Lots of people are dead, and the ones who aren’t are all blind.
And that’s when the triffids show up, right?
At least, not really. See, this is the thing about this book that surprised me the most: the triffids are already here. And have been for a while.
Bill Masen is, in fact, a biologist studying them. He’s kind of an expert. Triffids are very large carnivorous plants that can walk. No one knows for certain where they came from, but Bill’s opinion is that they were the result of “biological meddlings.” It seems likely that they came from Russia. What we do know is that, at first, they were seen as harmless and even beneficial. They produce a variety of oil that had many useful industrial uses. It was only later that it became clear that they could attack people, and they did. Bill’s hospital stay was the direct result of a triffid attacking him and poison getting into his eyes. His recovery was in doubt for a while.
So that’s what I’m talking about when I think of how original this story is. I’m not totally sure that’s the right word for it, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen this angle of storytelling before. “First, something terrible happened to humanity, wiping out a lot of it. Also, that thing is also unrelated to the monsters from the title. They were already here. They’re still the biggest threat though. Except for ourselves.”
There does not appear to be any connection between the mass blindness and the triffids. It’s just a wild coincidence. There is, however, a bit of foreshadowing early on when Bill is recollecting a conversation with a former coworker, who spoke at length about how the only thing humans had over the triffids was the sense of sight. If we lose that, he opines, the triffids will win.
Despite being well-written and fine to read, the majority of the middle of the book can be summed up by saying that Bill wanders around a bit, meets groups of other people who managed to maintain their sight, saw how they were trying to survive in this new world, and had a lot of mixed opinions about things.
Somewhere along the line, he meets Josella. They don’t fall in love immediately, but they eventually do. The two get separated at one point and for a good quarter to a third of the book she serves as Bill’s macguffin, which is less than great by modern sensibilities but hardly surprising.
The book asks a lot of valid questions about how life is to continue in a world where most people have lost their sight. What are the responsibilities of the sighted to the blind? One problem I had with the narrative is that it treats the blind as helpless quite a lot of the time. There are exceptions. I can imagine that at first, yes, they might be in shock, depressed, unable to figure out how to go on. But for most of this book, even as the years pass, it comes as a major statement that they might be taught to do simple work.
Based on this perceived helplessness of the blind majority of humanity, it becomes a question of whether it is ethical or moral to take care of them at all. Why not focus all the energy on the sighted and rebuild civilization that way? At first glance this seems like a gross thing to think. We’re talking about human lives here. But what if it comes down to a question of saving some or saving no one? Nobody wants to think about that kind of question, but it weighs heavily on this narrative.
Later in the book, a third unrelated catastrophe occurs in the form of a deadly sickness. This mainly serves to further break up the reforming societies. This plague, too, is unexplained but hinted at being man-made. It’s also speculated that the comet shower that kicked things off was, in actuality, some variety of satellite-based weaponry.
It’s after this and a lot of various encounters and soul-searching that Bill is able to remember a thing that Josella said earlier in the book and is able to locate her. They live quite happily for a number of years, helping to take care of a small group of blinded people in the meantime. They’re quite content, and when one of the blind women has a baby that is able to see, things are starting to look up. This blindness is not something that will pass on to the next generation. Perhaps humanity will be able to rebuild, after all.
The main issue is still the triffids, but they’re able to be fought back. There are varying degrees of hope and despair over them as the story goes on, but it’s mostly a tale of hope.
This idyllic existence ends when the tiny community is found. First, it’s by a guy in a helicopter, someone from earlier in the book. He says that he’s from a rather larger community of people who seem pretty cool, and that he’d like it if they joined him. They all agree that this is probably a good idea. Their plans are interrupted when they’re discovered by another community, a bad one trying to enforce some kind of neo-feudalism with an iron fist.
This is the very end of the book and it’s not exactly a big climax. Basically these bad guys show up, start pushing everybody around and saying what’s going to happen. Bill and Josella invite them in, get them drunk, sabotage their vehicle, and run away to the good community. The end.
Okay so the ending isn’t all that great but at least there’s a sense of hope? Or maybe not. It’s kind of ambiguous, and that’s hardly surprising. I’m not sure if a solid “everybody turned out to be okay” would even remotely work in this tale.
Apart from that, I enjoyed the bulk of this book. Even when it felt like nothing was happening, that felt right and good. There was a sense of time standing still in the face of horror and adversity, but with moments of beauty and love as well. It all came together and worked wonderfully.
This is perhaps due to Graeme Malcolm’s soft-spoken narration of the audiobook. When there was tension in this novel, it was never especially high. This is a book conveying sadness and loss and loneliness. Oh, golly, lots of loneliness. Never once did the narrator need to raise his voice because something shocking happened. It worked very well.
Admittedly, I switched over to the e-book version as I was finishing up. This is no fault of the audiobook, other than the fact that it was taking so much longer than my normal reading pace.
The main thing I learned from this audiobook experiment was that listening to one out of a sense of obligation isn’t any more fun than reading text out of the same obligation. I don’t want to make it sound like I resent doing this blog or anything, but it’s still a small source of stress. The good kind of stress that any hobby ought to bring forth.
Still, an audiobook’s pace makes it roughly twice as long to listen to as it would be for me to read. Yeah, I was able to do other things while I listened, but I think that might have been an overrated thought in the end. I spent a good deal of this book playing a video game, which ended up being kind of annoying. I was playing Skyrim, which, while not necessarily being a story-heavy game, would still interrupt me with dialogue. Some guy would run up and say “Hey Dragonborn, here’s a letter from the Jarl of Falkreath” and I just can’t listen to two things at once or even read and listen at the same time and expect the thing I’m listening to to sink in. It’s just not how my brain works. If I were listening to something for pure fun’s sake, that’d be one thing, but if I’m gonna relate things back to people, I don’t want to miss them.
Also, listening as an obligation sort of turned the game into an obligation too, since I needed something to do while I was listening. Other things to occupy my hands including cooking supper and a dinky little Android clicky game. I listened while I walked around downtown Knoxville after eating lunch. But mostly it was Skyrim.
Also, there were things I missed and would not have been able to consult if I hadn’t had the ebook version. And while the narrator’s accent was pretty soft and I don’t normally have problems with the Brits, there were a few words I misunderstood. The main one is that there was a dude named Coker, who I would have sworn was named “Coka” or “Coca” or something like that until I saw it in text.
So I’m not sure that I’ll ever try this audiobook experiment for a blog book again. And that’s okay! That’s just not what I want to use them for. I do intend to listen to more of them for fun.
What I will do, however, is read more John Wyndham. I’m particularly looking forward to The Midwich Cuckoos, which was adapted into the film Children of the Damned [correction: Village of the Damned. Thank you, James!]. I’ve seen that one!
Thanks for bearing with me while I try weird things.