This month, my book club is reading The Day of the Triffids, the 1951 novel by John Wyndham and the response is overwhelmingly enthusiastic. We seldom agree so much. Many people consider it one of their all-time favorite novels and relate memories of first discovering the book as a kid. I’m not sure I read The Day of the Triffids before, but I have vague memories that I might, but nothing distinctive. I used to read SF paperbacks like eating popcorn, and I remember reading a stupid book about plants killing off people. The Day of the Triffids is not stupid, and the mature me loves it, but how many SF novels have been about killer plants? Memory is so unreliable.
The Day of the Triffids is a classic that has been filmed once, made into two television mini-series, been adapted to radio twice, and has another movie version in the planning. The Day of the Triffids is a popular novel because the subject has wide appeal: What if you wake up and everyone else is dead? My favorite of this sub-category of science fiction is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart from 1949. John Wyndham adds a couple of twists that make The Day of the Triffids more dramatic. First, our hero Bill Masen wakes up in the hospital with his eyes bandaged recovering from surgery, but no one comes to help him that morning and he hears all kinds of weird noises that worry him. Eventually he takes off his bandages and he can see, but he discovers most everyone else is blind. Civilization quickly collapses, people die, diseases run rampant, and a weird walking plant starts attacking people and eating them.
Yeah, the last is a bit much. That’s what I remember from reading this book as a kid, the triffids. I thought them silly, but as an adult reader, I think Wyndham skillfully weaves them into the story in a realistic manner. The triffids make life hell for the survivors who already have a bleak existence. Personally, I’d have been perfectly pleased with the novel without the damn triffids, but the story is so riveting that I can accept them.
This book is about surviving the collapse of civilization. I love that theme. Earth Abides is one of my all time favorite novels, and I enjoyed the heck out of The Day of the Triffids, as well as other top books exploring this theme, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Postman by David Brin and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. I’m also watching the 1975 BBC series Survivors and re-watching the 2008 remake – so this month I’m obsessed with being the last man on Earth (okay, among the last).
The Collapse of Civilization
To get you into the mood of these books watch Life After People, a documentary from The History Channel about how civilization would slowly decay if people suddenly disappeared. Or the National Geographic’s Aftermath: Population Zero. Or read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.
These documentaries and book show us what life on Earth would be like if everyone suddenly disappeared. The Day of the Triffids, Earth Abides, The Road, and the like, show what life on Earth would be like if only a few people survive. It takes a lot of people to maintain civilization, and these stories show us just how dependent we are on each other. In these novels, the survivors are the carrion eaters who dine of the body of civilization.
Every reader will fantasize what they would do in such a situation. That’s why these books are so appealing. There is no easy solution. You can live off of canned food for so long. Could you grow food, hunt, herd animals? Can you make candles and clothes? How? What if someone else takes all the candle making books from the library before you do?
Then there’s the problem of other people. You’d think for each million people being reduced to 100, everyone would care more about each other, but that’s not so. Everybody has a different idea of how to run things – just watch the reality TV show Survivor. It’s very hard to get along with other people when you have to work together under apocalyptic conditions. There’s a reason why hippie communes failed. And how do women feel when all men see them as baby factories? Being Eve is a burden. And if you have children, can you protect them from disease and danger, and feed and cloth them?
We have very cushy lives. We have lots of free time. We have lots of luxuries. What if all of that went away? Would you want to keep living?
These stories are usually based on the idea of a plague killing most people. If AIDS had been an airborne virus, or if a strain of Ebola started spreading like the common cold, this kind of scenario could happen. The Black Plague killed 30-60 percent of Europe between 1348 to 1350. So the idea of most of the population suddenly dying off isn’t an unrealistic fantasy. Mary Shelley probably started this genre in 1826 with The Last Man, and its been expanding ever since with post-apocalyptic fiction. See this list of pandemic stories. During the cold war in the 1950s two classics, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and On the Beach by Nevil Shute, became huge world-wide bestsellers. Being a survivor strikes a very deep chord.
Earth Abides and The Day of the Triffids were from 1949 and 1951. Earth Abides deals with a natural pandemic, but The Day of the Triffids ultimately suggests our own bioengineering and nuclear weapons will be the cause of our destruction. But the core message of each of these novels is civilization can come to an end, and even the human race. The challenge to both the characters and readers is to imagine how civilization can be rekindled and preserved. The Day of the Triffids brings up many philosophical and practical questions:
- If everyone is dying, should the strong help the weak?
- What if protecting the weak threatens the survival of the strong?
- Is it stealing when stay alive means looting?
- Does your survival justify killing other people?
- Should women become baby factories?
- Who deserves to be leaders?
- How are group decisions made?
- Does democracy still count?
- How do you punish wrong doers in your group?
- How do you raise the next generation?
- Should you make kids go to school and learn what kids have to learn today?
- What foods can you produce that can feed people 365 days a year?
- What are the appropriate technologies for the new times?
- What do you preserve from before the collapse?
- How do you find other people?
- How do you communicate over a distance?
- How do you get news?
The fascinating facts of Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero is how long various products of civilization will last. In 1951 power plants in London were probably coal fired, and as soon as the people stopped feeding the boilers, the city would have gone dark. In modern America, automation would keep power plants going for awhile, maybe even weeks for sites like Hoover Dam. But it’s very surprising how fast things break down and decay.
Decaying cities is nicely reflected in The Day of the Triffids. Wyndham did a lot of thinking about the idea. He gives us several examples of how people would organize and disagree, and how various groups would attempt to rebuild civilization, including Christians hanging onto their old beliefs, and military men planning for the return of war. That’s depressing because it suggests we won’t learn from the collapse. I’d like to think that people would universally think, “Let’s not make the old mistakes again” and try something new. But Wyndham, and Stewart, brilliantly suggest not. They wisely see people as people, and people don’t change, but they do survive.
In all these stories, diverse characters push on through hardships for a myriad of reasons. Some think about saving mankind, but many just think about getting what they want. And they all go through different psychological stages, like the Five Stages of Grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), survivors have their own stages.
One of the first stages is denying that the collapse is universal and hoping they will be rescued, and in the case of The Day of the Triffids, the assumption is the Yanks will come to the rescue. That’s a kind of denial. Even when the characters realize the collapse is universal many keep asking “When things get back to normal?” Another kind of denial.
It takes a while for each character to realize that things will never be back the same. That their old lives are finished, and whatever their new lives will be is yet to be established. Reaching this level of acceptance often takes them through the same stages as coming to grips with death. Then they start working on rebirth and life after the collapse.
It is at this stage where Earth Abides outshines The Day of the Triffids. Wyndham only goes so far with his story, but Stewart takes us into the second and third generation, and makes some brilliant observations. I really wished that Wyndham had written a much longer book so we could see what happens for another fifty or hundred years.
I highly recommend reading The Day of the Triffids, even with the stupid plants.
JWH – 6/9/12