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The Day Of The Triffids
Gollancz hardcover £14.99
The Night Of The Triffids
NEL paperback £6.99
reviews by Patrick Hudson
John Wyndham is a pen name for John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, who wrote from the 1930s to the 1960s, and was responsible for a handful of minor classics over his varied career. As well as his Triffids novel, there is The Midwich Cuckoos (effectively filmed in 1960 as Village Of The Damned) and The Chrysalids, a post apocalyptic tale of prejudice and mutation. Wyndham wrote perceptively about English society under extreme duress, but none of his works grabbed this subject matter with such vigour as The Day Of The Triffids.
The novel opens with its hero Bill Masen, helpless and blind in hospital waiting for a nurse to unbandage his eyes, which have been covered since a triffid attack a week before. As Bill waits and waits for the nurse that never arrives, Wyndham vividly portrays the claustrophobic helplessness of blindness, laying the ground work for what's to come: the entire human race has been blinded by a mysterious display of shooting stars the night before, except Masen whose sight has been preserved by his bandages.
This nightmarish situation is tipped over into the truly diabolic by the presence of the triffids, the predatory walking plants of the title. The triffid is a frankly bizarre creation, a walking plant that travels in great packs, seeking humans to whip with its lethal sting, so that they can plant themselves next to their victims' putrefying bodies. Wyndham masterfully suspends disbelief in these oddities in a web of verisimilitude: triffids had appeared decades before and are used for their oil and as hardy, fast-growing cattle feed. Therefore, when the novel begins Britain is already home to hundreds of thousands farmed triffids ready to menace the blinded. As well as horror, the triffids are a fantastic source of action in the novel and Masen's background as a botanist on a trifid farm makes him an efficient triffid-killing machine when the plot calls for a little mayhem.
Masen faces more mundane threats as a consequence of the blinding: disease, loneliness, hunger and, of course, his fellow man. In the wake of the disaster, humanity's worse characteristics quickly rise to the surface - Bill has to rescue his love interest Josella Playton from slavery on the first day after the blinding. Through Masen, Wyndham contrasts those who cannot face life in this changed world - the immoral and the weak - with those that can. Bill Masen is an exemplar, doing what he can to survive for the sake of humanity, but dealing humanely with those he encounters on the way.
Although written as contemporary, The Day Of The Triffids is now very much a period work as it's been 50 years since it was first published. As well as purely material matters - no computers, no genetic engineering, no TV - there are more subtle anachronisms. The absence of blacks and Asians, the prim vernacular, and the ominous Soviet scientists all mark the novel as very much of its time. However, the characters it portrays are still with us - the schoolmarmish Miss Durrant; Coker, the self-educated organiser and uncommitted radical; the well meaning but ineffectual Michael Beadley and the Colonel; and the brutal Torrence.
All in all, The Day Of The Triffids is an enduring classic, havng found its way on to school syllabuses, a Penguin Classics edition, and now part of Gollancz top 10 SF novels, it is not surprising that someone thought it would be a good idea to do a sequel. Accordingly, Simon Clark has produced The Night Of The Triffids, authorised by the Wyndham estate, to take up the story where The Day Of The Triffids leaves off. It begins 30 years after the original with the narrative taken up by David Masen, son of Bill and Josella Masen.
Like his father, David wakes up one morning unable to see. In this case, he is not blind, but the sky has gone out, and David's quest to discover the source of the darkness takes him away from his small colony of survivors on the Isle of Wight, across the Atlantic to New York City. The city appears to have coped rather better with the original disaster than Britain, with electricity, taxicabs, movies and cocktails, but David soon learns that this luxury has a dark foundation. The bulk of the novel describes David's fight against the oppressive regime in New York, lead by a figure from his father's past.
The Night Of The Triffids has much to admire. It is a fast-moving, post-apocalyptic thriller, and sticks closely to the events described in the original. Clark is particularly good at capturing the tone and setting of the original. He vividly evokes a weirdly preserved 1950s society, with the 30-year-old artefacts of the world gone by being 1950s vehicles and weapons. He adds effectively to the triffid morphology with underwater and giant varieties, as well as further insights into their possible intelligence, a recurring refrain in the original. David is a suitably laconic scion of his father, even if he lacks some of his progenitor's grit, and Clark's work complements Wyndham's prose style efficiently.
Ultimately, however, The Night Of The Triffids never matches the heights of its forbear, and, while it works effectively enough in its own right, comparisons with The Day Of The Triffids are not kind to it. Clark provides some imaginative post-apocalyptic fare in the shape of the tyrant of New York, but adds nothing to the central themes of the original, because the central conflict of Clark's novel is categorically different to Wyndham's. In the original, Bill Masen struggled against the suddenly hostile world led by the triffids, while Clark sets his sights on the more quotidian fare of man's inhumanity to man. Wyndham wrote forcefully about the transformative power of the apocalypse, and how easily uncaring cosmic forces could supplant humanity with superior stock - the walking, stinging, mindless triffid. By comparison, Clark's crypto-fascists seem thin stuff.
Clark's heavy-handed echoing of plot and character from the original further hampers his novel, and the 'blinding' that opens it as a direct tribute is particularly poorly handled. Having used it for a dramatic opening and a plot hook, he more or less forgets all about it in favour of the New York slavery storyline. At the end of the novel, we're told that the sky eventually lightens of its own accord after a few years, leaving the entire episode with no purpose beyond a big wink at the reader.
Many of Clark's characters also echo the original. Bill and David Masen, obviously, but also the abandoned girls Susan and Christina; the love interests Josella, and Kerris - with whom David loses touch for a long period shortly after he meets her, as his father was separated from Josella; the working-class-made good idealists Coker and Gabriel, with David's kidnap on the streets of New York city echoing Bill's kidnap by Coker at the London University; and, of course, the reappearance of Torrence, an emblematic character in The Day Of The Triffids that Clark turns into a pulp villain.
The Night Of The Triffids is a very different piece from its forebear, and without Wyndham's masterpiece for comparison would rate as passable sci-fi adventure novel. It fails, however, in its main aim, that of supplying a worthy follow-up to one of the classics of British science fiction.
tZ - interview with author, Simon Clark
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