Monday, September 18, 2006

Weekend of the Triffids

I ran across a 50-year-old copy of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids at a garage sale Saturday, bought it, and wound up reading it during the tornado watch Saturday night. At 191 pages it's a quick read, and I had some vague recollections of an old movie of the same name and wanted to check them. Day of the Triffids, Night of the Comet, Day of the Anteaters, Night of the Big Heat, Afternoon of the Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil Mutant Hellbound Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Zombified Living Dead... After awhile they all run together, and most of them seem to star Peter Cushing.

Let's see: mysterious meteor shower strikes most of humanity blind? Check. Giant ambulatory carnivorous plants go on a feeding frenzy? Check. Lucky sighted survivor hooks up with plucky beautiful girl, and together they have a series of hairsbreadth escapes, only to finally discover the murderous plants' one weakness and destroy them?

Warning! Arrr, there be Spoilers ahead!

At risk of coining a cliché, this is a case where the book is far, far better than the movie. For one, there's nothing mysterious about the "meteor shower," but rather than explain I'll just toss out a date: October 4, 1957.

For another, there's nothing mysterious about the origins of the triffids: they're a Russian hybridization of a rare tropical plant. (The term "genetically modified" is never used, as the book was first published in 1951, years before Watson, Crick & Franklin figured out DNA.) Their proclivity to uproot themselves and move about in search of better soil is also well-known to the characters in the book, as is their carnivorous nature and their highly toxic "sting," but these are tolerated because triffids are an economically important crop, better than soybeans and grown by the millions to be processed for oil and cattle feed. Nor is our hero merely a lucky guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time; he's a plant biologist who works for a major agribusiness and knows triffids inside and out.

For another thing, the title is somewhat misleading. In the real course of story the triffids are mostly a damnable nuisance. After the initial catastrophe, it's the other human survivors who are the true menaces, and our hero — and yes, his exceptionally plucky girlfriend — experience most of their terror and hairsbreadth escapes at the hands of their loving fellow Englishmen.

What really made the book interesting for me, though, was the way it neatly segued into a series of critiques of various utopias. Without seeming episodic, our hero manages to journey through all manner of visions for rebuilding the world, and makes it clear why each of them is doomed to failure.

But, being pressed for time, I'll save those observations for the comments thread. Anyone else here have some familiarity with this book, or the movie, or have a favorite 1950's "End of the World as We Know It" story?