If you thought The Walking Dead stole from 28 Days Later or vice versa, you haven’t heard the story of Bill Masen. Masen was temporarily blinded by a “triffid”, a recently discovered carnivorous plant that disables its prey with poison lashes. As he laid in the hospital the world watched an amazing meteor shower. The next day all of the watchers woke up permanently blinded by the green light emitted from the meteors. Some, like Masen, fortunately avoided the meteor shower and retained their sight.
As humans attempt to survive without their sense of sight, the triffids slowly take control of the world. With sight humans easily controlled and exploited the triffids. Without sight the scales are evened. The triffids are blind, but they’re naturally blind and so better adapted to live without sight. They are still not as intelligent as humans, but their ability to move and poison their prey allows them to slowly control most of Masen’s England over the novel’s 6 year time span. The triffids are like zombies in some respects. They are described as “indefatigable”, which is the zombie’s most important characteristic if you go by Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide. But they also have the ability to learn. Even before the apocalypse they were known to hide near areas that humans frequented in order to attack them. Masen observes what looks like inter-triffid communication during his time working with them. Post-apocalypse, the survivors see the triffids learn how to avoid attacks. Their ability to learn human patterns combined with humanity losing its most important sense makes the situation even more precarious than the zombie apocalypse.
Bill is advantaged by his sight, but also coveted by those who lack it. He mentions that he is “hiding from them even while I moved among them.” (pg 49) and worries that helping any number of the blind would put him in a “leader-cum-prisoner-role” (pg 56). It’s interesting that after society breaks down, those with advantages are even more conspicuous and sought after.
The Day of the Triffids is unique in the field of post-apocalyptic novels (that I’ve read) in that it tackles the question of loneliness. While searching from the group he was split from, Masen notes the crush of isolation on the human psyche:
Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative - the absence of company, and, of course, something temporary … That day I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed one as an atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly - that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do...
The idea of loneliness is always there, but rarely articulated, in post-apocalypse stories. On a subconscious level I submit that it is something that is somewhat desirable to the reader. It’s like the times you were a kid and envisioned all the fun you would have if you were locked in the mall for a night. The world is yours to explore. The pre-existing conditions that were placed on your life at birth are gone. Masen admits as much to himself over a drink (pg 46):
To deprive a gregarious creature of companionship is to maim it, to outrage its nature. The prisoner and the cenobite are aware that the herd exists beyond their exile; they are an aspect of it. But when the herd no longer exists, there is, for the herd creature, no longer entity. He is part of no whole, a freak without a place. If he cannot hold onto his reason, then he is lost indeed: most utterly and most fearfully lost, so that he becomes no more than the twitch in the limb of a corpse.
Perhaps it had needed that blow to drive it home. Now I came face to face with the fact that my existence simply had no focus any longer. My way of life, my plans, ambitions, every expectation I had had, they were all wiped out at a stroke, along with the conditions that had formed them. I suppose that had I had any relatives or close attachments to mourn I should have felt suicidally derelict at that moment. But what had seemed at times a rather empty existence turned out now to be lucky. My mother and father were dead,m y one attempt to marry had miscarried some years before, and there was no particular person dependent on me. And, curiously, what I found that I did feel - with a consciousness that it was against what I ought to be feeling - was release …
Secretly we want this challenge. That, I think, is why post-apocalyptic novels hold so much appeal. If we were in that situation, we would thrive instead of middling through the civilized world. What motivation we lack in real life would be forced upon us at the end of the world. This “world that [seems] so safe and certain” (pg 93) has dulled our sense of adventure, and only the greatest of shocks will awaken it. In short, we’re bored here.
It wasn’t just the brandy, for it persisted. I think it may have come from the sense of facing something quite fresh and new to me. All the old problems, the stale ones, both personal and general, had been solved by one mighty slash. Heaven alone knew as yet what others might arise - and it looked as though there would be plenty of them - but they would be new. I was emerging as my own master, and no longer a cog. It might well be a world full of horrors and dangers that I should have to face, but I could take my own steps to deal with it - I would no longer be shoved hither and thither by forces and interests that I neither understood nor cared about.
No, it wasn’t altogether the brandy, for even now, years afterward, I can still feel something of it - though possibly the brandy did oversimplify things a little just then.
Then there was, too, the little question of what to do next: how and where to start on this new life. But I did not let that worry me a lot for the present. I drank up and went out of the hotel to see what this strange world had to offer.
But I suspect most of us would beg to come running back to our safe lives very quickly after the apocalypse. Most of us don’t know - but would find out quite soon - how much of our daily lives we take for granted. In an advanced society we simply don’t know how much of the basics of life are brought to us. The market economy that had a part in making the West so wealthy is predicated on specialization. We have accountants, actors, bureaucrats, clerks, and sales people whose white collar jobs aren’t necessary in this new world. But even the manual laborers are specialized. Does the construction worker know how to grow food? Can the coal miner fire a gun? Maybe the owner of a small farm is self-sufficient, but as the farm grows the farmer will need more specialized help to manage the scale of his operation. Masen compares the two realities he has known (pg 46):
It is not easy to think oneself back to the outlook of those days. We have to be more self-reliant now. But then there was so much routine, things were so interlinked. Each one of us so steadily did his little part in the right place that it was easy to mistake habit and custom for the natural law - and all the more disturbing, therefore, when the routine was in any way upset.
Civilization has built up a baseline of services that simply won’t exist and infrastructure that will crumble in this new world. It is more so today, but even in Wyndham’s 1950 London it was certainly true. Fellow sighted survivor, Coker, fears that beyond the physical, humanity will lose the ability to think. As it reverts to having to toil for everything, it will no longer have leisure time to philosophize or develop new technology. As the triffids isolate different survivor groups behind hastily constructed fences on farms across the countryside or within ad hoc city walls, the national identity of Great Britain will break down, leading to a more tribalistic society, with the ideals of democracy and equality falling by the wayside.
When almost half a lifetime has been spent in one conception of order, reorientation is no five-minute business. Looking back at the shape of things then, the amount we did not know and did not care to know about our daily lives is not only astonishing but somehow a bit shocking. I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our life had become a complexity of specialists, all attending to their own jobs with more or less efficiency and expecting others to do the same. That made it incredible to me, therefore, that complete disorganization could have overtaken the hospital. Somebody somewhere, I was sure, must have it in hand - unfortunately it was a somebody who had forgotten all about Room 48.
People will have a hard time giving up what they lost. Holding onto the past though, is dangerous. False hope stops people from planning for the future in their new, tougher reality. It reminds me of The Road where “the man” has trouble forgetting his wife and the life he used to have. Eventually he had to let it go, pushing his wedding ring off a bridge to symbolically move on. In order to protect his son he had to forget his old way of life. Masen is able to move on quicker than most, but he still has some reservations. Seeing Josella in a dress, watching London decay, and driving past fields as they fall into disarray brings about short bouts of wistful longing. In general though, he’s able to acclimate to the end of the world (pg 201):
“Don’t you still feel sometimes that if you were to close your eyes for a bit you might open them again to find it all as it was, Bill? … I do.”
An apocalyptic world is awful. It’s even worse when compared to what the world used to be. It will take determination to survive. Dreaming of the past is exactly the type of activity that will sap a person’s will power (pg 95):
“Not often now,” I told her. “But I’ve had to see so much more of it than you have. All the same, sometimes - “
“Self-pity and a sense of high tragedy are going to build nothing at all. So we had better throw them out at once, for it is builders that we must become.”
People didn’t prepare because “it couldn’t happen here”, and when it did it was shocking (pg 93):
“You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realize how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.”
The shock is so great that many don’t believe the entirety of the situation. Throughout the novel there are characters convinced that the Americans are coming to save them. But it’s clear to the sober minded that this comet blinded the entire planet. There will be no deus ex machina in this story. Slowly the horror will fade and this will become the new normal. Masen realizes that life will continue, and that the strong can have a place in it if they wished (pg 135):
I began to feel the lightening of spirit that Coker was already showing. The sight of the open country gave one hope of a sort. It was true that the young green crops would never be harvested when they had ripened, nor the fruit from the trees gathered; that the countryside might never again look as trim and neat as it did that day, but for all that it would go on, after its own fashion. It was not, like the towns, sterile, stopped forever. It was a place one could work and tend, and still find a future. It made my existence of the previous week see like that of a rat living on crumbs and ferreting in garbage heaps. As I look out over the fields I felt my spirits expanding.
One of the harder things to realize is that some of the morality of the civilized world would not work in the new world. In World War Z Max Brooks writes of the “Redeker Plan” employed by South Africa. The plan sacrifices large portions of the population for a better probability of saving a smaller portion. Bill and Josella come across Michael Beadley’s group while an angry mob of the blind (lead by Coker) try to storm the gates of the university the group has settled in. They watch as Beadley politely but firmly turns them away. Discussing the morality of the strategy, they wonder what good Coker could even do (pg 84)
“If we face it squarely, there’s a simple choice,” I said. “Either we can set out to save what can be saved from the wreck - and that has to include ourselves - or we can devote ourselves to stretching the lives of these people a little longer. That is the most objective view I can take.
Bill and Josella - and even Coker - learn first hand that trying to save everyone results in ruin. Coker raids Beadley’s group for sighted people and attaches each one he captures to a group of blind people. Masen - exploited for his sight just as he feared - is able to set his group up in a house and help them find supplies. When faced with threats like triffids, a hostile group, or disease the blind are literally an anchor that stops him from defending them and himself.
“But I can see, too, that the more obviously humane course is also, probably, the road to suicide. Should we spend our time in prolonging misery when we believe that there is no chance of saving the people in the end? Would that be the best use to make of ourselves?”
Decent intentions seem to be the most dangerous things around just now.
A member of Beadley’s group, Dr. Dr E H Vorless, gives a long speech exemplifying the moral choices the survivors of the apocalypse have to make (pg 98):
“My friends,” he said, “I think I may claim to be the oldest among you. In nearly seventy years I have learned, and had to unlearn, many things - though not nearly so many as I could have wished. But if, in the course of a long study of man’s institutions, one thing has struck me more than their stubbornness, it is their variety.
“Well, indeed do the French say autres temps, autres moeurs. We must all see, if we pause to think, that one kind of community’s virtue may well be another kind of community’s crime; that what is frowned upon here may be considered laudable elsewhere; that customs condemned in one century are condoned in another. And we must also see that in each community and each period there is a widespread belief in the moral rightness of its own customs.
“Now, clearly, since many of these beliefs conflict, they cannot all be ‘right’ in an absolute sense. The most judgement one can pass on them - if one has to pass judgments at all - is to say that they have at some period been ‘right’ for those communities that hold them. It may be that they still are, but it frequently is found that they are not, and that the communities who continue to follow them blindly without heed to changed circumstances do so to their own disadvantage - perhaps to their ultimate destruction.”
The audience did not perceive where this introduction might be leading. It fidgeted. Most of it was accustomed, when it encountered this kind of thing, to turn the radio off at once. Now it felt trapped. The speaker decided to make himself clearer.
“Thus,” he continued, “you would not expect to find the same manners, customs, and forms in a penurious Indian village living on the edge of starvation as you would in, say, Mayfair. Similarly, the people in a warm country, where life is easy, are going to differ quite a deal from the people of an overcrowded, hard-working country as to the nature of the principle virtues. In other words, different environments set different standards.
“I point this out to you because the world we knew is gone - finished.
“The conditions which framed and taught us our standards have gone with it. Our needs are now different, and our aims must be different. If you want an example, I would point out to you that we have all spent the day induldging with perfectly easy consciences in what two days ago would have been housebreaking and theft. With the old pattern broken, we have now to find out what mode of life is best suited to the new. We have not simply to start building again; we have to start thinking again - which is much more difficult, and far more distasteful.
“Man remains physically adaptable to a remarkable degree. But it is the custom of each community to form the minds of its young in a mold, introducing a binding agent of prejudice. The result is a remarkably tough substance capable of withstanding successfully even the pressure of many innate tendencies and instincts. In this way it has been possible to produce a man who against all his basic sense of self preservation will voluntarily risk death for an ideal - but also in this way is produced the dolt who is sure of everything and knows what is ‘right’.
“In the time now ahead of us a great many of these prejudices we have been given will have to go, or be radically altered. We can accept and retain only one primary prejudice, and that is that the race is worth preserving. To that consideration all else will, for a time at least, be subordinate. We must look at all we do, with this question in mind: ‘Is this going to help our race survive - or will it hinder us?’ If it will help, we must do it, whether or not it conflicts with the ideas in which we were brought up. If not, we must avoid it, even though the omission may clash with our previous notions of duty and even of justice.
“It will not be easy; old prejudices die hard. The simple rely on a bolstering mass of maxim and precept; so do the timid; so do the mentally lazy - and so do all of us, more than we imagine. Now that the organization has gone, our ready reckoners for conduct within it no longer give the right answers. We must have the moral courage to think and to plan for ourselves.”
Some other notes and quotes:
Bill does not believe that the comet was solely to blame for blinding the world. He believes some weapon was triggered by the meteor shower. It is surprising that he is the only character that blames humanity for the fall. I would have expected the group lead by Miss Durant that broke off from Beadley’s group to be the ones that would have carried this post-apocalyptic trope. They were a more religious lot and so were horrified by Beadley’s polygamous society. Instead, only Masen seems to think this was anything more than an accident. I’m not sure if Wyndham meant for that to be a major theme, but Masen’s anti-militarization screed comes off as a conspiracy theory instead - and somewhat out of place for one of the more level-headed characters in the book.
Coker redeems himself after his ill-thought raid on Beadley’s group. In his past life, we learn, he was a master of rhetoric. I like his explanation of his methods (pg 134):
There’s a whole lot of people don’t seem to understand that you have to talk to a man in his own language before he’ll take you seriously. If you talk tough and quote Shelley they think you’re cute, like a performing monkey or something, but they don’t pay any attention to what you say. You have to talk the kind of lingo they’re accustomed to taking seriously. And it works the other way too. Half the political intelligentsia who talk to a working audience don’t get the value of their stuff across - not so much because they’re over their audience’s heads, as because half the chaps are listening to the voice and not to the words, so they knock a big discount off what they do hear because it’s all a bit fancy, and not like ordinary, normal talk. So I reckoned the thing to do was to make myself bilingual, and use the right one in the right place - and occasionally the wrong one in the wrong place, unexpectedly. Surprising how that jolts ‘em.
Josella notes that people will have to work together more in order to survive. I thought this part of the book conflicted with what she and Bill agreed was the best method of survival - namely, the idea that the welfare of many would have to be ignored for the few to survive (pg 104).
“All this” - she waved her hand around - “it’s done something to me. It’s like suddenly seeing everything differently. And one of the things I think I see is that those of us who get through are going to be much nearer to one another, more dependent on one another, more like - well, more like a tribe than we ever were before.”
But it does make some sense if you move past the initial culling of the population. People could afford to be more selfish and individualistic when there was a higher margin for survival. Now the surviving groups will have to work together for even a basic existence.
Josella notes that the totality of the cataclysm actually saved the survivors from a level of suffering. If there had been more people left with sight there might be more and more brutal intertribal fighting (pg 158).