Hi. This is about a deceptively stuffy British novel, The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham. I really like postwar British science fiction. There’s something richly strange and dissociative about the juxtaposition of pure fantasy and Britannic reasonableness; I suppose being civilized in the face of abject horror would be an inevitable literary coping mechanism of the 1950s.
The horror in The Day of the Triffids is, of course, the titular Triffid, a tall, mobile plant that carries a deadly sting. Before you balk at the notion of a plant being a legitimate sci-fi baddie, consider the vegetable kingdom: we often forget that plants, like ourselves, live linear lives. Trees are born, become saplings, creepily grow, mature, and then die standing. They just do it in a much longer and much less mobile time frame than we do; they are so immobile and quiet, in fact, that they rarely remind us they’re alive at all.
On some level, this thundering silence is eerie; lulled into complacency, we ignore most plants completely, even if we claim to love them. And what’s more frightening than something you always considered to be reliably benign–something, to boot, that cloaks the planet–wrapping a slowly tightening branch around your neck? Hence the Triffid: scary as hell, a plant waiting in the wings to destroy us all.
When the entire human race is rendered blind by an unexplained cosmic event, then largely wiped out by an ensuing plague, these lumbering plants, once cultivated, multiply in droves. Where there is a sickly human groping through the darkness, there stands a Triffid, lashing its poisonous whip and then slowly–like a Venus flytrap–consuming the corpses.
All that said, The Day of the Triffids is less about triffids than it is a straight morning-after-the-end-of-the-world tale. Our hero bats off the carnivorous plants, but that struggle is largely secondary to raiding abandoned grocery stores, stockpiling grain, learning how to farm, and rescuing the sick. We see him join militarized groups, mourn old England, and siphon gasoline.
Yet despite all this civility, no aspect of the cataclysm is ever really explained, and there’s no moral judgement on the extinction of the race: it’s just something senseless and inexplicable, natural as an Ice Age. Sure, we made the triffids, but it’s not a cautionary tale. Because maybe we didn’t. Wyndham doesn’t press the point: the moral, rather, seems to be that history on a grand scale is indifferent to the triumphs and apparent stability of individual nations, or great cities–eventually it all goes to seed, and we must adapt or be destroyed. It’s only when our hero has built a farm, stood his ground, that he realizes the triffids might be unbeatable; he toils constantly, but they quietly reproduce, begin crowding his fences like lemmings, their slow tenacity and vegetable hive mind a menacing advantage.
The psychedelic philosopher Terrence McKenna spoke of the “vegetable mind” of the planet, an ancient and emergent intelligence that encompasses the entire ecosystem of global plant life. In his appraisal, connecting with this mind is a gnostic experience, one which lends spiritual dimension to human life–which, in fact, may be the original spiritual experience. Wyndham’s vision clearly predates the psychedelic project by several decades; although it clearly respects the existence and potential profundity of non-human intelligence, for him, the notion of plant mind is patently alien.
Still, he’s a radical thinker in many ways. The novel proposes an alternative morality for a post-apocalyptic society, namely in the form of polygamy for population growth. And the final conclusion of The Day of the Triffids seems to be that life and intelligence manifest in different ways, and humanity, despite its grandeur, has no fundamental right to exist. We are owed no primacy on this Earth, save the position we earn from relentless struggle, then decorate, as an afterthought, with myths and ideology.
Which, incidentally, is one thing plants don’t do.