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Botanicult Fiction: The Day of the Triffids

August 17, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens.

Many people encountered science fiction for the first time in high school when assigned John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids to read. The novel is considered a classic of apocalyptic fiction. Triffids are tall (fictional) plants that have the annoying habit of walking around and stinging people with a long, whip-like appendage. Triffid venom isn’t necessarily fatal, but in large doses it can be. Through the experiences of protagonist Bill Mason and those with whom he travels, we see the collapse of civilization in England following two apparently separate disasters: the rise of the Triffids themselves and the effects of millions being blinded suddenly by (unrelated?) lights in the sky.

Wyndham doesn’t explain where the Triffids came from. They may have been invasive aliens, or they may have been deliberately bred. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Triffids produce highly valuable oil. Mason, a biologist, suspects they were bred in the Soviet Union for that oil. On their own, Triffids are for the most part manageable. However, menacing things other than Triffids are afoot (pardon the pun). Mysterious green lights streak across the sky, blinding everyone unfortunate enough to watch. These two events lead to a breakdown of social order, as millions of blinded people become helpless against the onslaught of the Triffids.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some other entries in our Botanicult Fiction series, such as the film The Thing from Another World, also date from the Cold War era of the 1950s. This was a time of great tension and fear; nothing feeds fear like the fall of the accepted order of things. People are supposed to be in control of plants; most plants don’t fight back if pruned. Like other fictional monsters, the Triffids overturned assumptions about what was and what wasn’t supposed to be happening. The novel doesn’t end with the fight against the Triffids, however. Wyndham uses his twin crises of mass blindness and hoards of wandering deadly plants as triggers for conflict and drama among the human survivors. Taking advantage of the disasters, ruthless people contrive to use the crises to form a totalitarian government and enslave helpless victims. Although the Cold War ended more than 30 years ago, some themes, it seems, are eternal.

Triffids DAG Christies Cover
The dust jacket cover of a first edition of John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids from a sale at Christie’s. First editions of this pioneering novel are now worth thousands of dollars.

Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation

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