We Are The Dead: L J Hurst's study of Day of the Triffids and Nineteen Eighty-Four

"We Are The Dead"

The Day of the Triffids and Nineteen Eighty-Four

by L. J. Hurst


Although it was his commercially most successful novel (or because of it), John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids has often been treated a horror story devoid of ideas rather than an SF novel full of ideas. This has meant that some major themes in it have been ignored, despite the fact that they are shared with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The main theme that is never discussed by critics of either book is, quite simply, permanent horror. Perhaps it is because people hate contemplating that possibility that they do not discuss it, but both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Day of the Triffids are about an eternity of irrecoverable pain. The only way of escaping it is not to have it start. Furthermore, the two authors are not religious. Their eternity of pain is on this physical earth.

The purpose of both novels is to account for the perpetual hurt and both titles are ironic references to their double treatment of time. The novels are about immediate suffering but they premise this going on forever. Winston Smith cannot know that the year is 1984; the day of the triffids will last till the end of the Earth.

If the world arrived at the state of Nineteen Eighty-Four it would never change back: any part of it could be represented as a boot stamping on a face forever. Nineteen Eighty-Four and Day of the Triffids place the cause of the catastrophe in their own time and give it totally different forms, but after their catastrophes everyone ever born must experience the same misery: its causes will never fade away, and the nature of the catastrophe means things could never improve. Anyone in the year 1984 or after it, like Winston Smith, Smith's lover Julia, friend Ampleforth, or any of the nameless victims would know they were living in a world of inescapable, unending misery. Similarly, anyone living, even on the triffid-free Isle of Wight to which the hero's party escapes at the end of Day of the Triffids, after the blindness, would be in the same state as their descendants. There can be no recovery, the disaster stops it. It is this dead stop, and the anguish with which it is presented, that distinguishes the two novels from others with which they are sometimes compared.

In Brave New World, for instance, the inhabitants do not question the social stratification that sends the epsilon semi-morons to die of radiation sickness because they are all bred to accept the status quo. Genetics means the people could not like it. Or compare Wyndham with George Stewart's reversion to nature, post-disaster, Earth Abides. Stewart observes his reversion to barbarism benignly. In the author's eyes the catastrophe does not negate the values of civilisation, he simply records its passing. There are regular references to cyclic events in nature and human life - only "Earth Abides". James Blish, at least, when he adopted Spenglerism gave the race millennia in which to cycle. Earth Abides is a cosy novel, every one in it feels all right, and it is that cosiness that distinguishes it from works such as Day of the Triffids.

The word "cosy" appears here because either it or synonyms of it have been used by Wyndham's critics to derogate his work. Here are three examples of that criticism, and others, which are not really true:

Brian Aldiss - "(Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes) were totally devoid of ideas but read smoothly, and thus reached a maximum audience, which enjoyed cosy disasters."

Christopher Priest - "Wyndham is the master of the middle-class catastrophe; his characters are of the bourgeoisie, and the books lament the collapse of law and order, the failure of communications, the looting of shopping precincts and the absence of the daily newspaper."

John Clute - "his protagonists and their women tend to behave with old fashioned decency and courage, rather as though they were involved in the Battle of Britain, a time imaginatively close to his and his market ...

"(he) effectively wrote for a specific English market at a specific point in time - the decade following the Second World War ... He will be remembered mainly for the brief moment in which he expressed English hopes, fears and complacency to a readership that recognised a kindred spirit. Yet during that period, in England and Australia at least, he was probably more read than any other SF author. To this day his books regularly appear on the school syllabuses in the UK, in part, perhaps because they are so 'safe'".

The critics feel the book is devoid of ideas, complacent and ideologically safe and undemanding. The text in question suggests at least three reasons for thinking otherwise.

Firstly, ideas. At one point a Professor of Sociology lectures the survivors on the pragmatic morality needed for the new, broken world. The body of his speech is given in chapter seven; Bill Masen and Josella Platon, the hero and heroine, discuss their changing standards and offer political interpretations of events regularly from the first chapter onwards. At least three social theories lie behind the founding of different colonies - the Christians wiped out by the plague; the feudal seigneuries established by the dictator Torrence; and the final Isle of Wight fortress on which Masen and Platon live out their lives and write their account of events. Clearly, ideas are discussed, and their consequences are worked out in the different camps. Wyndham also goes into an analysis of the triffid economy (see below). This is all explicitly done, but there are implicit levels as well, as will be seen further on.

Secondly, the concept of law and order, and the need for its maintenance: this just does not appear. The "decent" narrator actually goes around killing people and helping people to kill themselves. Suicide, attempted suicide and aiding a suicide were all offences when Day of the Triffids was published in 1951 (only aiding is now an offence), but Masen records it without comment.

Of the deaths seen by the narrator (i.e. those of whose cause we can be sure) Masen helps three people kill themselves (Doctor Soames, the landlord of the Alamein Arms, and the blind girl from his London party), he does not stop a young man and his (the young man's) wife from their flatblock, and he is also present at a mercy killing in the street. Although he see the bodies of others presumably killed by triffids, he sees only three people killed by them (two blind men in a shop front on his London patrol, and a flag-waver in the country). So, ignoring the deaths from uncertain cause, the count is:

  • death by triffids...: 3
  • death by humans.: 6
  • The devastation wrought by the triffids is not so immediate as the hero's failure to display what is normally thought of as bourgeois regard for the law. A new law is instigated by the new circumstances, and Day of the Triffids provides a reasonable, if popular and simplified, discussion of pragmatic ethics.

    Thirdly, the historic references in the text: there are none that could refer to the Battle of Britain (June- September 1940). The war references in the narrative (apart from the sociologist's reference to Hiroshima) are to the Allies' victory under Montgomery at El Alamein in October 1942. Montgomery's likeness is on the signboard of the Alamein Arms, and the title of chapter one, "The End Begins", echoes Churchill's speech of November 10th, 1942 - "This is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."; the irony being that Bill Masen's beginning is of a world stricken by disaster, whereas the battle of El Alamein was the turning point to Allied victory. Wyndham could have found an equally ironic chapter heading in Churchill's Battle of Britain speech, about so many owing so much to so few (ironic because after the blindness the few sighted do so little for the blind many apart from help them kill themselves), but Wyndham did not.

    These grounds alone mean that Day of the Triffids is much more complex, and richer in texture, than the critics have admitted. There is even more to it than this, however, and it shares some of those additional attributes, and a common background of some ideas, with Orwell's portrayal of the threat.

    This is the common background: Orwell said that he got the idea of the global split into three power block after the Allies' Teheran conference in 1944. (This was intelligent guesswork on Orwell's part, about the expansion of the eastern bloc, particularly, as the Teheran conference passed only Poland into the Soviet interest). In Day of the Triffids the background is the same: the Cold War and the isolation of the Soviet Union.

    According to Bill Masen (and Goldstein's analysis is similar in Orwell) the unspoken hostilities that then developed locked nations into a drive for agricultural, industrial and economic self-sufficiency, even while they all kept a War Economy. Wyndham extrapolates from this. Eastern biologists, possibly affected by the corruptions of Lysenkoism, made the experiments that lead to the teratogenesis of the triffids. The need, as Masen's narrative makes clear, was for expansion of food production: it was being done by increased yields, reclamation of cold zones, and new plant types. Yet the outcome of this research was the triffid, not a better fed world.

    Masen, in his longest chapter - "The Coming of the Triffids" - narrates how the nutritional, political and military needs of the world's states meant that all nations stole and used the triffids despite the side effects of being stung, blinded, killed and digested by amok plants. Economics and corporations became dependent on the flow of triffid oil. At the same time nationalist fears and hatreds and the strategic and tactical planning of the military meant that governments were putting up space weapons that could not be controlled in the final crisis. The triggering of the satellite by a chance meteor described in Wyndham's first pages wrecked the world. There could be no Marshall Aid as there was after 1945. It is never suggested that the Soviets were responsible for the blinding, or that the triffids were developed to be nasty.

    Both Orwell and Wyndham saw that it was not the Atomic Bomb that threatened the world necessarily. As the book within the book, "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism", reveals to Winston Smith, the power blocs threaten everything simply to maintain their integrity, and the means they use to maintain themselves make life hell. In Nineteen Eighty-Four it is deliberate; in Day of the Triffids it is a consequence. Whoever is was who wrote in Brian Ash's Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, that "unusual radiations have blinded the majority of humanity, reducing it to the prey of poisonous mobile plants which, paradoxically, had originally been farmed for human benefit" was wrong. There is no paradox: people become prey to the triffids as a necessary consequence of the world that originally farmed them. Bill Masen gives a clear description of how events came about and of the world economic order that lead to it. It is no good saying that the background is paradoxical. The politics and economics that govern the world are not rational. The two novels are about the logical consequences of irrationality.

    Against the analytic background of Day of the Triffids one has to consider the lack of plot and rambling storyline. The notion of "idea as hero" does not really make up for the lack of plot. In some ways the opposite is true of Nineteen Eighty-Four - how the world deteriorated to 1984 is unclear, and Winston Smith's memory is unbelievably sieve-like, but the novel is tightly plotted, and the turns of plot reasonably based on Orwell's scientific extrapolations. In Nineteen Eighty-Four these are two: developments in electronics (the telescreen) and in psychology (the Thought Police know Winston's thoughts, change his ability to perceive the world physically, and they may also have supplied some of his dreams with the messages and images that lead him to rebel). Of Wyndham's two extrapolations - in genetic engineering and space technology - we now seem to have them both.

    The background to both novels requires about the same period of political development - from the '50s to the year 1984 in Orwell's case, while the Wyndham is set no later (the calculation is that Masen's father walked as a single man through pre-war London and Masen is less than thirty years old when the meteors strike). Events have not falsified the warning they offer: not as to year, but as to developments and consequences. The power blocs exist in their bastard forms now, and the close relationship between destruction and national economy is obvious. The triffids are aware of the helplessness of the human blind and exploit it but the triffids are a product of the world in an arms race. The condition that leads to uncontrolled blindness also leads to the adoption of the triffid economy. Such a system is prompted equally by the opposing political forces, so that the governments of the world could be said to be finally identical, just as no one could distinguish between Ingsoc, Neo-Bolshevism, or Obliteration of the Self, the practices of the three states Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in the world of Winston Smith.

    The failure of an opposition to appear is a feature of both novels. Bill Masen who leads his group to sanctuary was employed as a triffid botanist by the Arctic and European Oil Company, while Coker, the former radical agitator, has failed in all his agitation. Orwell thought of calling his novel "The last man in Europe", but Winston Smith is not the last man - he is something less: weak and untrue to himself, actually enjoying working in the Ministry of Truth on the re-writing of history. Just as Orwell was correct to reject that title, so Wyndham's original title in the USA, "Revolt of the Triffids", has been rightly replaced. The triffids do not revolt, they revert to their normal condition. Bill Masen sees more people die by human hand than triffid sting: people are more deadly and less able to cooperate than triffids, and the triffids were themselves first grown for human use.

    Nineteen Eighty-Four is a complicated work that can be read in many ways. It can be read, as William Empson has shown, as an attack on religion, or as others have said, as similar to Gulliver's Travels in its unreal satire. Day of the Triffids can be read as a realistic account of one way to a holocaust but it could be read as an allegory of other weapons and material sources. It, too, is not simple in its conception. Both authors had seen that when horrors have arrived they have arrived in near-completeness. The Nazis were first encouraged by big business to limit the political Left; the Nazis then started to control industry; war when it came allowed a cover the exterminations; the extermination camps provided labour for industry, and for wealth to be stolen and re-cycled. Ultimately the war economy was going to be destroyed, weakened from the inside by the need for soldiers to guard the camps et cetera, making them unavailable to fight, but the destruction was an integral part of the process of:- big business encouraging Nazism, encouraging war, devaluing life, the destruction of Europe, the destruction of Nazism. One part reinforces the other. It has happened elsewhere but this was the example that both authors had seen at first hand.

    From their experience, Orwell and Wyndham wrote thought experiments in other possible worlds, and the possibility of an evil that broke the circle and ensured its continuity. Orwell said that he had written a parody of a centralised economy made worse by the political intentions of its intellectuals. Looking at "Prophecies of Fascism" in an essay published in 1940, Orwell found many in the previous forty years: but even in Gulliver's Travels some of its trends were obvious. As the world develops materially the possibility of its negation through that development increases. There will be no escape: the systems that come about do not allow it: no none could be triffid-free long enough to re-establish any level of technology: the party apparatus in 1984 would actually prevent research, so that everything would be wasted on munitions. Only the extent of the destruction, though, would have altered: national economics reliant on space weapons and triffids, or nuclear research and exploitation, and political hatreds and nationalism, or whatever poisons, can only go on so long before they negate themselves. The developed thing flips the world that developed it, allowed it to develop and relied on it. The research is consumed, and so too are they consumed who formerly were consumers.

    Nineteen Eighty-Four includes many more of such traits than Day of the Triffids, and as a traditional novel, is more successful than Wyndham's, but if one wanted a reasonable allegory of the destruction on which the world implicitly relies, Day of the Triffids would provide it. The technology in use has changed but not the underlying motives and uses. These books can be written off as obsolete: the warning they offer is still relevant: the misery potentially eternal.


    Bibliography: Fiction

    • Aldous Huxley Brave New World (1932)
    • George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
    • George Stewart Earth Abides (1950)
    • John Wyndham The Day of the Triffids (1951)

      Bibliography: Non-Fiction and Reference

    • Brian Aldiss Billion Year Spree (1973)
    • Brian Ash (editor) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1977)
    • John Clute "Wyndham, John" in Peter Nicholds (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979)
    • William Empson Milton's God (1965)
    • Christopher Priest "British Science Fiction" in Patrick Parrinder (ed.) Science Fiction: A Critical Guide

      This article first appeared in VECTOR The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

    Return to Home Page

    © L J Hurst 2013