John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (Doubleday, 1951; Ballantine, 1986)

Although widely considered to be a classic of the science-fiction genre, my experience with John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids is that it is more of an apocalyptic horror novel. The science-fiction aspects of the book (walking plants, a blinding comet), while catalysts for much of the action, are, in truth, mostly unimportant to the story. The bulk of Wyndham's novel concerns the aftermath of the blinding of the vast majority of a population. "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," and so on.

Our hero, Bill, is lying in a hospital bed, recovering from eye surgery (his eyes are bandaged), when what appears to be the celestial event of the century occurs. People are running about looking out the windows at this fabulous comet. Bill grumbles to himself that he is missing it and considers pulling off the bandages early, but resigns himself to his better judgment.

And better judgment it was, because the next morning, nearly everyone in the hospital is blind. Bill removes his bandages -- as there are no sighted doctors or nurses to do it for him -- and finds that he can see. Sometimes he wishes he couldn't, as when he watches a newly blind man deliberately lead himself and his fiancee off a fire escape to their deaths.

The story involves the rebuilding a society after a devastating event. I call it "apocalyptic" because it resembles a nuclear war, in that everything the people of the story know is destroyed, and it is up to them to reform their world from the ground up. That is the scariest thing I could imagine, but it is also hopeful as it gives them the chance to do it right this time. Along the way, Bill falls in love and has a child. And the years pass while the triffids slowly close in on the humans -- sometimes destroying, but also often being destroyed.

The title implies a climactic scene in which the triffids take over, but this never comes -- although its threat is ever-present. In fact, this is not an exciting book at all. There is little-to-no action to speak of, but in place of it are many ideas. Ideas about society, about people; an insightful look at differing personalities clashing with no law to prevent violence. Even at the end, Bill lets us know that the triffids are still closing in and are a constant threat, leaving us with unrelieved tension. Not an unhappy ending -- yet -- but not a happy one, either. More of a resigned feeling that this is the way the world is, and that Bill is learning to embrace it, because it is his life now.

In many ways, The Day of the Triffids reminds me of the quieter moments of The War of the Worlds. Though it wasn't what I expected, I'm glad I read it; I feel it educated me, I know it entertained me, and it made me think. What more can you ask?

[Craig Clarke]