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This is a personal tale. I am trying, perhaps failing, to recall my first reading of The Day of the Triffids . I was a Year 10 boy who sat, way back then, reading this book in a classroom. I devoured it (I remember) in a night or two at home. In that classroom, fans rotated overhead. The air was hot and thick, tropical. It was New Guinea – a long way from the Britain that is the novel's setting, but part of Britain's colonial past.
I loved the book – for its erasure of people and their nature-eradicating ways, and for the logic of that dismissal. Humans distrusted each other (as they did when I was 16 and reading: the Cold War was still happening), they greedily sought profit at almost any cost (as they did when I was 16 and still do), and they wanted to play God (true at 16, perhaps truer now). We engineered human solutions to problems we didn't really understand or hadn't the wit to fully comprehend, and those solutions came back to bite us. I liked that nature was eating people. I liked the invention that was the triffids. I was a cynical Year 10 boy.
And I was romantically attracted by the love story. Bill – sighted in a world otherwise totally blind – finding Josella. She too can see, and in this I thought (as a 16 year old) that Wyndham was wise. I didn't think I could fall for someone who was so different from me. Bill, who has miraculously escaped falling blind along with everyone else, rescues Josella from a blind man who has managed to tie her to himself and is getting her to scavenge for food (worse perhaps awaits). Bill is overjoyed to discover someone else who can see.
It seemed right that Bill should fall for someone who shares his rare gift, sight. In Year 10 I may have found the notion of Bill falling for a blind girl a bit too much. [There are aspects of my Year 10 self I am pleased to have left behind.]
I was a romantic, seeking always some metaphorical bay and a rowboat to fall out of. And in this novel finding it, sharing humanity's fears as it peers into shadows looking for a triffid that may lurk there, waiting to unleash its poisonous sting.
This review also covers the sequel to The Day of the Triffids. written by Simon Clark.
A critical essay on the novel (and a comparison with the film Fern Gully )
The TASK: With reference to Barry’s chapter ‘Ecocriticism’, in his 2002 edition ofBeginning Theory,select anytwochildren’s texts which draw on ecocentric concepts. How do these texts position child readers in regard to notions of environmental decay, human responsibility and imagined futures?
John Wyndham’s TheDay of the Triffids (1951) and the Twentieth Century Fox film Fern Gully (1992) are both texts ‘where different visions of nature and varying images of science, each with their cultural and political implications, are played out…’(Heise, 1997). Both represent ‘an engagement with environmental issues [or ‘ecocentric concepts’] in literature’ (ibid). But they are also very different texts; these differences are both obvious (the first is a novel for young and not-so-young adults. the second a film for children and young adults; the novel represents global catastrophe, the film a more localised one) and perhaps not so obvious (they are at least a generation of perception apart, and so present different perspectives on humanity’s relations to and with nature). In the end, however, it is these very differences that make their basically similar stances - predicated on environmental decay for which humans are ultimately responsible - of interest to the ecocritic.
TheDay of The Triffids (1951) represents speculative fiction, what Wyndham himself called a ‘logical fantasy' [emphasis mine] (Morris, 2003, p. xiii). It features a world plunged precipitously into environmental (and socio-economic) disaster, firstly by a ‘comet’ shower that blinds nearly all of humanity and, next, by the subsequent threat posed by genetically engineered plants called triffids. The threat is ironic - and very much a part of Wyndham’s notion that it is humans who are responsible for the disaster - because those Triffids ‘had originally been farmed for human benefit’ (Hurst, 2006). The fantasy is ‘logical’ because it is reasonable; Wyndham's reasoning again firmly suggests that humans are responsible. One, because the novel’s first person narrator, Bill Masen, a biologist who worked with triffids in the pre-catastrophe, Cold War society, suggests to his wife Josella that the comet shower was not natural but a ‘dormant menace [satellite] touring around, waiting for someone, or something, to set [it] off (p. 205)’. Two, because humans in fact probably set off that dormant menace, because of ‘a mistake, or perhaps an accident… such as actually encountering a shower of comet debris…'(ibid). And, finally, according to Masen (and thus, since Masen is Wyndham's focusing character, according to Wyndham), because ‘mankind’ has, through the creation of an organism able to threaten the resurrection of mankind following that 'comet/satellite' apocalypse, denied itself an easier pathway back to civilisation. In the end, Wyndham creates a world where not only has irreversible harm been done to ‘such physical infrastructures as cities and transport systems but to the precious intangibles that a democratic government is supposed to protect; the loyalty of lovers, the upbringing of children, the rule of law, the all-importance of free speech and privacy and good manners’ (Morris, 2003, p. xiii). This is Wyndham's dystopia.
Fern Gully (1992) introduces a threat to nature that is focused on a much smaller geographical area, if not a ‘smaller threat’ in its consequences for that environment, almost total destruction. Due to the unwitting actions of humans, particularly a naive and environmentally unaware young man named Zac, a dark force named Hexxus is unleashed and threatens a pristine wilderness named Fern Gully, such as, according to ecocritics, ‘no longer exists on the planet’ (Barry, 2002, p. 257). It is clear that if Hexxus is not stopped from destroying Fern Gully then the consequences will be global; what does stop Hexxus is a magic based not only in western fairy tales (and in fact in natural and animist beliefs from around the world) but also on a scientific understanding of biodiversity and the principles of science, as will become clear when we consider the perception of nature that is mounted in this film.
A critical assumption made by ecocritics is that nature is real (Barry, 2002, p. 252, Heise, 1997, Arnold, 1999, Levin, 1999). Certainly, both Wyndham and Fern Gully ’s (1992) makers perceive nature not as a construct of society and language, but as real, with its own character, and characteristics. Nature in both texts is not simply a metaphor, nor ‘mere setting’ (Barry, 2002, p. 259).
In TheDay of the Triffids (1951), nature and our human view of it owns a modernist ambiguity that relates perhaps to Wyndham’s post-Second-World-War, nuclear-holocaust-threatened, cynical, cold-war-informed construct of the world, a view that Barry, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, labels ‘[European] environmental pessimism’ (2002, p. 263). In the novel, nature, with people and their science almost completely removed, is almost preternaturally ‘quiet’ (pp. 5 and 17) but also [un]’tamed and utopian’ - the novel's narrator - writing after the apocalypse - argues that nature was different when humanity dominated the planet. He says ‘an earth ordered and cultivated almost all over [by people] sounds dull’ (p. 21). It is the removal of man via his own recklessness that unleashes nature so that we witness what Bill Masen’s anthropocentric eyes see: post catastrophe natural reclamation of the cityscape by the intrusion of roots into cracks and crevices weakened by rain and via the lack of human maintenance. This produces a ‘landscape’ that is both unsettlingly dangerous for human scavengers like Masen, while at the same time being liberated from artificial, cultural (man-made) constraint (pp. 191 – 193, 201 - 202). It also produces a landscape, a whole world, where nature is ‘having its revenge, rejoicing that [humans are] finished. [and is] free to go its own way’ (p. 202). It might be argued that Wyndham’s ambiguous feelings about nature and humanity’s relations with it are a result of 'the abstractions that divorce us [at least the ‘us’ that was the human view of the world in the late 1940s and early 1950s] from the natural world’ (McNamee, 1997).
In Fern Gully (1992) nature is, at least metaphorically, a construct where ‘the scientific description of nature… [is] one of the cornerstones’ (Heise, 1997). Such a construct reflects, of course, its makers more contemporary (than Wyndham's) perceptions. Many of Fern Gully's magical and anthropomorphic characters (fairies or sprites who guard the forest and Fern Gully, animals with the powers of speech) allude to current ecocentric concepts that are part of ‘ecology, ecosystem, ecological balance, energy, resources…’ (ibid). Thus: the chief sage of the fairies, Magi, speaks of ‘worlds within worlds’, of the ‘web of life’ and ‘the balance between the forces of destruction and creation’; her student Crysta hints at biodiversity when she asks of a magically diminished Zac, ‘how can you live without trees [which are both the source of while protecting the quality of]. air… water…life?’, and a large goanna, in attempting to justify to Zac why he needs to eat him, sings of his ‘basic inclination… a very primal need.’ Nature is visceral, earthy, pure.
Fern Gully ’s (1993) view of nature is, as commented on earlier, improbably pristine, a view that sees nature in its wilderness form as a place where we (represented by Zac) enter in order to ‘find’ ourselves, to refresh our souls and spirits; this is Henry David Thoreau’s perspective (a view that ecocritics often hark to – Barry, 2002, p. 248, Levin, 1999). Fern Gully is unpopulated by humans (in fact, humans are considered by the fairies to be mythological) and the film makers colour this nature with luminescent, clean, fresh blues and greens, and dot those clean fresh masses of colour with preternatural reds, golds and oranges, exotic wildflowers and orchids; a veritable Garden of Eden. In the end, ‘nature’ is rescuable (and rescued), an optimistic point of view and outcome perhaps related to Barry’s assertion that large land masses like America and Australia ‘tend by their very surrounding presence to produce the deep-down conviction that the earth will survive’ (p. 263). Interestingly, the film is set in Australia in a place modelled on an imagined pre-European-invasion Tweed Valley, near Mount Warning.
The primary question at the heart of both texts is: just how did humans create the environmental issue of nature’s decay, whether global and nature altering as is the ‘pessimistic’ view of TheDay of the Triffids (1951) or localised, potentially life altering, but curable, as is the optimistic view of the makers of Fern Gully (1993)? Wyndham’s triffids and the comet shower, which robs most of humanity of its eyesight, are products of human ingenuity, yet Wyndham makes it clear that people have not exercised real intelligence. People act, as they indeed do in Fern Gully (1993), irresponsibly. As Arnold (1999) notes: ‘with technological freedom comes responsibility. Western culture must increase its awareness of the consequences of its beliefs and actions and must recognize that any action toward the natural world is eventually an action toward oneself and toward one's culture.’ Both the triffids and the comets are products of Cold-War tensions, of a time when ‘95 per cent of [humanity was] wanting to live in peace and the other 5 per cent considering its chances if it should risk starting something. It was chiefly because no one’s chances looked too good that the lull continued’ (p. 21). This is a world where the cultural and political scene is fraught with mistrust and tension, where triffids are genetically engineered in the former Soviet Union (p. 23), stolen for use by Western interests because oil derived from triffids is better than any other oil, vegetable or animal (ibid), and a world on the verge of annihilation – probably via some weapon unleashed via satellite. (p.22). As the novel makes clear, at least inferentially, fate and chance intervene to create a concatenation of circumstances that produce catastrophe: a chance accident (perhaps) unleashes the human weapon that ‘emits radiations that our eyes cannot stand – something that would burn out… the optic nerve’ (p. 205) so that everyone becomes blind; this gives the natural competitive edge to a genetically engineered carnivorous and mobile plant adapted to lack of vision, the triffid. ‘The text thereby becomes a place where different visions of nature and varying images of science, each with their cultural and political implications, are played out, rather than simply a site of resistance against science and its claims to truth, or a construct in which science is called upon merely to confirm the inherent beauty of nature’ (Heise 1997).
Wyndham definitely plays out his vision of nature vs. science (in fact, as earlier noted, he presents several versions of nature and of nature trammelled by science). The historian Edmund Morris refers to the ‘seriousness with which scientists accept Wyndham’s basic premise that too much tinkering with the fundamental processes of nature can result in nature striking back…’ and notes that although Wyndham ‘was not a scientist, and did not pretend to be, the precision of his language in describing the botanical structure of the triffid is impressive’ (p. xi). Critic L.J. Hurst also clearly praises Wyndham for his rational approach to his novel’s issues: ‘Clearly, ideas [sociological, economic and so on] are discussed, and their consequences are worked out in the different camps. Wyndham also goes into an analysis of the triffid economy. This is all explicitly done, but there are implicit levels as well…’ (2006). In fact, a thorough reading of the novel realizes that Wyndham, despite not being a scientist or sociologist or economist, has produced a blueprint for what Jared Diamond calls, in his analysis of a number of historic societal collapses such as occurred with Easter Island, the Maya and Anasazi (among others), ‘unintentional ecological suicide’ (2005, p. 6). Diamond identifies five factors that may contribute to environmental collapse; these are environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, a change in the situation with friendly trade partners and society’s responses to environmental problems (ibid, p. 11). Wyndham’s novel deals explicitly with three of them; environmental damage wrought through the creation of large scale triffid plantations, hostile international relations that create the satellite menace, and the response to environmental concerns (one of indifference to the threat to life that triffids pose in tropical – read ‘underdeveloped’ – nations, one of greed for the potential disaster that monoculture is, with the triffids). It might also be argued that a failure by friendly trade partners, the US, (a failure in international relations, perhaps in technology as it may have been their satellite which misfired) is also a topic of the novel’s perspective on our ‘ecological suicide’.
Arguably, unintentional ecological suicide is also ultimately at the heart of Fern Gully (1993). Humans are responsible for creating the technology – things like the ‘leveler’, used for mass felling of trees - that Hexxus, the dark natural force of destruction, uses in the battle with the pristine wilderness of Fern Gully; humans are those who unwittingly release this dark force, most probably because, as Hexxus sings, ‘greedy human beings lend a helping hand with the abuse and destruction…’. Fern Gully (1993) has a much more obvious message than TheDay of the Triffids (1951) regarding human responsibility; they have constructed their film – and its view of nature - as an ‘intellectual work [intended] as a direct intervention in current social, political, and economic debates surrounding environmental pollution and preservation’ (Heise, 1997). Their intention is didactic.
Fern Gully’ s (1993) makers are much more intent than was John Wyndham in TheDay of the Triffids (1951) on influencing an audience about our need to see nature not merely as an instrument and setting for human drama but as a character and entity in its own right, one where ‘we need to pay careful attention to how we experience the natural world, as well as our literary representations of it, in order to devote a greater consideration to the many ways in which we invariably shape the world we inhabit, for good and ill’ (Levin, 1999). Yet both texts show us the perils of shaping the world with no cognizance of (nor heed to) those ecological concepts that have only in the last three decades really begun to impact on our understanding of human responsibility to life beyond that of the merely human. Wyndham’s novel, as indicated in the introduction, is a construction of his time and place, a generation of perception apart from Fern Gully ’s (1993) more obvious ecological concern. The wonder is that the novel still deals so well and scientifically with the notion of the consequences of human responsibility for this world and its nature.
Arnold, J. (Oct. 1999), ‘Forum on Literatures of the Environment - "Letter"’ PMLA 114.5: 1089-1090. http://www.asle.umnarchive/intro/pmla/arnoldviewed 26/04/2006.
Barry, P. 2002, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory ,