Friday, 1 June 2012

The Chrysalids and Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham: a review

The Chrysalids is a golden oldie from the 1950s and one of my favourite books, I’m afraid if you’re looking for an unbiased view it might be best to look elsewhere.  That said I’ll try to step back and be objective rather than simply type, ‘it’s chuffing brilliant, why haven’t you read it?’ over and over again.  It’s very concisely written and well put together, the kind of book you could read in an afternoon.

Written in the 1950s, atomic energy and warfare casts a long shadow over the book, even though the apocalypse is kept something of a mystery for most of the book, referred to as ‘the Tribulation’ and seen as God ordained as a punishment for man’s wickedness.  Later it is revealed, albeit by means of show rather than tell with Wyndham making references to patches where the ground is covered by acres of black glass of the variety that is certainly a popular image of one of the effects of a nuclear explosion, that the culprit of the devastation is almost certainly a nuclear war.

The novel manages to reflect both the hopes and fears that have been foisted onto nuclear energy, that it will both elevate humanity to great heights but also cast us down into great depths.  The book is the first one of this series of reviews that touches on what seems so familiar about the fantastic elements of post apocalypse fiction, the idea that whatever causes the apocalypse also seriously mutates human genetics, creating strange, warped humans and animals whether in body, mind or both.  There is an extent that I can only suppose that pictures of the effects of the explosions at Nagasaki and Hiroshima on new born babies were in circulation and this informed the shape of the survivors of Wyndham’s Tribulation.  It ties too, in with the 1950s atomic obsession, wherein radiation could be the cause of everything from giant lizards, giant women to people who shoot beams out of their eyes.

With this in place we stumble onto the other aspect of the Chrysalids: paranoia.  The residents of Waknuk (in the remains of Canada if my geography serves), are obsessed with the true shape and with mutation in general, rooting it out, destroying it wherever they can, policing their gene pools, their livestock and crops in order to keep the strains pure and prevent pollution.  This closed-mindedness spreads to animals who have been selectively bred as well; a team of ‘great horses’ are viewed by suspicion by the protagonist’s father who makes it a long time ambition to have them destroyed despite assurances that they are safe (to reflect how little the people in the novel appreciate the idea of biodiversity, it is revealed that the self-same character ordered a batch of kittens to be destroyed as well, because they were born without tails; it only coming to light later on that Manx cats had existed in the time before the Tribulation).  Adding to this is the mantra the church uses to instil the idea of the ‘proper form’ into the people.  Whilst Wyndham doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it, it’s hard not to feel that there’s a strong sense of the kind of indoctrination and emphasis that must have been common to the 1950s with regards to Communism or homosexuality.  It makes the society that the people of Waknuk live in seem very oppressive and insular.

This also reminds me of the Warhammer setting’s mutant hunters and the Empire/Imperium’s own preoccupation with the “true form”.  There almost seems to be a clear link between Wyndham’s novel and the doctrines and catechism surrounding the human form and the way the Games Workshop deals with mutation in its products.

With regards to the plot, it revolves around a small group of young people who possess psychic abilities, and for a time exist in the plain sight, unnoticed in their difference by the rest of the people in the area.  The narrator struggles with the difference that he has inside him, trying to square it with the doctrine that his father (the kitten killer, incidentally) is so determined to uphold.  Inevitably things go downhill once they hit puberty and the secret leaks out, forcing most of them to flee, into the Fringes, areas where there’s still a great deal of mutation to contend with.

The upshot of the novel seems to be that humanity is on the way out, sooner or later attempts to maintain the old image will fall apart and the old iteration of the human race will be at an end, replaced with a different number of human races.

In contrast Day of the Triffids is set during the apocalypse and is a much murkier affair; the details of the cause of humanity’s downfall are still a mystery even though they happen much more closely to the events of the book.  The question of whether the cause of the blindness, the green flashes, is meteors or a form of orbiting weaponry, or something else entirely, is never resolved but in truth this scarcely detracts from the story (though it does suggest a plot hole), the action centres on the protagonist, Bill to such a great extent that the bigger picture is largely irrelevant to the story and only imposes itself at the very end of the novel when we start to see the way that humanity is starting to organise itself and attempt to rebuild.

The story follows Bill, a biochemist who specialises in triffids, as he explores and attempts to survive the brave new world he’s been thrust into.  He is our protagonist, but attracts to himself figures that are in many ways more interesting than himself, Josella an archetypical good girl who wrote a racy book to earn money before the novel’s events and who rather regrets it, and Coker, a rather more radical figure who first appears when he abducts a number of sighted people in an effort to attempt a more socialist approach to species survival.  Ultimately this is a doomed experiment that ends in disaster when plague comes.  Perhaps one of the most interesting and horrifying aspects of Triffids is seeing how humanity has to discard so many of its old ideas as the reality of the situation becomes apparent and begin to develop new ones, even if none of the new ways seem that revolutionary to the modern reader.  In many respects Bill is a rather dull figure, he does practical things and can be seen as a leader but in comparison to the other characters he seems rather drab and uninteresting.  This may have been intentional, in an effort to make him more of an everyman or it may be a consequence of Wyndham’s style of writing.

A friend of mine, Stephen Cowley (from Stormy Port Games), observed that Triffids is very much a zombie story, which rings true.  My wife, who hijacks the blog occasionally as Emilia Etherheart (her sky pirate, steampunk persona hence ‘hijack’), made the point that Wyndham’s opening, of the hospitalised man emerging to discover a devastated world crops up time and again in zombie and disaster films and comics to the extent that it’s become a cliché.  Again this rings true, but with Wyndham’s novel there’s the question of which group are the zombies?  In many respects the triffids fill the role, relentlessly pursuing the poor struggling humans but by the same token those same people, reduced to shuffling hordes by their unnatural blindness are driven fear and their lower urges, particularly at the start of the novel, and must also qualify as that most noxious breed of undead as civilisation is forgotten and they descend into confusion, panic and violence. 

The triffids themselves are the most curious part of the novel; Wyndham evidently thought about them a lot, working out how to make them strange and threatening but not altogether too powerful.  They have an obvious disadvantage in Britain in that they are only capable of a peculiar, three legged walk and have a diet not suited to temperate regions of the world.  They are nonetheless somewhat cypher like, serving as both the chief threat to humanity, disease and starvation aside, and a sort of maguffin that simply seems to exist to drive the plot.  Their motives are never explained, nor are their true origins.  They could be invading aliens or, as Bill asserts, a weird strain of plant that’s been developed in the USSR (personally I’d tie the ideas together and link them to the Tunguska event of 1908 but that’s the writer in me talking, not the reviewer), we’re simply never told in the same way that we’re never told how they escape the nurseries and plantations they’ve been grown on (this last is particularly vexing in some respects because there’s a specific mention of triffids being tied to metal stakes but the free triffids don’t seem to be dragging stakes behind them.  The other problem of course is how do the triffids know that humans will be blind and vulnerable, how do they know to attack; it’s something that the suggestion that the plants might have a hive like intelligence almost but doesn’t quite answer.

Day of the Triffids is a more adult; less hopeful book than the Chrysalids, one where humanity has been beaten and now faces a long slog back to the top of the food chain.  If the crisis had been caused by a nuclear war then it could almost be a prequel to the Chrysalids but it clearly isn’t.  Whilst there is hope for the young people as they are either whisked off to Sealand or determined to make their own way there, the end of Triffids offers only the option of holding the line and trying to find a way to destroy the aberrant plants.

An interesting aspect of both these novels is that for the time Wyndham is quite progressive in terms of sexual equality.  In The Chrysalids for instance the women seem a lot more practical than our protagonist and Petra, our hero’s younger sister is a more powerful telepath than any of the others, capable of contacting somebody on the other side of the world; whilst in Day of the Triffids we see Susan, a young girl rescued by Bill, blossom into a highly practical young woman, the antithesis of a rather supine form of feminity that Coker complains so bitterly about at an earlier point in the novel.  It is a rather sharp contrast to the expectations levelled on women to be simple brood mares, by the group that Bill and Josella discover at the university where the blind women would be reduced to little more than incubators for the next generation.  Given the period he was writing in, this sentiment seems both subversive and invigorating.

All in all these novels lived up to my expectations and provoked questions for me about Wyndham’s role in shaping the clichés and tropes associated with Post-apocalyptic fiction, simply because his novels have pre-dated any of the other books I’ve reviewed so far.