While on Tenerife in the last week of February I got my holiday reading mojo back. Meaning reading around a book a day on non-sightseeing days. I know it may not be much for some of you, but normally I’m not a fast reader and in the last two years I seem to have slowed down even more.
Fittingly the day when I read this book was the day when a hotel in nearby Costa Adeje was quarantined due to coronavirus. We were staying at a wind farm near El Medano, so out of the immediate impact. But given also the Sahara sandstorm that paralyzed airports in the Canaries two days earlier it was the right setting for an apocalyptic book.
Our narrator, Bill, wakes on a Wednesday in a hospital that sounds like it’s Sunday. Bill has to rely on his hearing because his eyes are bandaged over due to a work accident. Without his sight and with uncanny silence around him Bill starts to be haunted by childhood fears and terrors. Eventually, he decides to face them and remove the bandages, only to discover the situation is worse than expected. Everyone is blind.
Bill deduces that this was caused by the previous night’s events. The Earth went through debris from a comet resulting in spectacular light effects on the night sky around the globe. He missed that because of his accident, so his sight was spared. Walking through the ensuing chaos to a pub in dire need of a stiff drink Bill tells us about himself and his work and about the triffids.
Triffids are plants, unknown previously, but now spread throughout the globe. Their oil became pivotal for the economy, so they are being broadly farmed. They can also uproot themselves and walk. Triffids grow 7 feet tall and are equipped with a venomous sting they can lash with, poison and kill people (not for protective reasons, more for nutrition). To keep them in check their stings are being cut out annually and in farms instead, they are chained and fenced. One of Bill’s coworkers thinks that the triffids can also communicate through clattering of their branches. But all in all, they seem to be a bit uncoordinated in their movements, and with their lashing stings under control, they don’t look like much of a threat. They are plants in the end.
That is until everyone goes blind and all social conventions go to pieces. Bill thanks to his work with the triffids is well aware of the dangers even if others won’t initially appreciate them. While going through London he meets and saves Joselle, a fellow seeing person and author of scandalous books. Together they start planning their survival, as clearly no help is coming.
The book describes their odyssey with all the ups and downs, good and bad people and tough decisions they have to make. What sustains them is the typically British slightly sarcastic and distanced sense of humor.
It comes across as a light read, somewhat similar in tone to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy if less abstract. But at the same time, it touches on a number of topics that are still relevant today: people’s drive for self-destruction, impact on the environment, overpopulation and food shortages, ever-present nuclear threat, and also our vulnerability. Once we lose sight we become helpless, adapting to that change takes us too long.
Also, the specialization permeating our societies, making us all dependent on each other (even as we think more and more that every man is an island). Each of us possessing knowledge only fractional in terms of what’s needed for our survival. If we know agriculture, we lack medicine, or knowledge of manufacturing industries to produce the tools we need. On the other hand, we adapt like no other animal and we cooperate, even if initially it doesn’t come easily.
It definitely was an interesting read and not as gloomy as today’s apocalyptic fiction tends to be. Maybe it was the spirit of post-war optimism if people could survive WWII they can survive anything. We’re not so sure of that anymore. Given that it was published in 191, almost 70 years ago, it stood well the test of time.
Here you can find some more reviews and other takes on that book: