Aug 1, 2016

Science Fiction Classics: The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

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John Wyndham Parker Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969), or John Wyndham, as he was more widely known, was an English science fiction writer. He's famous for his "cosy catastrophes," disaster stories that take place in the English countryside. Three of his works are on my Science Fiction Classics list, so I decided to lump these two together. The Chrysalids, which some consider his finest work, is the third one, but I left that for later.

Triffids is a fun read, but the plot feels quite familiar. That's not surprising, because almost every zombie flick ever made owes it a lot. 28 Days Later has whole scenes that feel like they were taken almost straight from the book, and the opening of The Walking Dead probably has its roots here, also. The premise is interesting: what if almost everyone in the world went blind overnight? How long would it take for society to degenerate into savagery? Add to that the flesh-eating and walking plants, the triffids, and you have a recipe for disaster with all the fixings.

Cuckoos was a bit of a let-down for me, because I enjoyed Triffids so much. It explores another disturbing idea: everyone in the small village of Midwich loses a day and all the women find themselves mysteriously pregnant afterwards. They then give birth to strange, alien children, and creepiness ensues. For me, the execution felt a bit boring, and I didn't like the point-of-view shifts between the first person narrator and an omniscient view. There are also a lot of long conversations about morality and society and evolution, which slowed up the pace. The plot gets going when the children start to grow up, but it's still a bit slow. It was okay, but I probably wouldn't read it again. 

With both books, you can see the phantom of the Cold War in the distance: the triffids were genetically engineered by the Russians, and we also find out that the Russians had Cuckoos of their own, whom they kept alive in case the children would be an advantage in the arms race.

I think these books are considered classics more because of the ideas they explore than any literary merits. Wyndham's characters are a bit on the thin side and his style is clear and readable, but not very distinctive. That's the problem with the older science fiction classics: they tend to feel a bit cliché, because the idea has been recycled so many times since the classic was written. But you have to remember which was the original.   

All of the books mentioned above were published in the 1950s, so you have to take that into account while reading them. The attitudes towards women feel quite outdated. It didn't really bother me that much with Triffids, but considering the subject matter of The Midwich Cuckoos, I felt the full horror of what was done to the women went unexplored. I'd be curious to see what a woman writer would do with the same subject matter; it would be a very different book. While the "mansplaining" and how the women act can feel cringeworthy to the modern reader, I think Wyndham's attitudes might have been considered outlandish in the 50s, even progressive: women studying engineering, working outside the home, thinking for themselves; it's all there. It's like Wyndham's frustrated with how women won't help themselves and prefer to stay at home and have babies and mooch off their husbands. You have to remember Wyndham was born in 1903, so he was in his fifties when he wrote these books. I think that if he had been born later, all of this would have been handled differently.

So, I recommend Triffids for its fun B-movie high jinks, but maybe skip Cuckoos if you're not passionate about understanding the history of science fiction.

Science Fiction Classics read: 42/193


  1. I saw the 1950's movie version of Triffids as a child. Years later I read about what made it so scary: It respected the subject matter enough to not build in any comic relief anywhere in the movie. This was very unusual for the time.

    In contrast, I read on Ebert's site that the now-playing-in-America movie Weiner Dog satires the audience's need for a mid-movie escape by having a scene where the dog is merely running at length while mindless happy music plays.

    As for Wyndham, I thought as a kid that Triffids was his best, making everything else a disappointment I think you can avoid the Lichen one; the Kraken one has stayed with me, some scenes are indelible, but it was really one long thought experiment.

    I believe it was Algis Budries who reviewed The Crysalids and pointed out the writing flaw, but I won't reveal his thoughts, just point out that there is a collection of his fine reviews out there. In school some girls liked to extend an arm and in a funny voice say, "Deviant!" (from the book)

    1. I've never seen the movie, but I love 50s horror flicks. I'll have to hunt it down . . . I might give The Kraken Wakes a shot, because everything's better with krakens (or dragons. Dragons are cool). And kudos to Wyndham for making killer plants scary, not an easy thing to do. The triffid looks kind of cute in that cover picture, but in the book they just worked. Might be harder to pull off in a movie, though?

  2. That cover picture is silly. Not like the book I read over here, and certainly not like the movie. As I dimly recall, the movie ones were leafy and indistinct, the legs splayed, not like a four-legged animal, standing barely less high than the whip part. I can still hear the sudden whish-lash! Like zombies, attracted slowly and inexorably to sound. It's hard to re-establish civilization without sound.

    The Kraken one can't be filmed, not as is, because the invaders are living in the sea. The "what if—?" is what if aliens came not by land but by sea? I keep thinking of it because of global warming—no one believes the Krakens are changing the climate, not after a well-meaning scientist foolishly says the sea level has risen two inches—non-scientists can't grasp what that means.

    As for women in sf, I like how when a writer is an artist he can be outside of his culture. The young adult novels of Robert Heinlein sometimes show a boy having his nose rubbed in the fact that women of his 1950's era have to pretend to be less equal. The implication is that this is not right.

    I hope it's ok that I replied here, rather than send an e-mail: I'm hoping your readers would still look at something this old. Because I do!

  3. Yeah, commenting on older posts is fine, because they do get new readers occasionally, and it's nice to hear what others thoughts of the book. New perspectives are always welcome :)


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