As melancholy as he looks, when depicted on the cover of the 2008 Penguin edition of The Day of the Triffids, Bill Masen is one of the most brazen characters I have seen portrayed in writing. John Wyndham’s best known novel certainly deserves the recognition that is has achieved, and the characterisation is one of its major strengths.
We follow Bill Masen through the streets of London and beyond in the aftermath of a global disaster where a glowing meteor-filled sky rendered all but a few people blind. Bill, naturally, is one of these people. He meets estranged chick-lit novelist Josella and together they seek out refuge. All the while, Triffids, tripodal walking plants with fatal stings on top of thick stems round up the blinded humans and mercilessly slaughter them. One thing I might add is the odd choice of title: The Day of the Triffids. There is of course a significant day, but that causes mass blindness. The triffids themselves eke into the novel gradually before becoming an outright plague. Most of the characters, the obviously intuitive Bill Masen excluded, seem to have no idea about how dangerous the triffids are. It leads to a trust relationship being formed between reader and protagonist. Bill Masen is apparently the most knowledgeable man in the country and everything he says becomes almost gospel to the reader, particularly when it is disregarded by his fellow characters.
The Day of the Triffids is a classic cozy catastrophe, where the protagonists rarely find themselves in any real danger, either through luck, strength or intelligence – they always seem to pull through uninjured. Regardless, the novel cannot be called anything but classic. It is one of the most renowned science fiction stories that has ever been written. Wyndham, despite not putting his protagonists in direct peril, certainly works hard to build an effective and absorbing atmosphere. The situation seems oddly believable and the solutions to problems equally so. It’s obvious a lot of thought has been put into this vision of catastrophe. Unfortunately its civility also holds it back. A cozy catastrophe is so much less than a tragic incident. There is no real loss, pain or grief saving the brutal murder of Josella’s entire family, which she seems to be over within a day or two. Where the atmosphere, build up and situation seem so realistic, the characters seem almost overly headstrong considering it. The blind are often depicted as suicidal, but the sighted ones are hardened to the entire affair. While Bill is inherently affected by this tragedy, he rarely gives himself time for reflection, there is always a plan in his head and survival is a key part of that plan. He’s an inspiring character and cares when he needs to care, but it is quickly established that for the blinded masses, there is only so much a man can do.
Wyndham also is inexplicably anti-American. There is an attitude among some of the characters that there will be Americans coming to save the day – published, as this was, ten years after The Second World War. However these characters are usually and immediately rebutted. There is an overbearing sense of British ‘pluck,’ but I think it almost goes too far. The triffids are creepy if a little comical but I feel a little more fear wouldn’t hurt.
It’s a book everyone should read, yes, but in twenty years or so I think it’ll be past its prime. Bill Masen is a fascinating character and certainly a ‘leader,’ yet catastrophe fiction now often takes a far more bleak view on life and I doubt Bill would fit so nicely in it.