Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Paperback - 272 pages new edition (1 July, 1999) Penguin Books; ISBN: 0140285539
Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Night Of The Triffids by Simon Clark
It is a brave and bold thing to attempt a sequel to another author's work. In recent years there have been a number of examples - Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships, his follow up to the H.G. Wells classic The Time Machine was hailed as a great success and first editions now cost collectors around £300.00! (A first of the original is currently available via an online dealer for £32,000.00!!). K.W. Jeter has written (to date) three novels set in Philip K. Dick's Blade Runner world and now we have a sequel to John Wyndham's 1951 British classic The Day of the Triffids. The imaginatively titled The Night of the Triffids by Simon Clark has just been released in hardcover by Hodder and Stoughton - so how does it measure up?
A word first about the Wyndham novel which, in this, the fiftieth year since its original publication, receives a smart reissue from Penguin Modern Classics. To my shame I had never got round to reading this but did so in preparation for my review of this new sequel and what a great read it is - a true genre classic.
At the start of The Day of the Triffids biologist Bill Masen awakes in his hospital bed with his head swathed in bandages. He has spent some days recovering from a sting inflicted upon him by a triffid - a genetically engineered plant species that has been exploited by mankind for its by-products. Temporarily blinded, Masen wakes expecting the arrival of the nurses who will be removing his bandages, but no-one arrives. Only the previous night the ward had been bustling with activity as the staff and sighted patients all strained to catch a glimpse of a meteor shower which lit up the sky but now all is silence and Masen tentatively removes his bandages and ventures out of his room. There he discovers a world irrevocably changed and the through the narrative of the novel we follow him as he attempts to make sense of - and survive - his surroundings.
The Day of the Triffids reads very much as a period piece nowadays. It it "terribly British" in an old-fashioned way and the Cold War setting certainly dates it. The Triffids themselves - huge walking (intelligent?) plants - are the stuff of pulp SF - but for all this, The Day of the Triffids is a terrific read. Perhaps not prophetic, it was certainly well ahead of its time and touches upon any number of SF tropes still being explored by writers today - one only has to look at Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio or Paul McCauley's The Secret of Life to see that the themes of bio-engineering and evolution are very much in vogue.
Clark's sequel I found very disappointing. Time may well prove me wrong - after all, reviews are simply one person's opinion, but a classic this is not. Clark picks up the story thirty years after Wyndham left off. Masen's son David is our protagonist. Brought up in the Isle of Wight community his father worked so hard to establish he works as a pilot hopping over to the mainland for supplies. With obvious symbolic echoes, the opening of Night mirrors the Wyndham novel with the world mysteriously plunged into darkness. Masen junior takes a high altitude flight to investigate this new phenomenon and thus begins a journey that eventually takes him to the United States where a battle between rival factions - one ruthlessly intent on using slave labor and eugenics to further mankind's cause, the other a breakaway group with no less dubious morals of its own - ensues. There is too, of course, the common enemy of the Triffids still at large across the planet, but Clark favours gun-battles and action sequences galore over an in-depth exploration of how the opportunist plant continues to menace mankind.
From the outset Clark tries very hard to imitate Wyndham's linguistic idioms but whereas Wyndham was speaking in the voice of the day, one natural to him, Clark's peppering of his narrative with words like "lamentable" and "damnable" merely sounds long-winded, artificial and rather leaden. You know these words are dropped in only for effect and so you can't help but notice them. Language evolves much quicker than most other things - you only have to think of how some words used in the seventies sound plain silly today . Each new generation tends to develop it's own way of speaking. New words and phrases find their way into the language with remarkable rapidity and I do think Clark could have been braver in exploring this. Instead he leans too heavily on the reproducing the essence of Wyndham's language and I'm not at all convinced he succeeds.
David Masen isn't half as interesting as his father. In the Wyndham book, Bill Masen has to question everything he knows in order to cope with the cataclysm that has befallen the world. What is intrinsically interesting about his account is his struggle to adapt the moral code he has lived by for so long into one that will help him survive. This continual readjustment of his attitudes makes us question our own. David has no such dilemmas going on and subsequently it seem almost no volition at all. Instead he is carried on the wind and on the sea towards his "adventures" and thus seems passive and not a little dull.
It is hard to accept the New York depicted by Clark (is setting a large part of this novel in the US a ploy to sell more books over there or am getting cynical now?). He gives us a thriving and bustling city - one where cars still run on gasoline and (the lucky) people still imbibe cappuccinos in pavement cafes. Is this the same world decimated by the global disaster Wyndham wrote of? In his book, characters were convinced help would come from overseas - it never did and this really let us know how bad things truly were. Clark suggest that David Masen's contact with the American's is one of the first but the notion feels spurious and I just didn't buy it.
I expected better from a writer with Clark talent and reputation but for me The Night of the Triffids feel rather more like a contractual obligation that a dynamic and vibrant continuation of a tale that has caught the imagination of readers for fifty years. My recommendation - if you've not done it already - is to read the Wyndham. If you want to bother with the sequel, wait until it comes out in paperback.