John Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids” (1951) – I’ve heard this called the grand-daddy of post-apocalyptic fiction. On the one hand, this sounds wrong — I feel like there are earlier examples, like “The War of the Worlds” — but on the other hand feels right in a genre relevance sense. The apocalypse, unlike most, is a two-parter. First, a species of carnivorous plant called the triffids appear. This isn’t much of a problem at first, because people can control them, despite their deadly poisonous stingers and increasingly apparent ability to communicate with one another. Then one day, a mysterious shower of comets — or something that look like comets — blind the vast majority of people on Earth (one wonders if Jose Saramago read this one).
Biologist Bill is one of the lucky ones with sight- he was in the hospital with a triffid sting to the eyes and hence couldn’t see the comet shower. By the time he’s able to get up and out of the hospital, civilization is already collapsing. Wyndham effectively describes the pathos of roving gangs of blind people attempting to loot to survive, the sighted either lording it over the blind as kings, trying and failing to help them, or trying to secede from the rest of the species.
If “Day of the Triffids” created post-apocalyptic conventions, it did a very good job, as it all colors within the lines: Bill rescues a sighted girl and they promptly fall in love; they entertain but reject various humanitarian theories of how to deal with the crisis as doomed, through no fault of themselves, of course, they’re still the good guys; they meet up with a group of like-minded survivors led by someone making philosophical/sociological points that all lead to “free love;” Bill and Josella get separated and Bill undertakes all kinds of adventures getting her back.
It’s all well done. The triffids are genuinely creepy, even if a lot of surviving in the early parts of the book is more about avoiding disease and hunger than avoiding them. The anti-humanitarian lessons are contrived but not forced, in a literary sense. The characters are well-realized, especially for midcentury science fiction that doesn’t make a display of literary qualities. It’s worth reading both from a history-of-genre perspective and on its own merits. ****’