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The post-apocalyptic book The Day of the Triffids features not one but (at least) three seemingly separate disasters:

  • triffids themselves, obviously
  • blinding lights in the sky
  • plague

I somehow hoped that the exact cause of the disasters and if they were related to each other anyhow would be revealed in the book. It wasn't unfortunately. Although I must admit that it made the story much more realistic, since the survivors would hardly have access to any information easily in a broken world, I was a little disappointed.

There were several occurrences in the book that hinted a possible connection between them:

  • triffids started attacking the people almost immediately after the lights blinded them, as if they interpreted that as an order to attack.
  • the plague was strangely killing the blind more easily than the seeing ones, as if it was another effect of the exposure.
  • the main character assumed that the lights were a part of an orbital weapon accidentally activated by the meteor shower. He also suspects the plague not to be a natural one, implying that it was also spread by an orbital weapon.

I assume that these questions were deliberately left open, however I wonder if John Wyndham ever explained them in an interview or elsewhere? I limit my question only to the book, not any of the screen interpretations.

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

The story is partially an allegory about unchecked scientific advances particularly in the mysterious military/industrial complex that was so powerful in the world (both western and in the USSR) following World War II.

The triffids themseleves were a product of advanced breeding techniques (today we might say genetic engineering, but those techniques were not available at the time) with the objective of providing cheap fuel oil at the expense of introducing a very dangerous plant into the environment.

As you say, the main protagonist Bill Mason wonders whether there was really a meteor shower at all and whether the blinding lights and the plague were a result of a weapon gone wrong, but nothing is specifically confirmed in the novel.

I think it is clear that the events are not an orchestrated attack, and more of a result of the blinding of most of the population of the planet. The triffids are intelligent and become aware that they are not being tended and break out of their farms and attack humans because they are naturally aggressive and lots of blind humans and animals give them plenty of food. The plague appears to be connected to the blindness, but that might simply be a result of the victims not being able to avoid affected people or contaminated food and water.

I know of no specific interview where Wyndham confirms these suppositions, however many of his novels are about similar themes of the impact of new technology on mankind, eg. The Chrysalids about nuclear war, and Trouble With Lichen about an anti-aging drug (and his best novel in my opinion)

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Great mention that the "meteorite shower" might have been a weapon. But Triffids intelligent? I thought they were acting on instinct. – Wikis Apr 14 '12 at 20:50
@Wikis. Bill Mason starts out thinking that it is just instinct, but the experiences he has when he is living in the house with Susan's friends and trying to keep triffids out of the property, he starts to believe that they are intelligent (at least to a point - after all I am saying 'intelligent for a plant') – iandotkelly Apr 14 '12 at 20:56
Thanks, good response. Of course, "intelligent for a plant" is any IQ above zero... :) – Wikis Apr 14 '12 at 21:06

I know of no explanation by Wyndham, but my impression was that the other disasters were entirely "mundane" within the context of that world, in that they were natural consequences of almost the entire population becoming blind.

The triffids were always aggressive towards humans. The mass blindness allowed for their escape from captivity and rampant breeding.

As to the plague, when society breaks down, diseases that could previously be easily controlled could easily become highly deadly without the infrastructure to treat them. (Cholera, for example, is rare and almost invariably survivable in first world countries but a major source of death in the less developed world.) It could simply be that the blind are more susceptible because it is harder for them to identify and stay away from those who are infected.

No clear explanation for the blinding lights is ever offered in the book. As a major theme of book is the illusion of control and fragility of technological society, I suspect Wyndham may have intended them to be inexplicable.

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