The main hero wakes up in the hospital after being out for some time and finds himself in the midst of apocalypse. He crawls out of the building and sees hoards of unseeing people wondering around the streets, moaning and hungry. Oh yeah, there are creatures that eat people and rely on sound to hunt them! No, I am not retelling you the first episode of The Walking Dead, but rather the plot of a classic science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids written some sixty years earlier.
This is the first book of its era that really freaked me out. Books like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Orwell’s 1984, for example, certainly left in me some tinge of trembling before a possible bleak future, but both still felt mostly fictitious. The Day of the Triffids sent me on a panic attack, like Holy crap this stuff can actually HAPPEN!! And I don’t mean I expect walking plants to suddenly sprout up and start eating us left and right. Instead the novel made me think how fast and easy an advanced civilization like ours can crumble into nothingness over night.
It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here”- that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms.
Yeah, people don’t think about things like that usually. What if tomorrow we lost all electricity? What if a deadly contagion infected our water? What if somebody, somewhere sat down on the big red button by accident? If you start thinking about stuff like that daily, it’s going to be enough to drive you crazy… Or at least get you your own show on TLC. The point is, we will never know the exact time and date when things will finally decide to fall apart, and maybe it’s for the best.
But let’s say something catastrophic happens and tomorrow never comes. What next? In The Day of the Triffids small groups of people who miraculously avoid the consequences of the apocalypse band together to build new societies. Unfortunately all of them have different ideas about the means of getting there. I’ve counted a total of four approaches taken by the survivors, ranging from completely liberal to totalitarian. The first group has plans to rebuild population rapidly by natural means – in other words by having lots of babies! The plan is for every man to take on three wives and make them pop out juniors at regular intervals, while he works in the field. This group is willing to abandon previously established code of morals and regulations to face apocalypse with practicality. I decided to call these folks “false morality” group. Seriously, are they going to set up baby factories now?
The people that are appalled by such ideas break away to form their own community – that of high Christian morals. I christen them a group of “false security”, because how can they expect to live in a brand new world while still being attached to the old ways? It’s like trying to build a house out of sand and hoping for a dry weather – it just doesn’t work. The Walking Dead was actually exploring this theme this season, trying to rationalize some drastic decisions characters had to make to better their micro-society.
There are also people suffering from super-denial. The third group are those of “false hope”. They believe that if they can just carry on a little longer, taking care just of basic needs to survive, they will eventually be rescued by somebody. Surely, they think, Americans wouldn’t let something like that happen to their nation, and are already sending their troops all over the world to aid the unfortunate! Good luck waiting for that. But these people at least treat other survivors with respect they deserve, unlike the group I like to call “douchebags”. The forth and last community that is described in the book consists of neo-feudalists, whose aim it is to exploit the disabled and live off their labour. Did I mention they also spend majority of their resources on military? Yep, those people.
Finally there is a character that makes real sense. In a passionate rhetoric he announces:
This is a pause—just a heaven-sent pause—while we get over the first shock and start to collect ourselves, but it’s no more than a pause. Later we’ll have to plow; still later we’ll have to learn how to make plowshares; later than that we’ll have to learn how to smelt the iron to make the shares. What we are on now is a road that will take us back and back and back until we can—if we can—make good all that we wear out. Not until then shall we be able to stop ourselves on the trail that’s leading down to savagery.
It is his speech that has the most impact on me. My god, what if tomorrow the world comes to an end and all the doctors are going to be wiped out of existence – are we going to forget the art of medicine? What if all the engineers will follow in footsteps of dinosaurs – are we not to build another marvel of architecture? What if the last farmer will be killed by a falling brick – who here knows how to grow enough food to sustain the surviving population? The problem is, this world is divided into highly specialized professionals. There those who build, and those who heal, and those who grow, but there are no jacks of all trades. If you drop off an average city dweller in the middle of nowhere, how long is he going to live? Is his fancy business degree going to feed him then? What if the Incas and the Egyptians knew the methods of cutting and lifting stones we have simply forgotten and would think us crazy for attributing their intelligence to some alien intervention? This is scary stuff. Do I sound paranoid yet?
But then there is also a positive outlook on the apocalypse – an opportunity to start fresh. At one point the protagonist looks back on his previous life and recalls “only the muddle, the frustration, the unaimed drive, the all-pervading clangor of empty vessels”, which seems like a heavy baggage most would like to leave behind. Apocalypse sure is a complicated thing.
The Day of the Triffids is an alternate title on my 2014 TBR Challenge list, but I have also read it for a Vintage Sci-Fi Month, hosted by Redhead at The Little Red Reviewer. There is still half a January left for you to join in on the fun, so check out her website, grab some Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov and just enjoy some good old classic sci-fi.