After a bit of a blogging break, I have the great honour of returning to blogging with a guest post by another fabulous author, Tim Major. The tour is for his new release Snakeskins, an epic science fiction thriller.
The Long Shadow of the Triffids
I can’t overstate how important John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids is to me. When I read it, perhaps around the age of ten, I swear I could feel a rearrangement of my brain patterns. It wasn’t just the content of the book that mattered; it was the timing, the sense of serendipity. I’d been a rabid Doctor Who fan for a couple of years, my love for the programme neatly coinciding with it being cancelled. Without access to the show itself, I was left with the Target novelisations of televised TV shows, which I adored, and which turned me from an avid reader into a full-on bibliophile. Perhaps concerned at my literary cul-de-sac, my parents passed me two additional books: H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.
Wells’ novel is wonderful. It’s serious and pulpy and pretentious and daft all at the same time. Along with The Invisible Man and The Time Machine, Wells covered the bases of a huge range of what would become accepted SF territory.
But The Day of the Triffids is another matter entirely.
When I read it, the first shock was the shock. I was completed unnerved by the initial hospital scenes in which Bill Masen observes people blinded after witnessing the meteor shower of the previous night. A snapshot image of a blind patient standing in broad daylight, demanding that the curtains be opened, haunted me for months. I’d been prepared for an alien invasion, but the beginning of the book was, in fact, my first real introduction to adult horror fiction.
And though I’d expected alien invasion, it was more complicated than that. Far from a marauding army, the Triffids – huge, carnivorous plants – have arrived on Earth years before the novel begins and are safely contained. Our hero, Bill Masen, is already an expert on the subject. It’s only the effects of meteor shower, and the debilitation of the majority of the human population, that allows the Triffids to escape and thrive.
This was, and remains, a big deal to me. I guess I wouldn’t have spotted it at the time, but this idea of a latent threat, and a seismic event that happened some time ago, allowing the reader only to witness the aftermath, was intoxicating. More and more, my favourite SF would follow this same pattern: benign new phenomena gradually being perceived as a threat. (For example, soon after reading the Wyndham book, Russell T Davies’ Dark Season was televised on Children’s BBC – another touchstone to which I’m indebted today.)
There are other aspects of the book I find appealing. Brian Aldiss was referring explicitly to Wyndham’s books when he coined the term ‘cosy catastrophes’, but to me this seems hardly an insult. The vision of a post-apocalypse as largely safe, but with societal rules reset and simplified, was tremendously appealing to a child trying to figure out the workings of the world, and still appeals to me as an adult, whenever I find myself mired in chores or bureaucracy.
After I turned thirty, when I finally decided to stop talking of writing as an ambition and making it an active hobby, the influence of John Wyndham was there from the start. My first short story was about an unexplained blinding light – one that persisted indefinitely, so that people were forced to remain in their homes, blindfolded. I was happy to riff on The Day of the Triffids, and it turned out that in doing so I immediately diverged from it, finding my way towards my own specific concerns.
I’m still happy to acknowledge the debt. My novella, Blighters, follows the Triffids pattern precisely: giant alien slugs landed on Earth many years ago, docile and exuding calm that affects anybody in the vicinity, fought over for their strange properties.
My new novel, Snakeskins, isn’t about alien lifeforms. It’s about a group of British people who have the strange ability to rejuvenate every seven years, and in doing so they shed a Snakeskin, a precise clone of themselves. Complicating matters further, this Snakeskin is sentient, and may live for minutes, hours or days. The idea of sheddings and Snakeskins had been rolling around in my head for years – but when it came to devising a cause of this strange effect, I turned immediately to John Wyndham. So, the cause of the phenomenon was a meteor shower, affecting the population of a small village, and the effects have been passed down through the generations. And, like Wyndham, I placed this instigating event long before the novel – a century ago.
I’m already in John Wyndham’s debt to a huge degree, but I know I won’t stop riffing on his concepts any time soon. I’m busy finishing up with a novel about Midwich Cuckoos-esque creepy children – at least, that was the starting point, but as always the plot has diverged massively from its inspiration. The SF genre is built upon appropriation, building and expanding upon earlier ideas. I hope that John Wyndham would approve.