What if…? It’s a great writing prompt for both budding and experienced writers. Stephen King, for instance, wrote many of his bestselling novels with exactly that question as a starting point. All you need to do is to come up with a premise, and then you’ll just see what happens from there. The oddest what-if scenario I ever came across was in John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids: “What if all people are suddenly struck blind, and the world is taken over by giant, carnivorous plants?” Really? Yes. Read on if you want to know what on Earth could happen next!
The Day of the Triffids is about Bill Masen, a biologist specialising in triffids: giant, moving plants which are cultivated globally because of their secretion of a valuable oil. The downside of these plants, however, is that they are aware of, hunt, and kill people. One night, when Bill is hospitalised because he was stung in his eyes by one of these plants, requiring surgery, a dazzling meteor shower takes place, which is watched by people all over the world. The downside of this, however, is that witnesses of this phenomenon all become blind the very next day. Bill is one of the few lucky ones who keep their sight. But what happens next?
What-if scenarios lend themselves very well to science fiction. It allows the author to explore certain ideas without being bound by the limitations we face in the real world. John Wyndham does exactly this in The Day of the Triffids: he speculates how we would respond to a world that’s been changed overnight. This isn’t a simple novel filled to the brim with horrific humans-versus-plants (and vice versa), survival-of-the-fittest action; instead it delves into philosophical notions such as identity and responsibility. In a society so drastically different from the day before, who’s in charge? What happens to the blind people? Should a new society be formed, or should the survivors just decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives?
While reading this book, I was constantly reminded of something Stephen Fry wrote in one of his autobiographies (if I remember it correctly): that all literature is, in some way or another, a representation of the battle between Society and Nature. The Day of the Triffids seems to fit perfectly in this theory, because it’s the cities that deteriorate the fastest once disaster has struck. London becomes inhabitable within days, because the city overflows with dead bodies, plants feasting on them, and gangs patrolling the area. Bill, his girlfriend Josella, and some others they meet soon turn to the countryside, where there are fewer people, and therefore also fewer triffids. It soon turns out that giant cities are a thing of the past, and that people should learn to become self-sufficient and live in small colonies again. It seems that people have to revert to a way of living that is now considered outdated – but it’s their only way of survival. Society as we know it is a thing of the past, and Nature has prevailed. It’s time to start all over.
The plot of The Day of the Triffids may be deceptively simple or even far-fetched, but there are so many things that we can learn from this book. I was shocked when I realised how fragile our society actually is, and how hard it is to start a completely new life. We are currently dealing with a pandemic, and we’ve had to make some adjustments to our lives over the past year. Still, our lives are somewhat the same, and I assume we can go back to the way we were in the not-too-distant future. However, we have no idea what we’d do if we were faced with a true apocalypse, if life as we knew it would really be over for good. There’s no way anyone could prepare for it, either. And that’s definitely more terrifying than a bunch of plants coming your way, isn’t it?
In conclusion, a what-if scenario can be a great way to start writing a novel: there’s an idea, and you just have to keep writing and see where the story will take you. The Day of the Triffids feels like exactly this: John Wyndham started with a simple story of blind people and carnivorous plants, but it evolved into an ingeniously worked out exploration of human nature. But isn’t all great literature supposed to do just that?
What did you think of this book? What would be another great idea for a post-apocalyptic book? Let me know in the comments! Also, make sure to follow me for more book musings!