The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I first read this novel when I was about fifteen, after being gripped by the brilliant BBC television adaptation of it some years before. And now, in the light of horror author Simon Clark recently writing The Night of the Triffids, I thought I’d give the original another whirl before I tackle the sequel. As a kid, this novel was as an exciting “monster story”; now, through the eyes of an adult, I see it as an ultra-realistic commentary on the collapse of mankind.

You might think “realistic” is the wrong word to use to describe a book about walking plants, but to be honest, the triffids themselves do not really play a very big role. The story concerns Bill Mason, a triffid farmer, who finds himself in hospital with bandages over his eyes as a result of a triffid sting. In his misfortune (or so he thinks) he misses the cosmic event of the century – the night sky is aglow with masses of comet debris, and the whole world is watching it in awe. The next morning, however, ninety-nine percent of the world’s population wake up sightless. This is the new world that Bill and a handful of others are faced with – a world of mass helplessness leading to starvation, to death, and ultimately to the unstoppable rise of the triffids, thriving on the demise of mankind.

If your introduction to the triffids has been that mediocre 60s B-movie, I urge you to forget about it and try this novel. It’s not a trashy sci-fi yarn; it’s a very insightful tale about mankind facing the end of the world – the mistakes we would make and the hopes we would have. Rightly regarded as a classic.

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

In the near-future society in which this novel is set, houses have been fire-proofed. Guy Montag, the protagonist of the story is employed as a Firemen. You might wonder what need there is for a Fireman in a world were buildings can’t burn. Notice the capital “F.” The Firemen in this story don’t put out fires; they start them. And 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. Books are outlawed. In fact, anything that promotes deep thought in any way is forbidden.

We all feel, to one extent or another, the tendency to put up mental barriers against harsh truths of life. In Fahrenheit 451, it’s not the people who make this choice to seek happiness in ignorance; it’s the government enforcing it as a way of life. The medium of television is popular, as it is the most immediate means of filling the population to the brim with mindless soap opera and high octane news. Everyone’s busy doing nothing and thinking nothing.

Guy Montag, who has taken pleasure in burning many a secret library in his career, takes the risk of stealing a book and sneaking it home. So begins a passion for learning and a painful ascent out of the soulless existence that everyone thinks is normal life. It’s not long before he’s a fugitive on the run from the law.

I first read Fahrenheit 451 about fifteen years ago, and what strikes me most on this second read is how much closer the real world has come to the world portrayed in this story. On an asthetic level, the novel tells of people devoting entire walls of their living-room to television screens; home cinema, anyone? More worryingly, though, have you ever given serious thought to the quality of content in television today? We have soap operas rehashing the same old tired extremes. Toss in a few marriage break-ups, murders, gay relationships, maybe even a sex change operation to keep the viewers glued. We sit and watch this nonsense like it’s a reflection of real life, failing to realise that all it amounts to is a room full of script-writers trying to find new ways to tickle our emotions. Let’s not forget our chat shows. I used to enjoy the occasional debate, but more and more all I see is “I’m the father of your sister’s baby” or some other ridiculous theme. Then we have our reality TV shows, the majority of which traffik in misery. Okay, I’m ranting; you can see I have a problem with the way TV broadcasting is done. But let’s face it, how many of us come home from work in the evening, switch on the box and watch a load of drivel? What amazes me is that Fahrenheit 451 was first published fifty years ago, when TV was new and largely unaffordable, and yet Bradbury’s grasp of the medium’s potential for manipulation is striking.

This is an important novel that causes you to look inside yourself and examine what makes you tick.

On Writing by Stephen King

If I were in the business of giving aspiring writers advice (says he who is still an aspiring writer himself), and if I were only allowed to say 5 words, they would be these: “Read Stephen King’s On Writing.”

This is no ordinary writing textbook. In fact, it’s not really a textbook at all. It is simply Stephen King in friendly conversation. The first third of the book is taken up with biographical material, where King gives a brief overview of his life. This may be of little interest to some readers, who would want to get into the nitty-gritty of learning about writing straight away, but I jumped at the chance to learn more about the author I’ve admired since I was fourteen. More importantly, I think the biography is a fitting inclusion, because what you are as a person flows onto the printed page. At least, that’s how it works with all good fiction.

In the central, largest section of the book, King gets down to business, sharing with us what he’s learned about the craft of writing in his lifelong experience. Pretty much everything is covered – grammar, plot, characterisation, theme, revision, etc., etc. At no point does any of it get boring. King’s is as good as a lecturer as he a storyteller. One idea of his that is found fascinating is the idea that a story is a “found thing,” like a fossil dug out of the ground. At the start it is covered in earth and must be excavated very carefully, using the right tools so as not to break it. This section of the book is, in fact, entitled “Toolbox.”

I’ve been writing on and off for over fifteen years. I’ve learned a lot of about the craft of writing just through practise alone, and there were a lot of things I suspected I was getting right. It was an exciting experience having Stephen King confirm many of my suspicions, rather than blow them to bits. However, there were some things I was getting wrong too, and I was glad to have these corrected.

I’m very grateful to have been able to learn from the one man earth who is surely the most qualified to give advice on the subject. This book refuelled my enthusiasm for the craft, at a point in my life where I had lost most of it. Without On Writing, I am certain my own novel Ulterior would never have come to be.

The Tripods by John Christopher

This volume contains four short novels which are also available separately. It used to be regarded as a trilogy (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire), but the inclusion of a fourth book, entitled When the Tripods Came has changed things a little – for the worse, in my opinion, chiefly because it is referred to as book 1 of 4.

If you are new to this series, I insist that you ignore the prelude book and jump straight in at The White Mountains. The author originally wrote this as book 1, and that’s how it should stay. I’d better tell you why I feel so strongly about it. When you begin The White Mountains, you are presented with a strange world. It appears to be mankind’s past, a couple of centuries ago. People use a horse and cart to get around, work in mills, etc. Everything is as it should be, except for the presence of immense metal machines taller than houses, which stomp about the countryside commanding the worship of mankind. Strange artifacts from man’s past make an appearance, familiar to us but not to the people in the book, giving use a clue that this is perhaps not the past at all, but a very strange future, where most of our technological advancements have curiously disappeared. The mystery of the past is one of the things that makes The White Mountains such a great read. Deal with When the Tripods Came after you’ve read all the others, just to fill in the blanks.

I was first introduced to The Tripods through the BBC television series that was made in the mid-eighties. I absolutely loved it. Sadly the BBC only ever filmed, The White Mountains and The City of Gold and Lead, but I was glad to be able to read the final volume in print, to find out what became of the heroes and their world. I don’t want to say too much about The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire, in case I spoil anything. But I will say that this is the perfect adventure story, and despite the fantastical elements, it has a very mature and thought-provoking ending. Currently the most read book on my shelf.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

What a strange name for a novel, particularly a novel of global disaster. Not so strange when John Christopher explains how grass is a part of our eco-system and how its absence would have a disastrous effect, ultimately on mankind’s food supply. Mass starvation leading to panic; panic leading to brutality; brutality leading to survival – for some.

The story centres around a family travelling across England by car. Their destination is a walled-in community owned by the protagonist’s brother – one man who was smart enough to prepare for the disaster before it struck. The adventure is grim, filled with violence and murder. The main question posed is this: how far are you willing to go in order to protect your own family? How mean are you willing to be when it comes to the choice between the death of a stranger or the death of a loved one?

This is bold, gripping stuff. Highly recommended.

The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card

I bought this novel many year ago, not knowing who Orson Scott Scott was, nor having read his excellent Ender’s Game. I found The Folk of the Fringe in a bargain bucket at my newsagents, and purchased it because I was in the mood for an end-of-the-world story. The cover illustration showed a band of scruffy travellers walking along a path towards a ruined city – right up my street. Expecting a decent read, little did I know that this would turn out to be an absolute gem of a book. And, having re-read the book recently, I enjoyed it even more the second time round.

This is a collection of five tales – technicially two novellas and three stories. They take place in a slightly future America in the aftermath of a limited nuclear strike. Limited is the important word, because there are still survivors. They fall into two categories: those who wish to rebuild civilization and those who wish to fill their own pockets. I won’t give you synopses of the stories, but I will say that they are all about the theme of belonging – about the bonds we form with other people and about what we suffer without those bonds. Jamie Teague, the protagonist from the first story, is a loner who makes a living by travelling all across the country and scavenging for items to trade. Everything changes for him when he encounters a group of naive travelling Mormons; he decides to help them before some mobbers arrive and help themselves. Deaver, the protagonist of the second story, is a non-Mormon coping with live in a society of Mormons. Carpenter is a man who feels like an outsider, not because of personal choice or location, but because he has cerebral palsy. These are stories about people who live on the “fringe,” whether literally or figuratively.

These stories are only loosely termed science fiction. They are strongly character-driven tales. In fact, they contain some of the richest depictions of characters I have ever read. The author himself is a Mormon and he mentions his religion a lot. This might be off-putting to the potential reader, but you should persevere. It’s clear the author is not out looking for converts, and the characters in the stories are made all the richer because Card is drawing from his own understanding of life. As a Christian, I related to the mind-set of many of the characters.

I can see how people might dislike this book – an athiest who likes ideas-driven fiction, for instance. For me, The Folk of the Fringe is the strangest, most beautiful, collection of post-apocalyptic stories I’m ever likely to find. They are full of heart.