Stu’s Views

“Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.” — Stuart Sutherland (1927-98), in The International Dictionary of Psychology (1995), entry on “Consciousness”

Chlorokill

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)

If you want to know the difference between talent and genius, compare The Day of the Triffids (1951) with the book that obviously inspired it: The War of the Worlds (1897). John Wyndham (1903-69) had talent; H.G. Wells (1866-1946) had genius. But Wyndham had a lot of talent, all the same. And it’s powerfully displayed in The Day of the Triffids. However, although it’s his most famous book, it isn’t his best. I’m not sure what it is. Wyndham was an uneven writer, not very good at dialogue or characterization, and although he was born decades after Wells, in some ways his books have dated more.

And maybe he was better at short stories than novels. Either way, his big ideas were almost always good and so were the titles of his novels. There’s the humanity-hating submarine race in The Kraken Awakes (1953); the mysterious telepathic alien in Chocky (1968); the persecuted telepathic mutants in The Chrysalids (1955); and the world-threatening super-children in The Midwich Cuckoos (1955). In The Day of the Triffids there are really two big ideas: walking plants and worldwide blindness. In the chronology of the book, but not the narration, the walking plants comes first: they’re the triffids, three-legged, seven-feet tall and equipped with a deadly whip-sting. Once you’ve mentally pictured them, the triffids will never leave your head. I think they’re a clever, chlorophyllic adaptation of the giant three-legged Martian war-machines in War of the Worlds.

But how can the triffids get loose and wreak havoc on the human race as the Martian war-machines did? Triffids are blind and sense rather than see their targets, so they are no match for sighted humans. Obviously, then, Wyndham had to take sight away from humans to get triffids and humans battling for possession of the earth. He did it in rather contrived but still memorable fashion, recorded like this by the first-person narrator as he lies in a hospital bed with bandaged eyes after a triffid attack:

“The sky’s simply full of shooting stars,” [a nurse] said. “All bright green. They make people’s faces look frightfully ghastly. Everybody’s out there watching them, and sometimes it’s almost as light as day – only all the wrong colour. Every now and then there’s a big one so bright that it hurts to look at it. It’s a marvellous sight. They say there’s never been anything like it before. It’s a pity you can’t see it, isn’t it? (ch. 1, “The End Begins”)

In fact, it isn’t a pity: it saves his life. It’s soon apparent that the green light from the “shooting stars” has destroyed the sight of everyone who watched them. The narrator describes how he takes the bandages off his eyes and discovers that he’s one of the very few sighted people left in a blinded world: London becomes “The Groping City”, as the title of chapter 3 puts it. The blindness would have been bad enough, but the triffids now begin breaking loose from the farms on which they’re being kept. The green light of the meteor-storm, probably an optical weapon accidentally released by a military satellite, has created a world where chlorophyll is king. Triffids don’t need sight to slash and slay, so blinded humans now have a simple choice: stay in hiding or try to find food and risk being stung to death by one of the triffids invading London in search of prey.

In the second chapter, the narrator looks back to describe the origin and spread of the triffids, and how he came to receive that a sight-preserving dose of triffid-poison in his eyes. Those opening few chapters have scenes and images that have always stayed with me since I first read the book as a kid. There’s the wonder and beauty of the meteor-storm; the horror of sudden, near-universal blindness and the first spate of suicides; the strangeness and deadliness of the triffids; and so on. Here’s one of the memorable images Wyndham conjures with words:

Perhaps Umberto’s plane exploded, perhaps it just fell to pieces. Whatever it was, I am sure that when the fragments began this long, long fall towards the sea they left behind them something which looked at first like a white vapour.

It was not vapour. It was a cloud of seeds, floating, so infinitely light they were, even in the rarefied air. Millions of gossamer-slung triffid seeds, free now to drift where the winds of the world wherever the winds of the world should take them… (ch. 2, “The Coming of the Triffids”)

The triffids have been created artificially and mysteriously behind the Iron Curtain and yield a highly valuable vegetable oil. But that raises questions that aren’t answered. Why did they need to walk? Why are they equipped with long and deadly stings? Why are they uncannily intelligent? And how do they nourish themselves once they mature and begin walking? Their tripodic roots can’t dig very deep when they’re at rest and although Wyndham describes how they pull pieces of flesh off the decaying bodies of people they’ve killed, he doesn’t describe their digestive systems.

These unanswered questions mean that The Day of the Triffids is sometimes more like magic realism than hard science fiction. Particularly when the triffids show signs of intelligence, coordination and even cunning. But none of that is apparent when the triffids begin to sprout all over the world after the seeds in that “white vapour” reach the ground. The growing triffids attract curiosity but not wonder or fear. And even when they begin walking and stinging, they seem easy to manage. Thanks to that valuable vegetable oil, they’re soon being farmed in huge numbers. Their whip-stings are deadly, of course, and if the stings are docked, they yield less oil. But sighted humans can kept triffids under control easily enough, despite an occasional unlucky accident and the triffids’ unsettling ability to communicate between themselves. They have a kind of intelligence even though they don’t have brains. The narrator is a botanist conducting research on triffids and suffers one of the unlucky accidents, when a triffid lashes at the wire-mesh mask covering his face and a few drops from the poison-sacs reach his eyes.

So he’s in hospital when the meteor-storm lights up skies all around the world for a couple of days. He and a few other fortunates can’t watch the storm for one reason or another, so they keep their sight and have to fight the triffids to have a future. Wyndham describes how bands of survivors come together in various ways and decide on different ways of fighting the triffids. And that’s when the quality of the writing and the power of the imagery take a turn for the worse. The opening few chapters of The Day of the Triffids have always stayed with me since that first reading. I’ve re-read the book several times since then, but on this latest re-reading I found I’d almost completely forgotten what happened in the second half of the book.

But I can recommend it highly all the same. It might not be Wyndham’s best, but the triffids and their menacing ways will be with you for life once Wyndham’s words have become pictures in your head. And more than pictures:

The evening was peaceful, almost the only sounds that broke it were the occasional rattlings of the triffids’ little sticks against their stems. Walter [a triffid-researcher] regarded them with his head slightly on one side. He removed his pipe.

“They’re talkative tonight,” he said. (ch. 2)


Elsewhere other-accessible

Reds in the Head — review of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897)

Carved Cascade

Woodcut of a waterfall by Reynolds Stone (1909-79)


It’s the wrong kind of waterfall to go with this passage from Nietzsche, but that can’t be helped dot dot dot colon

Am Wasserfall. — Beim Anblick eines Wasserfalles meinen wir in den zahllosen Biegungen, Schlängelungen, Brechungen der Wellen Freiheit des Willens und Belieben zu sehen; aber Alles ist nothwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen. So ist es auch bei den menschlichen Handlungen; man müsste jede einzelne Handlung vorher ausrechnen können, wenn man allwissend wäre, ebenso jeden Fortschritt der Erkenntniss, jeden Irrthum, jede Bosheit. Der Handelnde selbst steckt freilich in der Illusion der Willkür; wenn in einem Augenblick das Rad der Welt still stände und ein allwissender, rechnender Verstand da wäre, um diese Pausen zu benützen, so könnte er bis in die fernsten Zeiten die Zukunft jedes Wesens weitererzählen und jede Spur bezeichnen, auf der jenes Rad noch rollen wird. Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878)


AT THE WATERFALL.—In looking at a waterfall we imagine that there is freedom of will and fancy in the countless turnings, twistings, and breakings of the waves ; but everything is compulsory, every movement can be mathematically calculated. So it is also with human actions ; one would have to be able to calculate every single action beforehand if one were all-knowing ; equally so all progress of knowledge, every error, all malice. The one who acts certainly labours under the illusion of voluntariness ; if the world’s wheel were to stand still for a moment and an all-knowing, calculating reason were there to make use of this pause, it could foretell the future of every creature to the remotest times, and mark out every track upon which that wheel would continue to roll. The delusion of the acting agent about himself, the supposition of a free will, belongs to this mechanism which still remains to be calculated. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (1908)

Mulch is Less

An interesting bio-paradox from the world’s premier papyrocentric purveyor of progressive performativity:

Vast stretches of roadside have been transformed. Where there were thick clumps of grass, there are low-growing wildflowers such as black medic, birds-foot trefoil and red clover. The verges are cut two or three times a year, not 12, saving the council tens of thousands of pounds. Butterflies and other invertebrates have returned in their droves. […]

The process is simple: cut infrequently, ideally, just twice a year in spring and then late summer once plants have bloomed and seeded; remove the clippings to gradually reduce the fertility of the soil and prevent a buildup of mulch; repeat, wait, and enjoy the resurgent wildlife and flowers. […]

“As fertility declines in a soil, biodiversity increases. At first that seems a little counterintuitive because you imagine the more you pour into a soil, the more plants that can grow. That’s not how it works in the natural system. In more fertile systems, a few species dominate and they swamp and smother everything else.”

Grass cuttings are almost always left where they fall along the thousands of miles of road verges that are maintained by law in the UK. Over time, the resulting mulch increases the fertility of the soil, meaning the grass grows with increasing vigour and needs to be cut more frequently. The cut and collect method breaks the cycle. — On the verge: a quiet roadside revolution is boosting wildflowers, The Guardian, 14iii2020

Hicks Nix on Pix

“Watching television is like taking black spray-paint to your third eye.” — Bill Hicks


Post-Performative Post-Scriptum

The title of this incendiary intervention is a tribute to the famous Variety headline “Sticks Nix Hick Pix”. However, I mean “pixels” by “pix”, not “pictures”.

Who Made Heu?

Fractal leaves of Heuchera “Red Lightning


Fractal river network in Shaanxi province, China


Post-Performative Post-Scriptum

Because “Heuchera” comes from the name of the German botanist J.H. Heucher (1677–1747), it should strictly speaking be pronounced something like “HOI-keh-ruh”. But people often say “HYOO-keh-ruh” or variations thereon.

Slanted and Enchanted

Green-Gold Moss with Ivy-Leaved Toadflax
(click for larger)


Post-Performative Post-Scriptum

I assume I got the name “Slanted and Enchanted” from a subconscious memory of an album of the same name by the American band Pavement, though I might just have come up with it independently.

Leech Unleashed

The Great Beast writes:

I witnessed a remarkable sight on the road to Chabanjong, which was here a paka rasta (that is, a road made by engineers as opposed to kacha rasta, a track made by habit or at most by very primitive methods) wide enough for carts to pass. I had squatted near the middle of the road as being the least damp and leech-infested spot available and got a pipe going by keeping the bowl under my waterproof. I lazily watched a leech wriggling up a blade of tall grass about fifteen inches high and smiled superiorily at its fatuity — though when I come to think of it, my own expedition was morally parallel; but the leech was not such a fool as I thought. Arrived at the top, it began to set the stalk swinging to and fro; after a few seconds it suddenly let go and flew clean across the road. The intelligence of and ingenuity of the creature struck me as astonishing. — The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography (1929), ch. 52