Cosy catastrophes and dormant threats
3 years ago
Blighters was inspired by a conversation at my parents’ kitchen table, sometime around Christmas 2014.
The story was this: my mum had been in the bath when a wasp had dropped from the Xpelair extractor ceiling fan. It had lain on the bathroom carpet, dozy from the heat, oblivious to my mum’s understandable panic. When my dad pulled the cover off the fan, several more wasps had dropped down, all dormant.
There was something about this combination of threat and utter benignity that sparked something. What if creatures dropped from the sky, rather than the Xpelair? Even if they were dormant, what if they were enormous and dormant? What if all of humankind, at least at first, felt as vulnerable as my mum in the bath?
After hearing the wasp story, the word ‘sluggish’ lodged in my mind right away, inspiring the choice of creature when I decided that wasps were probably too identifiable a threat, and wouldn’t it be more interesting if the creatures’ appearance tended more towards ugly than fierce? And how about if the apparent threat of the Blighters was counterbalanced by their exuding a sense of utter calm and contentment, affecting anyone nearby?
I read John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids around the age of 11, when I graduated from Doctor Who Target novelisations to SF classics. All of John Wyndham’s novels have been a big influence on my writing, but none more so than Triffids.
I’ve always felt that the ‘cosy catastrophe’ trope, identified as a weakness by Brian Aldiss, is a hugely appealing aspect of the novel. Despite the horrors of the situation, the main characters are intent on rebuilding a better world after the apocalypse. Their lives have become fraught with danger, but they have become simpler, too. A decade ago, when I felt frustrated about workplace bureaucracy, I reread Triffids and other catastrophe novels as wish fulfilment fantasies. There’s an appeal in the thought of starting afresh and being compelled to focus only on practical skills. I’m enough of a fan of ‘cosy catastrophes’ that I took the phrase as the title of my blog.
There’s another aspect of The Day of the Triffids that strikes me each time I read it. At the start of the novel, triffids are already a familiar sight for most people. The plants have been established worldwide, though their origins are unknown. They’re dangerous, sure, and at first terrifying – a predatory plant! – but they’re easily contained, so the public has grown blasé about the threat they represent. The ‘day’ of the triffids arrives only when an unrelated catastrophe weakens humankind. The triffids’ fate is the inverse of H.G. Wells’ Martians in The War of the Worlds, whose downfall –contracting the common cold – is equally accidental.
Wyndham’s concept of a dormant threat tied in nicely with my parents’ wasp story. In Blighters, I’ve enjoyed taking to extremes humanity’s shrug response to an alien menace. How would people respond to an apparently benign alien ‘invasion’ in the era of social media? How long would the news cycle be for such a phenomenon?
Becky, the main character in the novella, is preoccupied with her own problems – the arrival of the Blighters is just something that happened last year, and now they’re simply part of the way the world is. Just like everything else she sees on TV, Blighters happen in other places, to other people. That is, until one shows up near her home in rural Cumbria…