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Note for newcomers: Triffids are large plants that have a poisonous sting and the ability to move. They produce a useful oil and are farmed for that reason.
Bill Masen, a 'triffidologist', has been recovering in hospital after being temporarily blinded by a triffid strike. He awakes on the day that his eyes are to be uncovered to find that all is silent and there are no staff around. Uncovering his eyes himself, he finds that everyone is apparently blind from watching the green flashes from comet debris that occurred the night before.
Bill describes his earlier life and goes into details about triffids. He explains how the triffids came originally from the USSR and spread to the rest of the world. He also recounts how he encountered a triffid whilst a child which led to his career in triffid farming.
Bill makes his way through the streets of London which are filled with helpless blind people. At one point, he tries to intervene with a group of blind people being controlled by a sighted person but is knocked out. He faces the future with a mixture of apprehension and excitement.
Bill is wandering the streets when he hears a scream and finds a sighted young woman being beaten by a blind man. He rescues her and she reveals her name as Josella Playton who had missed the comet through a wild party. They drive to Josella's home but find that her family has all been killed by triffids.
On the way to pick up some anti-triffid gear, Bill and Josella are almost caught by a mob of blind people. They evade them, find the gear and clothes, and make their way to an empty flat in a tower block. They plan to leave London soon to somewhere in the country. During the night, they spot a light flashing in the city.
In the morning, Bill and Josella make their way to the University of London, the source of the light, where they spot a group of blind people led by a sighted man arguing at the gates. The crowd are dispersed and the pair enter. They learn that the occupants of the University, mostly sighted, are planning to leave London the next day. Bill and Josella are sent out to gather food.
The University community gathers for a conference. After an encouraging speech by Beadley and a few words on organisation, Dr Vorless, a professor of sociology, explains that the community will have to adapt new rules to survive. Later, Bill and Josella discuss the new life that awaits them and agree to 'marry'.
Bill is woken by what appears a fire and is knocked unconscious. He awakes, bound and locked in a room. He learns that Coker, the man who had been arguing in front of the University, had captured several of the University group and plans on using them to keep some blind people alive longer. For a few days, he works with his party, finding food for them. Then they succumb to a disease.
Bill tries to find Josella but fails. He returns to the University and finds an address, Tynsham Manor, where the party had been intending to go. He also finds Coker who had had the same problems as Bill and now realises his plan had been wrong. They agree to drive together to Tynsham.
Bill and Coker arrive at Tynsham Manor to find it led by Miss Durrant, a religious woman who had objected to the new sociological rules at the University meeting. Michael Beadley and his party had travelled there with her but left when they realised their viewpoints were incompatible. Coker finds the community very poorly set up to survive, even having to start an electric generator which had been lying their unused.
Bill tries to find some word of Josella while Coker takes stock of the situation at Tynsham. Durrant suggests that Josella might have gone onto Beaminster in Dorset. Coker finds the situation suitable for survival but Durrant's attitude would be a disadvantage. After a few days, Bill and Coker leave for Beaminster. They encounter many triffids on the way.
At Beaminster, Bill and Coker are stopped by a trio. They had been fortifying a local building, expecting to be attacked by mobs from the towns and cities. When the situation is explained, the two groups join up. They search the surrounding area for Josella and other survivors, including using a helicopter, and the party increases in size. Eventually most of the party decide to travel to Tynsham but Bill, remembering an earlier remark by Josella, decides to travel to Sussex to continue his search.
Bill drives east towards Pulborough. In a small village, he come across Susan, a young girl, whose family has been killed by triffids. The next day, they continue together and reach Pulborough but Bill does not know the exact location of Shirning Farm where he expects Josella to be. In the evening, they shine a light and eventually receive another in reply. Finally they arrive at Shirning Farm and Bill is reunited with Josella.
At Shirning, Bill learns of how its occupants, Dennis and Mary Brent, and Joyce Taylor, had coped with their blindness, and how Josella had escaped from London. Mary gives birth and Bill later drives to Tynsham to find it deserted except for plague-ridden bodies.
Over the next few years, Bill and the others develop Shirning. They learn some farming and also take steps to defend themselves against the triffids which are increasing in numbers. Journeys to towns and cities have to be abandoned due to dangerous buildings, blocked roads or hostile inhabitants. Josella has a child and, in the sixth year, she and Bill spend a day at the coast where they ponder on the comet's origins. Then they see a helicopter.
They return to Shirning to find Ivan Simpson, once of Beadley's party, is there in the helicopter. He explains how they had ended up on the Isle of Wight and created a community there, and how Coker had been located a month before. He offers Bill and the others a chance to join them where Bill can be employed finding a way to destroy the triffids. They agree to move to the Isle of Wight but will spend the rest of the summer at Shirning first.
The next day, Bill and Susan return from gathering fuel to find a strange military vehicle in the yard. He finds a party of armed men inside the house who tell him that they are part of a feudal-type organisation and they intend to take control of Shirning, allocating more blind people to it and removing Susan. In the evening, while the men are asleep, Bill and the others leave for the Isle of Wight.