As a teenager I read the usual dystopic novels: The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, A Brave New World. Somehow I managed to omit John Wyndham from my nerdy reading list. What a mistake. Thanks to my favourite nerdy TV show (ABC‘s First Tuesday Book Club) I picked up The Chrysalids, and I’m glad I did. It is an inventive post-apocalyptic story that had me completely hooked.
The Chrysalids is set a few thousand years in the future, after what is strongly indicated to be a nuclear disaster. It is a coming of age story of David Strorm. David lives on a farm, on something akin to a frontier landscape, society having being reduced to a pre-industrial form. There is a memory of the ’old people’, a technologically advanced society who were all but destroyed by what they know only as ‘Tribulation’. Wyndham creates a strong set of rules that David’s community live by; they practice a fundamentalist form of Christianity, one that is obsessed with the ’true image’. Genetic mutation is common, but also hunted out and destroyed. Nearby are the fringes: land that is wild, where no pure strains can be found. Humans that are found to be mutations are sterilised and abandoned to the fringes. David and a small group of other children are telepaths, something they realise they must conceal if they are to avoid that fate.
David’s father, a prominent man in his community, takes his religion seriously, hunting out genetic mutation in his crops and household with zeal. We learn the fate of some of those not lucky enough to fit the norm; in particular the story of a mother whose newborn has a small mutation is a heartbreaking moment. As it is told through the eyes of a young boy we are spared the gruesome details, nonetheless, the sense of danger Wyndham creates for his protagonist feels very real. Wyndham also hints at a wider world - different communities in other places who also survived ‘Tribulation’. David’s uncle (and confidant) Axel, has travelled as a sailor, and is unable to follow the orthodoxy of their community.
most of them - whether they have seven fingers, or four arms, or hair all over, or six breasts, or whatever it is that‘s wrong with them - think that their type is the true pattern of the Old People, and anything different is a Deviation….You start asking yourself: well, what real evidence have we got about the true image?
Wyndham’s world building is excellent, but it is his characterisations that really make this book interesting. David himself is an atypical lead in that he is often unable to do the right thing, occasionally cowardly, and unprepared when he really shouldn’t be. It is the small characters though, that really make this book. Wyndham imbues minor characters with a sense of humanity, and creates real pathos, such as the aforementioned mother and child. One of the most interesting examples of this are the other telepath children: despite making only the briefest of physical appearances, some have a strong presence.
I’ve agonised a little over the ending, not being completely satisfied as it is dangerously close to deus ex machina. When I began to see it coming I felt bitterly disappointed. Thankfully Wyndham saves the book by not tying up every storyline neatly. While for some characters the ending is happy, the reality that others are left to face is dark and dangerous. Even the ‘happy’ ending leaves us asking some moral questions.
While it is certainly a novel of its time, it also asks questions that are relevant today. While we probably aren’t so concerned about nuclear apocalypse, we do face huge environmental challenges that could have similar impacts. Wyndham also asks us to think about who we will tolerate in our society: where does mutation end and evolution begin? How ‘superior’ are we as beings? Crucially, how do we treat those we deem ‘lesser’ beings to ourselves? Religious fundamentalism is probably even more of an issue in our society than it was when the book was written. People like David’s father are on our news every night.
When so many science fiction classics date badly, Wyndham’s imagined future seems horribly plausible. The book is short and fast paced, and the characters are strong. It is an enjoyable read, that still makes you think about the society we live in, or want to live in.