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15 September 2010

Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Warning: Contains spoilers

The Chrysalids is a dystopian science fiction published in 1955 by English author John Wyndham. I had previously enjoyed reading The Day of the Triffids, so I had some idea as to John Wyndham’s writing style and subject matter, and I wasn’t disappointed with this novel. This is less of a review, and more of a discussion on themes I found in this novel. I found it made me think a lot, and I needed to put it in words.

Although it was never stated in so many words, The Chrysalids appears to be set a dystopian future, many years after a nuclear apocalypse, where the remaining population is mutating and evolving. The foreword in the edition I read compared it to the Cambrian age. I find that quite an interesting comparison, and, I think, a credible one. During that period, everything was in flux. Organisms became more complex, and there was a lot of diversifications occurring within species. I am an archaeologist, not a palaeontologist, so I am not very good a describing this era of evolution (ask me about hominins!), but it is described as the Cambrian Explosion, because life was exploding, changing, evolving. And this is what is happening in The Chrysalids. A small population of humans still have a traditional human form. They hold onto this purity as the basis of their religion (a modified form of fundamentalist Christianity), and abhor all deviations of that “God-like” form. I guess the novel is about what makes us human. Not what makes us Homo sapiens sapiens, but what makes us inherently human. In The Chrysalids, any small imperfection is marked as a deviation from God and destroyed, and each occurrence of deviation in a household (crops, stock, children) requires penance. The objects are then ritually destroyed, or in the case of people, either exposed as babies or sterilised as adults and exiled to the Fringes. The catastrophe in the distant past that ended the time of the near-mythic Old Ones is named as The Tribulation, and while they appear to base their religion on parts of Christianity’s current Bible, they also have additional texts called the Repentances. They have a very puritan lifestyle and faith, and their government, in the far off capital city of Rigo, regulates what is seen as natural and pure. The government has officials which check newborns for mutations before they are classified as human, and pronounce if animals or plants are deviant or not. Mentioned in the book is a pair of large horses said to be 22 hands high, pronounced to have been specially bred that tall, although the locals are suspicious that they are mutants and the government allows for their existence because they are more efficient. The long arm of the government, and its control over what is seen as deviant and what is seen as natural is pervasive yet quite subtle. I've always found subtlety controlling governments more sinister than ones who are openly antagonistic to its civilians, because these tend to be the ones you trust instinctively if you haven't a questioning mind. These are the ones that uses their civilians to do their dirty work (informing on neighbours etc), and whose motives aren’t always apparent. This observation isn't really relevant to this review, but it does make me wish that this book had a sequel - especially when the supposed idyllic nation of Sealand is introduced to the story.
David Strom, the main character grows up in the most prominent family of the area, in a swathe of land slowly being reclaimed from the Fringes of the Badlands. His father is a preacher and a very pious man, who rules his family as he runs his farm – with strong devout faith and control. David is like any other ten year old boy. He runs wild, trying to get out of chores by hiding or playing in the scrub. There aren’t many children for him to play with, so he mostly entertains himself. He grows up learning the tenements of his faith by rote, never truly understanding what they mean. He has seen mutants from the Fringes before, but they were “monstrous” in their form. One day he makes friends with a girl he meets on one of his rambles, and they become friends. Only Sophie has six toes, not the mandatory five that would classify her as human. He keeps her secret when asked, not fully understanding from the outset why that should be so important. When he does start to realise, he continues to defend her. He doesn’t see her as a mutant, just his friend who happens to have extra toes. I believe that is the start of his eventual schism from society. He starts to ask questions, mostly to himself, sometimes to his worldly, sympathetic uncle. It is here that he starts to grow into himself and away from his father’s faith and convictions.

We find out that David has his own secret. He can talk to other children in the community telepathically. They all passed the test of physical purity as babies, but have evolved in a different sense. They live nestled within the bosom of their society, physically the same as other humans– but with an extra form of communication. David tells his uncle this when he is a boy, and his uncle urges him to keep it a secret, less he be marked a deviation. So they are a dark secret in a society that would hate them on principal of their differentness. When he is found out, David and his lover/half-cousin Rosalind take his younger sister Petra, and run for the Fringes hoping to escape their once-compatriots. As I read this, I kept drawing comparisons to the world and recent history from when John Wyndham lived in post-WWII Europe. Of non-Aryans changing their identities to hide from their neighbours and the authorities, being found out then either being captured and tortured, or running for their lives and trying to find new ways to exist. I don’t know if this is just part of the plot, or if I am over-analysing the novel, but I really found the book to be entrenched with that feeling of fear at discovery, yet a child’s bewilderment at people’s hatred for their differences. I think the fact that the narrator was a child nurtured that sense of bewilderment in ways that just wouldn’t hold true for an adult narrator. Forgive me if you feel I read too much into that theme of the novel.

Mark Salwowski's vision of The Crysalids

David dreams of a large city, of the sea, and of a land of flying ships – all things he has never seen, nor would be likely to know of. When he mentions those dreams he is advised not to talk about it because drawing attention to being different is a bad idea and because it isn’t a “real” place. I've always wondered – is he dreaming of the civilisation of the Old Ones? Or is he dreaming of Sealand? Sealand is far off island on the other side of the world (possibly a future New Zealand?) which has a society that is more developed than his own. His sister Petra is revered by the Selanders for her telepathic broadcasting, but I feel like David is just as far reaching with his talents that he is just as special. If you had read The Chrysalids as a child, you may see the Sealanders as rescuing them from their bigoted society and lawlessness and violence of the mutants, however I find the Sealanders as the most abhorrent and sinister society of all. They seem idyllic, peaceful and “civilised”, but there are currents under those still waters. I can see the agrarian society as scared religious fundamentalists, the mutants as trying to survive a harsh existence. The Sealanders have no excuse for their attitudes of bigotry and the innate feeling that they are more deserving of life, more worthy, more “human”. They have all this learning, this technology, are a peaceful people, but at the same time they look down on the mutants and agrarian society as beasts, as sub-human because they haven't evolved telepathically. It all comes back to the concept of “image of God” and what makes someone human that resounds in this novel. David, Rosalind and the other chrysalids have a different type of telepathy from Petra and the Selanders, and it is implied that they too aren’t truly worthy of saving. They are only taken to Sealand because of Petra, the girl, the talent that the Sealanders want. It is for these reasons I find that culture more sinister than the other two. It also makes me wish The Chrysalids had a sequel, because the book didn’t leave me with a happy ending, but one that was unfinished.

I am in two minds about The Chrysalids. On one hand, I loved reading it; on the other, I disliked the final direction the novel took. I am fascinated by what people see to be the future of Western Society, whether we will kill the earth through bombs (nuclear, electromagnetic, hydrogen etc), neglect, development and over population, or if humans go feral or become diseased/mutate. I guess the other options are that we continue the way we are, struggling with nature and each other, and without any climatic finale, or we learn to live at one with nature and each other. It is also quite interesting how these endings trend in fiction throughout the decades. I found that post-WII and the 80s/90s seem to have more post-nuclear stories than other decades. That is a gross generalisation, and I haven’t made a study of these trends, it is just what I've noticed from what I have read and seen on film. I gave The Chrysalids a rating of 4/5. It wasn’t the best science fiction I have ever read, but I really enjoyed the writing style, the story, and the way it made me think.


VanyelK said...

When you first meet the sealanders for the first time I had the fear that they were to be exactly as you described. I had an entire different story line going thru my head. I thought they would run away from the sealanders when they realised that in their own way that they were just elitist as those that they left behind. Maybe the actual ending is deliberate and you realise that they are just like all humans in they found someone just like them to bond with and act exactly like. Maybe the author is just as human and didn't realise that idea himself and thought it was a happy ending?

As for the author in the version I read there is no intro but you could tell that it was written during the 50's. It had that theme that is seems so prevalant so I agree on the 50's in particular really did believe they would die a nuclear death. There is a poem I think you will find interesting. I will send it thru.

Anonymous said...

Yay you finished it! It's a shame you couldn't have come to the book club, at one point we were discussing sequels and how he could have done spin offs because there seems to be more questions then answers, but unfortunately he died not that long afterwards and trilogies or sequels weren't really popular then.

It did feel open ended didn't it, but I don't know about unhappy. He seemed to be neutral all the way through and the ending only emphasised there not being any real change. Oh how depressing human nature is!

I've noticed the same thing with dystopic novels from that time period which makes sense because a lot of those authors grew up through two wars. Nuclear war was a big threat then (and there's also the cold war following WW1 and WW2), not that it isn't now, but we have so many other things going on as well. Nuclear war stood out amongst everything else and I think before that devastation and genocide wasn't on such a big scale.

I'm glad you enjoyed it, you didn't feel it was too 'school book' did you?

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