The Chrysalids: Forbidden post-apocalyptic telepaths

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Reposting to include Sandy’s new review.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Chrysalids by John Wynhdam science fiction book reviewsThe Chrysalids by John Wynhdam

It’s no wonder that David dreams of a distant and wondrous city at night: life in the post-apocalyptic settlement, Waknuk, is difficult. Waknuk’s people are descended from the survivors of the Tribulation, which everyone knows was sent by God to punish the Old People. Though David and his community are lucky to have any land to live on, they must always guard against Deviations — in their crops, in their livestock, and in their children.

Deviations are not made in God’s True Image. Children that, say, have six toes, have the Devil in them, so they are either destroyed or else sent to the Fringes after they are sterilized. Though these exiles may later return as raiders, life in Waknuk is — if not always peaceful — still much better than life in the Badlands.

David Strorm may not care that deeply about Purity and maintaining God’s True Image, but his father, Joseph, cares passionately. (When a busy David remarks that a third hand would be useful, Joseph condemns his blasphemy and beats him.) As David grows older, however, he realizes that he is deviant because he can communicate telepathically with several other members of his community. Soon, David lives in fear of what will happen when people learn that he is different.

At night, David dreams less of the wondrous city and instead prays to be normal, a refrain that I found sadly moving:The Chrysalids by John Wyndham science fiction book reviews

God, let me be like the other people. I don’t want to be different. Won’t you make it so that when I wake up in the morning I’ll be just like everyone else, please, God, please!

David is right to worry for his safety since if he and his friends are found out, they will be hunted and killed or else banished to live among the violent people that live in the fringes. It takes time for him to accept and embrace his uniqueness, though he is forced to live his true life in secret.

Although the tribulations immediately place this novel within a large body of science fiction novels written in the 1950s about the consequences of nuclear war, The Chrysalids holds up remarkably well. David’s worries that his society will not accept him for who he is will, unfortunately, strongly resonate for many twenty first century readers who are not accepted and included.

Throughout The Chrysalids, John Wyndham subverts the idea of a “normal” person. Although David’s father simply knows what forms are made in God’s image, David’s Uncle Axel is less certain. Having traveled far and wide, he has encountered other people that view the Deviations differently. Some survivors, for example, feel that hair is unnatural, while others view fur as the norm. At one point, David reflects that God has the ability read people’s thoughts; who’s to say that the telepaths are not the more accurate representation of God’s image?

Originally published in 1955, The Chrysalids is a fine post-apocalyptic novel, and it’s much stronger than Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. It recalls a variety of other works, both within the genre and outside it, including Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. And if that’s not enough, Waknuk is set in Labrador, making The Chrysalids the only novel I’ve ever read (or heard of) set there. Given the plot and the setting, Wyndham clearly valued uniqueness. Recommended.The Chrysalids by John Wyndham science fiction book reviews

~Ryan Skardal


The Chrysalids by John Wynhdam science fiction book reviewsThe three novels that English author John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris wrote and had published prior to WW2 could give his readers only the slightest inkling of what was to come. By all accounts, The Secret People (1935) and Planet Plane (1936) — both science-fiction adventures — and Foul Play Suspected (1935), a mystery, were competently written affairs, released under the pen name John Beynon, and resulting in unspectacular sales. Following his service in WW2, however, and reportedly inspired by his brother’s own publishing successes, John Wyndham, etc., etc., tried his hand at writing again, this time using the handle John Wyndham, and this time with phenomenal success. Indeed, his first four “comeback” novels — 1951’s The Day of the Triffids, which dealt with ambulatory killer plants and a world gone blind following a meteor shower; 1953’s The Kraken Wakes, detailing an alien invasion from the deeps; the book in question, 1955’s The Chrysalids; and 1957’s The Midwich Cuckoos, which spotlighted a group of children with alien-enhanced powers — are now deemed sci-fi classics.

Of those big four, The Chrysalids was the only one that I had not previously read; an oversight that I was happy to rectify just recently. Originally published as a hardcover book by the British imprint Michael Joseph, as its author was turning 52, the novel was later released that same year as a Ballantine paperback here in the U.S., sporting the oddly hyphenated and decidedly weaker title Re-Birth. As it turns out, the book is in several ways the oddball of Wyndham’s quartet. Like all the others, this one is told in the first person, but this time from a child’s POV. And unlike those other “cosy catastrophes” (a term coined by Brian W. Aldiss, in his 1973 history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, to describe these Wyndham books, and a term I’ve never cared for, as not one of these four novels strikes this reader as being particularly comfortable at any point for its characters), The Chrysalids is a post-apocalyptic novel in which the widespread calamity has already occurred, and at least several hundred years before. But despite being the oddball of the four, the book has been called by many Wyndham fans the author’s finest, and indeed has been a standard reading text for British kids for several generations.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham science fiction book reviewsThe book is narrated by David Strorm, who lives on his large family farm in an area that we soon learn to be central Labrador. As Ryan mentioned above, the society in which David lives is vaguely Amish-like, in which all the women sport crosses on their dresses and a fanatical watch is kept for anyone or anything that physically deviates from the norm. Framed notices in the Strorm living room exhort one and all to “Watch Thou For The Mutant,” and all “deviations” and “blasphemies,” be they plants, animals or especially people, are either destroyed or banished to the Fringes — an area many miles south of the Strorm stronghold, where the incidence of mutations is much higher … but not nearly as high as in the uninhabitable Badlands even farther south. (Nobody seems to know what led to the “Tribulation” that resulted in all the devastation and biological sports, but the reader never has a single doubt.) David’s peaceful life is shaken up when he befriends 6-year-old Sophie, a mutant herself by dint of her having six toes on one of her feet. When Sophie’s secret is later discovered by the community, her family flees, taking their pariah daughter with them.

As it turns out, however, David is harboring a secret of his own. He is, in fact, something of a blasphemy himself, with the deviant ability to form “thought pictures,” and converse at a distance nonverbally, with eight other children who have the same genetic mutation. Later, David acquires a new sister, Petra, who, by the time she turns 6, begins to evince abilities of long-range telepathy more powerful than any of the others’! Worse comes to worst when suspicion falls upon the telepathic children, precisely how is never quite adequately explained (unlike the kids in the later Midwich Cuckoos, the children here only use their powers to communicate with one another), forcing David, Petra and their cousin Rosalind to flee into the Fringes themselves, especially so as to escape from David and Petra’s ultra-fanatical and puritanical father. Ultimately, the trio is captured by a tribe of mutated Fringes people, but not before Petra manages to establish mental contact with a seemingly advanced civilization, from a place they refer to as Zealand…

Beautifully written and offering much in the way of food for thought, The Chrysalids is never better than in its early sections, where Wyndham masterfully draws a picture of the repressive and paranoid world in which David lives. The book’s latter section, dealing with the children’s flight and the village’s pursuit, action packed as it is, is not nearly as fascinating. Wyndham’s book takes scathing shots at the despotic enforcement of conformity in this future world (as David tells Petra at one point, “…the more stupid they are, the more like everyone else they think everyone ought to be. And once they get afraid they become cruel and want to hurt people who are different…”). And just take a look at what one of the Zealander women tells the children regarding the Old People (i.e., us) who caused the Tribulation:The Chrysalids by John Wyndham SF book reviews

They were only ingenious half-humans, little better than savages … they created vast problems, and then buried their heads in the sands of idle faith. There was, you see, no real communication, no understanding between them. They could, at their best, be near-sublime animals, but not more… 

Wyndham’s book contains many well-drawn and interesting characters (my favorite is David’s Uncle Axel, a former sailor who has seen some of the devastated southern world and tells us about it, besides being the only tolerant and enlightened adult in David’s immediate family) and any number of emotionally affecting scenes. Thus, we witness little Sophie giving David a lock of her hair before she and her family decamp into the wilderness; David’s Aunt Harriet, who has just given birth to her third abomination in a row, futilely begging David’s mother for help, before committing suicide; and David’s stern and unforgiving father berating and punishing the lad severely, just because David had idly expressed the wish for a third hand, to help him tie a bandage. It is a wonderfully, compulsively readable book, to be sure, and one that seemingly has a strong appeal for both younger and more mature readers.

On a personal note, though, what really flabbergasted this reader as he approached the ending of The Chrysalids was this series of quotes, again from that Zealander woman, as she tells the children of the conflicts between the dead-end humans and the new telepathic mutants who have arisen. See if any of these quotes resonates with you:

“They are the crown of creation, they are ambition fulfilled, they have nowhere more to go. But life is change, that is how it differs from the rocks.”

 

“Soon they will attain the stability they strive for, in the only form it is granted — a place among the fossils.”

 

“In loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction…” 

Sound familiar? If not, I take it that you are not a fan of ‘60s rock music, and Jefferson Airplane in particular, as these words comprise a good ¾ of one of JA’s most iconic anthems, “Crown of Creation”; a song that the band famously performed in 1968 on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour while lead singer Grace Slick appeared in notorious blackface. When I ran across these words in Wyndham’s book, I almost fell out of my chair, but still assumed that the late Paul Kantner, the song’s writer, despite having been a well-known sci-fi buff, must have gotten them from another source. Perhaps the phrases were also Biblical in origin? But no. As it turns out, the words are indeed Wyndham’s own, and Kantner did obtain permission from the author to use them in ’68, one year before Wyndham’s passing. How remarkable for me, thus, to discover the provenance of the lyrics to one of the foremost hippie songs of the ‘60s, and learn that it is this wonderful page-turner, no less! A fascinating novel, well told, with important take-away messages AND serving as the inspiration for one of my favorite songs … is it any wonder why The Chrysalids comes so highly recommended by yours truly?

~Sandy Ferber

Published in 1955. In the community of Waknut it is believed mutants are the products of the Devil and must be stamped out. When David befriends a girl with a slight abnormality, he begins to understand the nature of fear and oppression. When he develops his own deviation, he must learn to conceal his secret.

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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5 comments

  1. That prayer *is* moving. It sounds like this one holds up pretty well. Thanks, Ryan.

  2. Ryan, this sounds much more interesting than Day of the Triffids. I gave up on Triffids when I caught myself rooting for the Triffids (um…no pun intended?)~

  3. Becky Aswell /
    As a teen when I read this, I was uncomfortable with the arrogance of the Zealand people. The description of the Old People might be accurate but it displays no tolerance for their limitations. Too much Star Trek in me by that point, I suppose: I wanted the advanced civilisation to be more understanding.
    • sandy ferber /

      Hey, even “Star Trek”‘s Metrons (in “The Arena”) were pretty dismissive of we mere humans, right?

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