Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 187 pages; 2000.
The late John Wyndham is probably best known for his science fiction classic The Day of the Triffids, a post apocalyptic novel in which the world gets overtaken by carnivorous three-legged plants. But it’s The Chrysalids, published four years later, in 1955, which most Wyndham fans say is his best.
I read all his major novels (there are seven) when I was in my teens and loved them with a kind of evangelical devotion, but how would this one stack up more than 20 years later?
Strangely enough I had forgotten so much of the detail of The Chrysalids I began to wonder whether I’d actually read it before. It felt very fresh, very new and, surprisingly, very modern.
The setting is typical Wyndham fare: a post-apocalyptic world a few thousands years in the future. But in this case society has regressed to the point of living a rather primitive frontier-like existence reminiscent of 18th century pastoral America. There is no technology here, no cars, no electricity. The houses are basic, constructed of wood with thatched roofs and whitewashed walls, and everyone works hard to provide a stable supply of stock and crops.
But all is not as it seems. This is a society obsessed with fundamental Christianity to the point where anyone not born in the true Image of God is regarded as a blasphemy to be dispatched at birth or condemned to live in the Fringes, a wild untamed area where other rejected “humans” roam. Even the crops are carefully monitored to ensure they do not deviate from the norm; whole fields are burnt if the plants do not look right. And if anyone has any doubts as to whether a particular plant or human is abnormal, there’s an inspector to play judge, jury and executioner.
The story is narrated by David, the 10-year-old son of the local religious leader, who is indoctrinated to “watch thou for the mutant!” and “keep pure the stock of the lord” amongst others. But when David befriends Sophie, a girl hiding the fact that she has six toes on each foot, he begins to question his religious upbringing.
Later, when David realises that he has a rare talent for telepathic communication with his half-cousin Rosalind and several other children, he realises that perhaps he, too, is a deviant, and is careful to hide his ability. This group manages to avoid exposure for several years, but then two factors threaten to “out” them: one of the group marries a normal person, and David’s baby sister, Petra, discovers that her telepathic ability is so strong that she can communicate with a woman from a more technologically advanced society.
I don’t want to provide any plot spoilers, so I’ll refrain from telling you any more about the narrative, but it’s an exciting one, a kind of weird blend between boy’s own adventure story and literary thriller.
Despite being written more than 50 years ago the story seems incredibly relevant to our modern-day obsession with appearance and genetic modification, although, as John Harrison points out in the introduction to this edition, it’s clearly a novel of the 1950s, when “molecular biologists were unwinding the DNA spiral; the new science of radio astronomy had filled the sky with invisible objects; quantum physicists were able to reveal that God does, after all, play dice with the universe” and everyone was living in the shadow of the hydrogen bomb.
The Chrysalids is a wonderful, intelligent read, and I’m glad I took the time to reacquaint myself with it. If you’ve not read any Wyndham before then this is the place to start…