By John Wyndham
I’ve had this sweet 1965 Penguin paperback edition for years and years. And for some unfathomable reason, I never bothered to read this 1955 sci fi classic… until now.
I guess I’ve always been a bit picky about which books I want to read. But I think being part of the 50-Books blog-circle the past 3 years has really opened my mind to exploring books I’ve always been curious about, but never felt a strong enough compulsion to indulge. Recent examples have been Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Watchmen, and Animal Farm. And hey, I already broke last year's record of reading 19 books!
But out of all of these golden oldies, The Chrysalids is my favourite so far, mostly because the confluence of elements that make an excellent novel are all there: a simple yet effective story, first-rate narration, well-developed characters, formidable foes, oodles of tension, conflict, loss and sacrifice, powerfully enduring and relevant themes, and a satisfying resolution. There is a timelessness to The Chrysalids that does not feel dated for the most part, even when dealing with male-female relationships or ideas about the future. Not bad for a novel that was written in the 1950s, and this is a real tribute to Wyndham’s writing talents.
I believe most of you are familiar with the premise of The Chrysalids. It’s a classic post-apocalyptic tale about the survival of the human race after the planet is devastated by nuclear holocaust. Thousands of years later, where the land hasn’t been scorched black, vegetation and wildlife return (and reproduce to some degree of normalcy), and human civilization starts anew. Although genetic mutations run less rampant, they still exist, and the fear of deviations among these frontier societies proliferates into an institutionalized fanaticism to keep strains of livestock and agriculture “pure” like they were in times before the “Tribulation”. Any plant or animal species that deviates from the norm are called “Offences”, and thus promptly destroyed.
Nowhere is this practiced more zealously than in the farming villages of Labrador (yeah, Canada!), where the culture seems to be modeled after orthodox Christian communities of the 19th century. And human deviations, known as “Blasphemies”, are feared the most (what is done to these Blasphemers are not revealed until later in the novel ;-) Although it is easy enough to spot a physical deformity, like an extra finger or toe, unbeknownst to the villagers of Waknuk, a small group of young people soon discover they have the ability to silently communicate with one another across distances with their minds…
There is so much more going on, however, that I’d rather not ruin with summarizing. In any case, there are already many things written online about The Chrysalids. As it’s a compact novel, you’re better off just reading this for yourself (or re-reading if it’s been a long time, as in the case for Olman).
What I also appreciate about The Chrysalids are Wyndham’s Darwinist ideas ("But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks, change is its very nature") and his uncompromising stance against fundamentalist religious views, ie. Christianity, which are almost always based on fear of change and/or fear of the unknown. Wyndham does a bang-up job portraying the stranglehold of frightful oppressiveness that surrounds the village of Waknuk, and the constant vigilance the invisible minority of mutants must maintain on a daily basis in order to protect themselves. The panel inscriptions that decorate the God-fearing home of the Strorm family are priceless in themselves:
ONLY THE IMAGE OF GOD IS MAN
KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD
IN PURITY OUR SALVATION
WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!
THE NORM IS THE WILL OF GOD
THE DEVIL IS THE FATHER OF DEVIATION
Change is what’s needed most for the most dominant and self-delusional species on Earth. Wyndham seems to be saying that human beings are, not just tragically flawed, but totally fucked, and if we don't end up destroying ourselves and our environment, the only hope we have is the remote possibility of evolving into something better.
< WARNING -- SPOILER >
In the end, the discovery of a telepathically-evolved race of human beings and their advanced society in faraway Sealand (yeah, New Zealand!) gives hope to the persecuted mutants of Labrador.
< END OF SPOILER >
Another good thing about reading John Wyndham for the first time is the pleasure of looking forward to reading his other classics. Yay!