Reading about the persecution of any group of people can be a harrowing and heart-rending experience. But when that group of people happen to be children who have done nothing to deserve it except for be born slightly different than the accepted “norm” for their society, the experience is even more devastating. In The Chrysalids, John Wyndham has created a stark and moving portrait of a world gripped by the fear of mutation; whose leaders are convinced that anything that doesn’t conform to their concept of physical normality is not in the image of God, and thus is the work of the devil. What makes the book so successful (like many Science Fiction novels) is that, while the action takes place a thousand years in the future on an Earth still recovering from some sort of nuclear holocaust, the fear and paranoia that inspires the fundamentalist spirit and the persecution of the “other” is something that can be seen and felt today in a hundred different places. By putting a sympathetic face on the struggle to exist in a world that demands obedience and conformity is what truly makes this novel a powerful tale.
The Chrysalids Summary: The setting of the novel is two-thousand years in the future in what is said to be the Labrador region of northern Canada. While the area is relatively warm and hospitable, it is clear that the world is still recovering from the after effects of a powerful man-made disaster, often referred to as the “Tribulation.” Vague references are made to “The Old People,” a technologically advanced civilization that was destroyed during the Tribulation for some unspecified reason. The effects of the unknown cataclysm can be seen in the occasional physical mutations of both plants and animals in the region, all of which are quickly rooted out and destroyed in order to avoid the wrath of god from coming again. The frontier-style inhabitants of the Waknuk community practice a strict adherence to this law, with mutations seen as “Blasphemies.” They even employ a town inspector to verify the purity of both man and beast. But while the land around Waknuk is able to produce a fair amount of healthy crops, we are told in bits and pieces about an area called The Fringes in which mutations are the norm rather than the exception.
The narrator of the story is a 10 year old boy named David, a kind but questioning child whose father is one of the religious leaders of the community and a zealot when it comes to identifying and rooting out mutations. At the beginning of the novel we learn that David has been having strange dreams about a giant, shining city with horseless carts, even though these things supposedly don’t exist anymore. As is often the case with strange dreams in books, his visions foreshadow an important development later in the novel.
Although he has been indoctrinated since birth about the evils of deviations, he begins to question his religious training after becoming friends with a young girl named Sophie, who he eventually learns was born with six toes on each foot. After Sophie is discovered and hunted down by the authorities, David is shocked to find out that humans with deviations are either killed or forced to fend for themselves in the Fringes. The rationale is that since they are not in the image of god, they do not have souls (where does that sound familiar?). But while his concern for Sophie is genuine, he also has to deal with another troubling fact: he himself is also “different,” albeit not in a way that is easily distinguishable. Through a subtle and ingenious technique, Wyndham slowly reveals that David and a number of other children in the community have telepathic abilities that allow them to understand the “thought-shapes” of each other.
While David and his friends’ secret is safe for a while, their unique powers are eventually discovered and the book turns its focus to their escape and survival. While the last act isn’t nearly as powerful as the rest of the book, Wyndham is such a fantastic story teller that he gets us invested in the safety and survival of these unique children (as well as the punishment of their persecutors) to such a great extent. At first glance, the themes in the book are similar to those in the X-men series, where people with fantastic powers are seen as threats to the establishment and are forced to either hide their abilities from society or battle for their lives. But in the hands of a brilliant writer like John Wyndham, these abnormalities and the persecution they engender are taken to tragic extremes that serve to highlight our own society’s perpetual tendency to scapegoat and terrorize any group of people that don’t fall neatly into our conception of what is pure and right. A light read it surely is not, but it’s tragic and moving in a way that most Science Fiction novels aren’t.
Buy The Chrysalids