It feels slightly odd sitting down to write a review of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. I first read it when I was ten or eleven – about the same age as the book’s protagonist, David Strorm, when we first meet him. Since then, I’ve read it many, many times – and enjoyed it as much each time.
Falling for that reader’s temptation to spend time with an old friend, I’ve just finished reading it yet again – in fact, it’s one of the first books on my new Kindle Paperwhite.
The story is set at some point in the future. We don’t really know when, but it’s safe to assume that at least a thousand years have passed since today. Civilisation has fallen long ago – and is now trying to claw its way out of a largely non-technological agricultural era. What became of mankind, we’re not told for sure – but a large-scale nuclear war seems the safest bet.
David lives with his family on a farm in Waknuk, part of what we know now as Labrador. Life isn’t easy. ‘Deviations’ (mutated crops and animals) are feared as the work of the Devil and have to be guarded against, rooted out and destroyed to guarantee genetic purity. ‘Abominations’ (mutated people) are sterilised and cast out to the Fringes, a land where little grows true and life expectancy is short.
Physical deviations are easy to spot – an extra finger, long arms and so on. But David deviates in a way that people can’t see with the eye: he can communicate over long distances, with his mind. He’s one of a group with the same curse, or gift. As he grows, it becomes increasingly hard for the group to hide their deviation – and discovery can only end in one way.
In a land that is driven by religion (the Bible being only one of two books which survived the Tribulation, the passing of the old people) David’s father is one of the most fervent zealots, who wouldn’t hesitate to hand over one of his family to the authorities.
So, enough plot. I don’t want to spoil it if you’ve not read it.
To readers of science fiction, much of the above will seem like familiar territory. But remember: this was written in 1955. The Chrysalids is very much one of the first carts to cut grooves into science fiction’s muddy lanes.
It could certainly be said that some of the writing is of its time. A little formal for today’s eyes; a little proper; perhaps – now and again – a little stilted. But what can’t be said is that the book is ever anything less than absorbing – and its tale of prejudice, judgement, intolerance and fear is as relevant today as the day it was written.
If the book has a flaw, for me it’s a grand speech given towards the end – by one of the characters. Again, I don’t want to spoil things for you – but it retreads the themes of the book in a less than subtle way, needlessly repeating and reinforcing the book’s core messages. It’s not a great crime – but possibly something of a stumble.
I personally consider this to be Wyndham’s finest book. The characters are stronger than in The Day of The Triffids; their relationships more realistic, moving and engaging. The prose is wonderful. The plot keeps moving – raising the stakes until it reaches the conclusion.
I can’t deny my deep fondness for this book. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Its values and sensibilities have helped to shape mine. I’m affectionate towards it, as you would be with a loved old friend. It also was responsible for instilling in me a romanticism; a high regard for relationships based on deep love. In a time where most science fiction writers were somewhat emotionally constipated, Wyndham paints the relationship between David and his cousin, Rosalind, in a way that those of us who can’t connect with our minds – and are restricted to physical senses – can only envy.