The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
Penguin 1988 (1955)
Mass Market Paperback
200 pages
Speculative Fiction; Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

It has been a long time – how long no one can say, though surely centuries – since God sent the Tribulation to the Old People (us), near destroying everything we had built and learned. The Tribulation continues: the wilderness – vast tracts of land covered in what looks like black glass – and the Badlands beyond the Fringes, absorbs most of the world. Pockets of civilisation, such as it is, survive with their own form of understanding the past. Genetic mutations of plants, animals and people continue, and everyone has their own idea of what the “true form” should be and focus their energies on zealously destroying the Deviations.

Davie lives in Labrador – at least, that’s what they think the Old People called it – and at birth passed inspection. The Bible and a book written after the Tribulation, the Repentances, clearly outline what the True Form should be, and that Mutants are an abomination to God and Man. Even at a young age when none of this is really understood, though, he instinctively keeps his ability to think-speak with several other children in the area, including his half-cousin Rosalind, a secret. It is only as he grows older, especially after he loses his friend and playmate Sophie, whose parents have done all they can to hide the six toes on each of her feet, that he really begins to understand the dangers of being a Deviant.

This has been on my shelf, unread, since uni, when I picked it up second-hand after reading and loving The Day of the Triffids, recommended to me by my mum. I can’t believe I waited so long to read this amazing book, and if there is one book you should read in your life it is this one.

This book is beautifully, subtly, skilfully written. For that alone it is worth reading. Characters are rarely described yet vividly portrayed through their words, their speech-patterns, their reactions. The feeling of suspense and danger overshadows a Little House on the Prairie kind of lifestyle, and the small-minded bigotry comes across clearly in the small details as much as in the story itself.

What is even more fascinating, though, is the world Wyndham has created here and the philosophies grounded in it. That everyone has their own ideas of what is right, that Davie’s people are studiously trying to recapture the Old People’s way of life without understanding the significance of that way of life being visited by climatic and genetic destruction, speaks loud and clear. Davie is taught that:

…mankind – that was us, in civilised parts – was in the process of climbing back into grace; we were following a faint and difficult trail which led up to the peaks from which we had fallen. From the true trail branched many false trails that sometimes looked easier and more attractive; all these really led to the edges of precipices, beneath which lay the abyss of eternity. There was only one true trail, and by following it we should, with God’s help and in His own good time, regain all that had been lost. But so faint was the trail, so set with traps and deceits, that every step must be taken with caution, and it was too dangerous for a man to rely on his own judgement. Only the authorities, ecclesiastical and lay, were in a position to judge whether the next step was a rediscovery, and so, safe to take; or whether it deviated from the true re-ascent, and so was sinful. (p.40)

Davie himself begins to question this wisdom, after hearing from his Uncle, an ex-sailor, that other societies in other parts of the world have a different understanding of the True Form; he also feels scared and troubled by his Aunt’s baby, who because of a tiny blemish will be taken away and never spoken of again, while his Aunt will be expected to do penance and pray not to have a mutant baby again, or will even be replaced, de-certified and cast off (it’s always the woman’s fault, isn’t it?).

Another interesting (and damning) perspective comes from one of these other societies, called Zealand, one that has advanced and re-built and where think-speaking is treasured and encouraged – a utopia, in fact, for Davie and his friends:

…we can make a better world than the Old People. They were only ingenious half-humans, little better than savages; all living shut off from one another, with only clumsy words to link them. Often they were shut off still more by different languages, and different beliefs. Some of them could think individually, but they had to remain individuals. Emotions they could sometimes share, but they could not think collectively. When their conditions were primitive they could get along all right, as the animals can; but the more complex they made their world, the less capable they were of dealing with it. They had no means of consensus. They learnt to co-operate constructively in small units; but only destructively in large units. They aspired greedily, and then refused to face the responsibilities they had created. They created vast problems, 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. (p.156)

Aside from the disparaging remark about animals, whom I tend to respect more than I do humans as a species, this is such a damning view of us Old People, yet so spot-on. Even written in the 50s, it’s clear that we as people and societies and other groups, are not learning. Most post-apocalyptic fiction, that I’ve read anyway, is entirely plausible (though Day of the Triffids is a bit odd in that respect): it’s easy enough to follow the path we are on, all the paths, to their worst conclusion. What the people of Zealand are really saying is that communication leads to understanding leads to co-operation and can avert catastrophe.

Despite the religious overtones and the philosophising, this is not a lecturing book, it does not try to tell you what to think or judge you. As the blurb says, it is “A terrifying story of conformity and deformity in a world paralysed by genetic mutation” and, in true fantasy/sci-fi form, every reader will take something different from it, or nothing at all. I personally was thoroughly engrossed in this classic, and find it broadens and strengthens my understanding of the dangers of taking things too literally, in strict interpretations. Freedom of thought and debate is one of our greatest strengths as a species, and without it we wallow, stuck, on the same path, repeating the same mistakes again and again, blinded by our own arrogance and lack of imagination.

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