27 November 2009

Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is a post-apocalyptic novel describing a society some thousand years into a future where some catastrophic event, called Tribulation by survivors in Labrador, has laid waste to most of the world, rendering much of North America uninhabitable or gone wild with mutated plants and animals. Animals and plants with mutations are destroyed; mutated people are either killed or rendered sterile and left to fend for themselves in the Fringes, an area bordering the Badlands where mutations are more common than true images.

David Strorm is son of his community's most zealous supporter of the fight to maintain purity; he is also one of a handful of telepathic children in the area. Realizing that they too are mutations, the children fight to keep their secret, but David's sister, more strongly telepathic than any of the others, is incapable of controlling her abilities and inadvertently reveals the secrets of the entire group.

Opening paragraph:
When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat…
I really enjoyed this book. I have a thing for novels about dystopian futures and also for science fiction that clearly relates to the real world.

In this case, the novel takes place in some future version of our world, most likely after some sort of nuclear disaster has destroyed most of the earth (the cause of Tribulation is never completely described, but nuclear destruction is heavily implied), wherein most of known society relies heavily on a few remaining texts – the Bible primarily – to tell them how they should live their lives. I like where Wyndham took this future world. It's easy to imagine a small group of survivors returning to an agrarian society and trying to build itself up, while also protecting itself from the dangers of the unknown.

I particularly enjoyed the sections where David learns about some of the societies his uncle – a former sailor – had encountered on his travels, regions where both the men and women are hairless, and they think that hair is the devil's mark; and there's another where they all have white hair and pink eyes. In one place they don't think you're properly human unless you have webbed fingers and toes; in another, they don't allow any woman who is not multi-breasted to have children. I liked that this book from the 50s was talking about how dependant "normality" is on perspective. You could extrapolate from those discussions that there isn't anything wrong with being different – having different coloured skin or a different religion or a different sexuality from the current norm – because there is no right and wrong, no standard for normal.

On the other hand, everything collapses by the end. I wouldn't like to spoil what happens, but the Sealander's speeches at the end seem to undo all the good that might have been taught by David's uncle. I like to think that David didn't really fall for or agree with the woman's perspective, but since the novel doesn't go into David's future it is hard to guess whether or not he was swayed by her arguments.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty enjoyable book. It gave me a lot to think about and it wasn't even so dated for a 50+ year old book. Definitely worth a read if you're interested in speculative fiction.

John Wyndham was the author of a number of books from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s. (He died in 1969.) His novels include The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Midwitch Cuckoos. He also wrote short fiction, but is most well known for these novels (and The Chrysalids), which were all published in the 1950s.

Wyndham, John. The Chrysalids. London: Penguin, 2008.
Finished: 27 November 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 six-toed girls
This was my 3rd book in November and my 41st in 2009.

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