I’ve just re-read one of my all-time favourite books: The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham. I return to it every five years or so, and have done ever since it first came out in the 1950s. Each time I pick it up again, I wonder, “Will I think it is so exceptional this time?” Answer: yes, it’s brilliant.
John Wyndham is acknowledged to be one of the best British science fiction authors. His books are what I call pure science fiction, as distinct from sword-and-planet fantasies, which aren’t my sort of thing at all.
Wyndham called his work “logical fantasy,” which is an excellent name. He wrote of fantastic creatures and happenings, like the deadly walking plants in THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, and the strange children of THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS. But what his stories focus on is not these creations themselves; rather he explores how they will affect human society, and how ordinary people will behave.
THE CHRYSALIDS (aka THE REBIRTH,) is set in a bleak future following a global nuclear disaster – a war, presumably, because the Cold War was at its most scary in the 1950s. You can call it an anti-Bomb book, but it’s so much more than that. The Bomb has wiped out modern civilisation, reducing survivors to the kind of lives people led before the industrial revolution, and causing a strict society dominated by a stern religion.
In northern Canada, a few scattered small communities of farmers are surviving with no modern communications or transport, no electricity, virtually no books, and no detailed historical knowledge. They have a vague tribal memory that the world was once wonderfully different, “before God sent Tribulation.” The Old People, they believe, were destroyed as a divine punishment, and retribution isn’t over yet. Though they know nothing of nuclear radiation, they know and fear one of its consequences: genetic mutation.
Their religion tries to cope with the fact that there’s only a fifty per cent chance of any living thing breeding true. They believe it’s vital to preserve genetic purity, so any plant or animal that does not look right – that is, exactly like its parents – is called an Offence, and must be destroyed. A human Offence, called a Blasphemy, must be exposed at birth, or if the deviation only appears later, will be sterilised and banished to live outside the law.
David, the story’s narrator, accepts this brutal regime as normal, until he makes friends with a girl with six toes on each foot, and starts to question the whole concept of Offences. Then he finds he has a telepathic understanding with a small group of other young people, who realise that if their unusual talent is discovered, they will become outcasts too. And however careful they are to keep their secret, in a small community, discovery is only a matter of time…
THE CHRYSALIDS is an anti-Bomb book; more important, it’s anti-religion, and indeed any repressive society which won’t allow difference or change among its citizens. Wyndham handles his themes cleverly, with compassion and humour. The result is a cracking good story that keeps you turning the pages, and leaves you pondering afterwards. Its message is as important today as it was in the 1950s.