Inspiring Older Readers
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
I’m not sure how well the name of John Wyndham (1903 – 1969) is remembered these days outside the dedicated fans of the science fiction genre. Those who have heard of him probably recognise the name of the man who wrote The Day of the Triffids or possibly The Midwitch Cuckoos (filmed under the title The Village of the Damned). Wyndham, the pen name of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was in fact one of Britain’s leading post-war science fiction writers who sold cart-loads of books and wrote six novels and a collection of short stories.
Although The Day of the Triffids is perhaps the best recognised of his titles, many critics rate The Chrysalids as his most successful novel. Set at some non-specific date following a nuclear war – The Tribulation as it is referred to – the action takes place through the eyes of a young teenage boy, David. David lives in a community in the north of what we know as part of the territory of Canada, Labrador to be precise, where they rigorously enforce the literal word of The Bible and hunt out any genetic abnormalities or deformities, ruthlessly destroying them as ‘abominations’ to the Lord. Clearly these deformities and genetic variations are the result of the nuclear fall-out but this knowledge has been lost over time and the community is left with only a vague understanding of the ways of the Old People of the past.
David’s father is zealot-in-chief when it comes to hunting out abominations whether they are animal, vegetable or human and he oversees their exile to the ‘Fringes’ – a lawless area of ‘mutants’ and all things wild and unnatural. David grows up through his childhood becoming increasingly uneasy about this intolerant orthodoxy as family and friends fall foul of the strict tests of normality applied to every living thing. It also starts to become clear that although David has his certificate of normalcy, he is in fact also an abomination –but an invisible one. It turns out that he, along with a small group of others are in fact telepathic and have learned to communicate with each other without speaking.
It’s a secret that will inevitably come out – especially when his new little sister turns out to have the power in an even more exaggerated form than David or any of his friends. Uncovered for their deviation David, his sister Petra and his girlfriend Rosalind go on the run, heading for the Fringes to try and find safety from their persecutors. Petra, it transpires, can in fact project her telepathy over enormous distances and makes contact with other telepaths in a place called Sealand or Zealand (New Zealand?) who promise to come and save them because Petra represents something very special in the evolution of post-nuclear humanity. But will they get there in time and before they are hunted down and killed…….?
The novel is both a gripping adventure story and a novel of ideas but it is written in a very plain, accessible prose that would lend itself to either adults or what might now be called the young adult market. What Wyndham gives us to think about here is a combination of ideas around the nature of religious fundamentalism, hierarchies based on supposed notions of a ‘normal’ past and some thoughts about the ways in which the human species will need to evolve in order to meet the challenges of the future.
The children are the chrysalids that will hatch or evolve into the future of the human race and in doing so they will have to leave behind the superstition and atrophy caused by adherence to old ideas. The dystopia Wyndham sees is not in what we will become as a species but in the way there will always be those who want to hold back progress in the name of some religiously misguided orthodoxy ruthlessly enforced by those who are frightened to let go of power.
Ultimately this is an optimistic vision of humanity. Our old past, our ability to devastate the planet, is banished by our understanding that we need to communicate effectively with each other – the future lies in breaking down the barriers between us not building fences to keep out the unknown.