Over the years, I’ve read a lot of good science fiction, as well as a lot of not-so-good. However, there are also a lot of truly great science fiction novels. These are works that, while tethered to the time and place to which they were written, also connect past and future together. Great science fiction invites us to examine the complexity of our choices and how our interactions contribute to the future. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is one of those great novels. While the writing style is very much reminiscent of a work of sci-fi from the 1950’s, its ideas and the implications for the future are what make this work a memorable book. This is a novel that I’ve been intending to read for quite some time, having enjoyed both The Day of the Triffids and Out of the Deeps. In a radical departure from Wyndham’s other novels, set in present-day England, The Chrysalids takes us to a future Earth, one that has experienced the devastation from nuclear war. Unlike the earlier two works, which both have a rather straight-forward plot, Wyndham takes a much more philosophical and thoughtful approach in his examination of religious extremism directed at anyone who is deformed or mutated. On a larger scale, this is a novel that examines the horrors of judging someone who is different.
This is accomplished early in the novel as our protagonist David recalls his formative years and his encounters with deviations of all kinds and the people who inflict laws upon them. David has grown up in a community that views any deviation from the norm as wrong. It is a society whose tenets include “KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD” and “BLESSED IS THE NORM.” David finds that he is often looked at with trepidation simply because he is left-handed. I liked that these moments were done through the lens of a child’s frank and less biased perspective. The dogma is all around him, but when he happens upon another child who has a minor abnormality, he quickly begins to realize how unfair and cruel his society is.
The first half or so of the novel acts as more a collection of vignettes than an actual novel. This isn’t bad, as this structure helps build our understanding of this world and the prejudices of its people. We also learn more about our protagonist David and his secret abilities, as well as the other children who share them. David and a number of others in his community possess a form of telepathy, commonly referred to as “thought-shapes.” This deviation of theirs is kept secret, as the only adult who knows is David’s uncle, who works diligently in making sure his nephew doesn’t risk exposure.
Though David serves as a window into this world, the characters are at their most interesting as an integrated collection of minds, all communicating and watching out for one another. Wyndham’s representation of telepathy is interesting. Rather than about the reading of minds, it’s more about ideas and feelings being pooled together under a shared consciousness. Those that possess the gift are able to communicate mentally over great distances, but they are at a disadvantage in not being able to read the minds of neurotypical people. This helps create a nice level of tension as it often leaves David and his friends in the dark with regards to just how much the elders of the community actually know. We are also completely clueless as to what actually happens to those discovered with deviations. Are they killed, kept in isolation somewhere, or perhaps something far more sinister?
While I found The Chrysalids to be an important work of science fiction, my one complaint would be how often the other characters felt underdeveloped. This is definitely a work whose strengths are plot and atmosphere, rather than deep characterization. That’s not to say they are boring, but I did find them unmemorable. A lot of the relationships appear to be developed off page, so while it keeps the focus on the novel more on action, characterization does suffer as a result.
Despite being written over half a century ago, The Chrysalids holds up just as well as any contemporary piece of science fiction. While rooted in the time it was written, during the post-war years of British austerity, this is a work of fiction that also can be applied to contemporary themes, such as religious extremism and acceptance of others who are different. Wyndham’s world of mutants and telepaths feels sadly believable, demonstrating how beliefs can either unify us, or completely divide us. The novel also serves as a frightening reminder of present-day horrors, such as the threat of nuclear war and global disaster. Science fiction stories continue to not only inspire but also serve as cautionary tales as to the choices we make.