30 November 2008

The Chrysalids

Welcome back to LibraryThing Early Reviewers. This month’s book…

The Chrysalids
By John Wyndham (New York Review Books, 2008/Softcover $14.00)

The reason that John Wyndham’s 1955 post-apocalypse novel The Chrysalids has risen back into print is that its theme of religious fundamentalism crushing the human spirit has never seemed more germane. In its original publication, it must have resonated for Wyndham’s portrayal of a post-nuclear world with mutations struggling to reach a new balance, and the reflections of communist witch-hunts in the puritanical society that must root out differences at all costs. Today, the book’s critique religious fundamentalism and its intolerance of broader thinking is what will strike the reader—and I imagine will strike with force. The Chrysalids feels as if it were written yesterday.

“WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!” So says the Repentences of Nicholson, a book as holy as the Bible in the wastes of a future world some thousand years after God sent the Tribulation. (If you immediately think of the horrid “Left Behind” novels, congratulations—you know the fundamentalist thinking Wyndham is about to address.) “Offences” and “Deviations” must be destroyed when found, and the people of the town of Waknuk in the land of Labrador look out for the dangerous people of the Fringes, who raid into the civilized lands.

The narrator of the story is young David Strorm, who lives in Waknuk with his family, one of the town’s more prosperous and strictly observing. His father Joseph is especially unforgiving in eliminating Offences. One day while playing, David meets Sophie Wenders, the sweet girl whom he discovers through an accident has six toes—a blasphemy according to the Definition of Man. David has the innocence and the kindness of a child who hasn’t perceived yet the hatred of the world in which he lives. Already he is the “free-thinker” who starts to look beyond what he calls “the monotonous Sunday precepts” that do not “join up with reality.”

The true fear here is difference, individuality. The Norm is a sacrosanct word with a capital ‘N,’ and “The Norm is the image of God.” David’s curiosity and his friendship with Sophie brings him more and more into rebellion with the common wisdom.

The book gradually introduces the idea that David can communicate telepathically with other children, and a small group of them have linked together. David’s Uncle Axel, his best friend and a man with a deeper understanding than other adults, informs David never to reveal this ability to anyone. But when David finds out that his new sister Petra has the “thought-shaping” ability at an almost unbelievable level power, his world and that of the others like him will change forever.

The book’s power lessens as it closes in on the finale and turns away from Wyndham’s philosophy and exploration of an intriguing futuristic community and instead heads into a standard action and escape adventure. The post-apocalyptic world outside of Waknuk isn’t portrayed as vividly as the early stories from Uncle Axel would promise, and Wyndham’s simple writing style—so effective for David’s insular world—weakens in this broader scope. The finale, however, is thought-provoking, creating both hope and fear with the new order that David and the others like him find themselves entering.

The other post-holocaust book that The Chrysalids most immediately brings to my mind is its contemporary, The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett, another novel that should receive a new printing in this era when it speaks louder than it ever has before. A more contemporary comparison is Lois Lowry’s young adult classic The Giver. If The Chrysalids were written today, it would definitely fall into the young adult category and have more focus on the teenage lives of its youthful characters.

The retail version of The Chrysalids contains an introduction by speculative-fiction author Christopher Priest, but was not available in my review copy, so about that I can say no more.

Read the review at LibraryThing.