Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids wasn't what i was expecting, but was no less well received for it. I think, given that title, and having only previously read The Day of the Triffids, I was expecting this to be more science fiction, with some kind of other-worldly intervention but I'd label this as dystopian.

Set a few hundred years into our future, with most of the world ravaged by nuclear catastrophe, large tracts of the earth are left uninhabitable, with what land did manage to escape total destruction more often than not growing mutated flora and fauna, and even what is left of the human race being prone to mutations and deviations from the 'norm'. It is never stated how much of humanity survived, but from the descriptions of the wrecked land, it is implied that it is really only small pockets. In a place called Labrador, a child called David lives with his preacher family in a mainly arable setting, with very little machinery, so the assumption is that civilisation has returned to a more subsistence level of surviving. It is through David's eyes that we view this story.

However, civilisation is not a good word to use for this post-nuclear society. I used the word 'norm' very purposely earlier on because it plays an important part in their worldview. It is obviously a staunchly religious society, as is made clear by the dogmatic biblical quotes in the first few pages. However on closer inspection these precepts are not quite as we would know them and as the book progresses, it becomes clear that this society is not civilised at all!

"And any creature that shall seem to be human, but is not formed thus is not human. It is neither man nor woman. It is a blasphemy against the true Image of God, and hateful in the sight of God."

What this all boils down to in the end is that in attempt to keep humanity pure, and restore it to God's true intention, anyone who deviates slightly from what is defined as the 'True Image' is cast out into what is known as the Fringes to take their chances. Deviant babies are simply exposed at birth, and all this is regulated by an inspector, because every human being has to have a certificate to prove their humanity. Eventually it becomes apparent that David himself has a 'mutation', although invisible to the naked eye. He can communicate telepathically with other children in the surrounding neighbourhood. When this ability is eventually discovered, David has to flee, with his cousin and younger sister, Petra, to avoid capture. What follows moves a little into an adventure story, with a posse hot on their heels trying to capture them, with a run in with the people who live in the fringes thrown in for good measure. It becomes clear that Petra's psychic abilities are far stronger than the rest, and she communicates with someone far away, who also get involved in the final confrontation.

I really enjoyed this and thought that the points being made were still current today. Some of the descriptions of nuclear radiation were a little dated, especially comments about things glowing in the dark, but when this was written total annihilation was a new thing and was very much on peoples minds. But more importantly this book is about persecution, fear of difference, fear of change and the wrongs humanity can inflict on each other because of fear. The society in Labrador doesn't want change. In modern terms it would be called fundamentalist. David's father has given up his own children because of slight genetic faults, and at one point, he turns away his own sister-in-law who is asking for help to keep her baby because it only has 'a very small thing' wrong with it. He is a despicable character who even joins the hunt to bring back his own children, refusing them the chance of relative safety. He must be seen as a symbol for all that is wrong with a society that persecutes anyone with a slight difference, whatever that may be.

One of the reasons this book worked so well for me was the way the information about the society was revealed. It was a gradual drip feed throughout the first half of the book. Each time David moves on to a new event, we learn about something else that is horrific and dogmatic about this society. Part of the effect of this book is that we could see this happening in our world, and for this to have the impact it does, we need to see this world as similar to ours. If all the information was revealed in one chunk, it would seem too obscure and irrelevant. For me anyway.

I also liked that this was seen totally through David's eyes, and at various points we see his conflict with the beliefs he has had drummed into him as a child, and how he cannot believe that this can be right.

"Clearly there must be a mistake somewhere. Surely having one very small toe extra-well, two very small toes, because I supposed there would be one to match on the other foot- surely that wouldn't be enough to make her 'hateful in the sight of God...?"

This internal debate is what I like most about this book. David quickly moves away from this and sees his society for what it is, but the debate about the rights and wrongs of society rages throughout the book. And although the end is slightly predictable, it does seem to suggest that the author is making a point that all civilisations will see themselves as superior to another and inflict their beliefs into them. David moves into a new civilisation, but is it any better than the one he left?


Charley said...

I hope to read this one at some point, as well as The Day of the Triffids.

Andreea said...

Interesting book, I like the sound of it.

gaskella said...

This is my favourite John Wyndham. Haven't read it for some years, but funnily enough I had been thinking about re=reading it soon.

anothercookiecrumbles said...

I'm yet to read my first Wyndham. The review does sound fantastic though, and I fully intend to read this sometime this year!!

coffeestainedpages said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one. It's been on my tbr list since I read The Day of the Triffids last year. I really must get around to this one soon.

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