Saturday, 13 March 2010
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
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.