Today let’s step back into classic science fiction, with a guest review by the lovely Chris King. To read his last review, of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, click here.
The Chrysalids shows a different aspect of the same ideal presented in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nineteen Eighty-Four shows an obsession with ensuring that all people think the same in order to ensure the continuation of the same system, while The Chrysalids depicts an obsession with physical purity for much the same end.
The world of The Chrysalids is a post-apocalyptic one; the only two books to have survived are Nicholson’s Repentance and the Bible. The land before this time, as near as anyone could tell, was called Labrador. The setting of the story is probably best described as frontier America. The majority of people live in small communities with pre-industrial technology and raid and are raided by the fringes people – but think of these fringe dwellers as native American tribes people would be inaccurate; these are mutants, they have long arms or thick long facial hair or something else considered Blasphemy, and rely on cunning for military success.
The Strorm family in particular stringently enforces these rules in their household. This leading family of Walnuk hate the mutants more than any other, hating even the government-approved selective breeding mutations. This appears to be because the family may be more afflicted by mutated children than other families; though in this world no one is considered to have been born unless they are free of mutation. Otherwise they are deemed one of the Devil's parodies and meet an undisclosed fate.
David Strorm is a young child and eldest son of the Strorm family. One day, as he is playing with a girl called Sophie, her shoe falls off, revealing an extra toe. David thinks nothing of it and starts to wonder if a Blasphemy was really all that bad. He also has no idea that no one else can see emotions as thought shapes.
Wyndham aptly shows the fear and confusion that intolerant religions like this can prompt in children. As David reaches out to a few others across the region who seem to have the same telepathic ability, they too are worried by the possibility that they are different. The plaques on the wall that warn of the evils of the mutant scare young David, who struggles with his childhood naivety. He knows crops that are a Blasphemy are burnt, and that mutant animals are held down and have their throats slit. Without having witnessed what happens to a person no longer considered human, he has a recurring dream of his father holding someone down and dragging a knife across their throat. Initially this is the multi-toed Sophie but the dream changes to show others which torments David with the idea that his father, the person who he knows he should love, would kill him and his friends.
For the most part the psychic children are able to live life in peace, talking to one another over long distances as the great people of the past were said to be able to do; until they discover another child with the power. She has an intensity far greater than their own and is formless and commanding. They feel compelled to obey and when supposed strangers from all around are riding full speed towards the same point, without apparent reason, the children’s safety becomes more tenuous. Inevitably things go wrong and a witch hunt for these daemon children begins. So they flee into the outer regions (and if you have read another of Wyndham’s books, The Midwich Cuckoos then you may feel the people of Walnuk are justified).
Beyond the Fringes are the Badlands, full of mutated creatures, giant plants and black glass deserts. Beyond are islands of people, all of whom think that they are the ideal of Purity, be it having no hair, having white hair, having webbed toes, multiple breasts or even black skin. One of the islands is called ‘Sealand’ where people live as a hive mind, all thinking and feeling together as one. It is there that the children hope to finally find safety, if only they can tear themselves away from the place they call home and brave the nightmare lands in between.
While we have today progressed beyond the ideas on eugenics of the 50’s, genetic diversity is still a concern to us. We can now surgically change brown eyes to blue and debate persists regarding GM crops and selective breeding. So just because sterilisation or genocide are no longer seriously considered when we discuss the world’s genetic future, it hardly means that you cannot be worried by the people of the world and their various ideas of the physical ideal.
While mental illness is not mentioned in the book as a possible source of deviation, it is possible to recognise elements concerning it. The telepathic children are physically the ideal human, but this just makes their neighbours more scared of them; because the thing that makes them different cannot be seen – much like mental illness is treated today (although I hope that times are changing).
When Anne, one of the telepathic children, marries a normal person without a special mind, the others can tell that she suffers, like cutting off a part of their identity or refusing to use a sense. This is when the themes of identity and belonging become most apparent. When Anne shuns them, the other gifted children are faced with the irrevocable truth that they consider themselves aliens to their home who don’t fit in. Best of all the reactions of the children seem real. The plot is not spurred on by the children deciding to up and leave, but the struggle we all face with reconciling our uniqueness with the need to conform with the place we call home, the place we wish to remain.
What I like about this book is that it has universal relevance: in every society there is a norm which is enforced to some degree, and there will always be those who seek to fit in while knowing that they are different from others. The action is maintained throughout and between incidents, both minor and major, the plot is not slowed with padded character building. Every character is forged in desperate situations and anything else is just skipped over keeping a focus over a long span of years. After all, I believe it is the way we act in a crisis that shows character more than any number of conversations or events in a calm situation.
Greatest Strength: Fast pace with universal plot that has kept the book notable for more than half a century.
Greatest weakness: Deus ex machina climax and short epilogue that leaves the fate of many characters to reader assumption.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘I’m telling you,’ he went on, ‘that a lot of people saying that a thing is so, doesn’t prove it is so. I’m telling you that nobody, nobody really knows what is the true image.’
With many thanks to Chris King for this review. I’ll be back next week with another review.
Read more of Chris’s reviews: