Book name: The Chrysalids
Author: John Wyndham
Publisher: Michael Joseph
Format: ebook, print, audiobook
Genre: Science fiction
Publication Date: 1955
Star Rating: 5/5
John Wyndham was a popular writer of horror and science fiction in the Fifties. His novels and short stories often mixed the two, such as in The Kraken Wakes or The Day of the Triffids.
The Chrysalids is set in a future Canada, up around Labrador and Newfoundland in an area known as Waknuk. There was a Tribulation, as the characters describe it, some centuries earlier that changed life forever.
The reader is able to easily interpret the Tribulation as a nuclear war. Everyone worries about deviant livestock and crops, and even more so about mutated human beings.
Even centuries after nuclear conflict, mutations are destroyed mercilessly whenever they appear.
David, whose point of view tells the whole story of The Chrysalids, is the only surviving son of the most prosperous farmer in the area.
His life is miserable, courtesy of his father’s intense religious beliefs and paranoia about deviations from the norm. This view is shared by his mother, too, so home is uniquely bleak.
David learns early how to keep a secret. His friend Sophie has six toes. She should have been taken away at birth, however her parents somehow concealed her deviation. When it is accidentally discovered, the family flees to the Fringes.
The Badlands are where the nuclear radiation is strongest. Sailors such as David’s uncle bear witness to voyaging past these places, bringing back tales of deformed plants and animals.
Even deviant people can make some sort of lives for themselves in the Badlands if they are desperate enough, though they are so heavily mutated by the radiation that they barely resemble men.
The Fringes lie around the Badlands, offering some sort of haven for deviants less dangerous than inside, but at the price of higher levels of radiation than in settled places such as Waknuk.
Sophie’s deformity isn’t David’s only secret. He is profoundly alienated from almost all of his family because of his telepathy. This is considered a form of deviation, although it is impossible to see how telepathy could possibly be linked to radiation levels.
A group of young people gifted with telepathic abilities forms in the local area, all of them clear that they need to keep their communications a complete secret.
Later, David’s sister Petra is born. Her telepathic abilities are far less controlled, but they are strong enough to reach much further than David or his friends can manage.
They also worry about Petra, who is still very young, inadvertently disclosing their abilities. Yet she could be the answer to their wish to find others like them and join them away from Waknuk.
The world of The Chrysalids is a strange place indeed. The overarching concern about radiation levels and genetic mutations caused by nuclear fallout is profoundly justified.
However, watching out for mutations has become an object of religious zeal, which is particularly unpleasant in its effects on neighbourly relations and even trust within families.
David realises early on that his future lies elsewhere, but how to rescue the whole group and find somewhere to live openly as telepaths is the greatest challenge they face.
Although The Chrysalids is set in Canada, it has a strongly American feel. The story’s themes and ideas are as relevant now as when the book was published.
That is particularly true just at the moment with recent changes in abortion laws and forewarnings of challenges to same-sex relationships in many US states. Anything that is different from the ‘norm’ is judged and condemned.
The Chrysalids was something of a reflective novel, although the latter half featured far more action. The story took place over a number of years, so there was a slight feeling of drifting in the first half. However, the early focus on history and the current environment at Waknuk meant that the worldbuilding was vivid and horrifying.
The backdrop to the story was utterly horrifying, and I find The Chrysalids more rather than less disturbing every time I read it.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested reading in my review of The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham.
Or you might like to take a look at my review of Time and Again by Jack Finney.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri.