The Chrysalids by John Wyndham


My copy of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is the Penguin Books edition published in 1955. This is the second book I’ve read in the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

As this is science fiction and I’d read The Kraken Wakes, about an alien invasion of Earth and I know that The Day of the Triffids (which I haven’t read) is about grotesque animal eating plants, I was expecting The Chrysalids to be about monster insects hatching out of pupae. It isn’t.

It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in an imaginary Labrador. The people have vague recollections of the ‘Old People’ who lived before the Tribulation (maybe a nuclear war), which they believe God sent to punish the population for their sins. The society they live in now is strictly governed by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, one of the few books that survived the Tribulation. Anything that deviates from the Norm had to be rooted out and destroyed or sent to the Fringes. This applied to people, animals and plants. David Strorm has grown up in a house where the walls are covered in texts such as,

‘THE NORM IS THE WILL OF GOD’, ‘THE DEVIL IS THE FATHER OF DEVIATION’ and ‘WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!’

So when he realises that his friend Sophie has six toes he is worried, and with reason. Sophie is not the only deviant from the Norm, David himself and a group of other young people have telepathic powers and can tune in to each other’s thoughts. When they realise that Petra, David’s little sister is developing even stronger telepathic abilities, David and Petra and his friends flee to the Fringes, where they expect to find fearsome mutations, but hope to find sanctuary. Petra’s long-range telepathy puts them in touch with a woman in Sealand, on the other side of the world, who promises to rescue them.

Wyndham’s story still has relevance today, with its central theme of intolerance of anyone or anything that does not conform to what is considered to be ‘normal’. Intolerance based on what a group of people ‘know’ to be the truth is always scary, especially when they persecute others who believe or think differently. The question of identity is also explored – what it is to be an individual and also part of society. His characters are real people, the story is compelling, and I had to read on to find out what happened as the tension built.

The title, I suppose, comes from the analogy with the evolution of insects from grubs to the adult stage. The people of Labrador are stuck in the chrysalis stage; they have not evolved and do not want to change. David and his friends are changing however and moving towards a more advanced stage of humanity. As the woman from Sealand tells them:

The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.

It’s a book I should like to re-read, now that I know the story. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunday Salon – This Week’s Reading


I’m late coming to the Sunday Salon today, because just as I was finishing writing this post we had a power cut, which lasted nearly four hours and when it came back on I found that I hadn’t saved all of it! Last Sunday the heavy rain that had been forecast held off for our walk among the bluebells, in fact it was a warm sunny afternoon and there were still lots of bluebells in the woods. It’s been a mixed week weather wise – we’ve had sunshine and torrential rain, coming down like stair rods as my father used to say. But it has meant that everything in the garden is growing like mad. I love this time of year when the leaves are still small enough to see the branches. We have two small apple trees and a cherry tree which have now blossomed – promise of fruit later in the year.

On the reading front for some of the week I’ve been in the company of Dalziel and Pascoe, but mostly Pascoe as the book is The Death of Dalziel by Reginald Hill. Because I watched the BBC series before I read any Dalziel books in my mind I see Warren Clarke as Dalziel and Colin Buchanan as Pascoe. It’s a complicated plot with all the sub-plots intricately interwoven. The characters are so believable and the mystery so absorbing that I just had to read it through to the end. It was a while ago that I watched this on TV so, even though I knew what the outcome was I couldn’t remember the details. What I don’t remember from the TV are the episodes describing what is going on inside Dalziel as he lies in hospital unconscious (he was caught in the blast of a hugh Semtex explosion).

This is a nice example. Dalziel is

floating uneasily above Mid-Yorkshire. His unease derives not from his ability to defy gravity, which seems quite natural, but his fear that someone below might mistake him for a zeppelin and shoot him down.

Because he is Dalziel he breaks wind and his

… relief is huge and more than physical.
‘Dead men don’t fart!’ he cries triumphantly.
Dalziel breaks wind again, this time with such force he gets lift-off and accelerates into the bright blue yonder like a Cape Canaveral rocket. Soon the startled starling is nothing more than a distant mote, high above which an overweight, middle-aged detective superintendent at last realises the Peter Pan fantasy of his early childhood and laughs with sheer delight as he tumbles and soars between the scudding clouds of a Mid-Yorkshire sky.
In complete contrast I’m in the middle of The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. Some years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975. In that book I was fascinated by the detail and description of the natural world that Dillard saw at the Creek and I expected her novel would much in the same vein. But for me it is too sparsely written, too economical. The Maytrees is about a couple, Toby and Lou who marry and have a son Petie, living out their seemingly non-eventful lives at Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. After 14 years of marriage Maytree just ups and leaves with Deary Hightoe, which is as far as I have read. Part of me loves this book for the descriptions of the setting and characters, but part of me struggles with prose that seems so detached from emotion.
I always like to have more than one book on the go, so although I’m only progressing slowly with Les Miserables I’ve also started to read Our Longest Days, diary entries of people living during the Second World War. It’s fascinating reading about the war as it was experienced by the people left at home, enduring the bombing of Britain and the threat of invasion. I’m up to December 1940 – Herbert Brush, then aged 71 was living in London, described what he had done to make staying in the dugout more comfortable, with a paraffin stove, a curtain across the entrance and shields to keep the draught off the bunks on each side of the dugout:

It is quite a comfortable place now, when one gets used to the cramped space and the inability to turn over without falling off the bunk, for folk of my size.

It’s a touching account of the war years full of personal hopes and fears.

Finally I started to read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids yesterday. So far I’m finding this an immensely satisfying book, easy to read, and full of suspense about a world where genetic variations are seen as Offences and Abominations that have to be rooted out and destroyed. Chillingly, when a baby is born it has to be inspected and if there is any deviation from what has been decided is normal, ie made in the image of God, even if there is the slightest blemish then it is taken away and never heard of again. My copy is an old second-hand Penguin book published in 1959 and I’m intrigued by the references on the cover to ‘what is unhappily known as – science fiction’, and again as writing that is ‘so unscientifically called Science Fiction‘. I must look up the history of sci-fi writing.