The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955) 187 p.
Of Wyndham’s four great novels, The Chrysalids is the one I remember the least, since I originally read an abridged version sometime in primary school. The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic Labrador (a region of Canada), perhaps a few thousand years in the future, after what is clearly implied to have been a nuclear war. The people of Labrador are deeply religious, a defence mechanism developed against the heavy rate of radioactive mutations they suffer. Humans who are found to deviate in any way from the “norm” are either killed or harried out to the Fringes, where they eke out a miserable living at the edge of the radioactive wastelands.
The Chrysalids is a coming of age story about how the narrator, David – whose father is a priest ruling the local district with an iron fist – comes to realise that he is himself a mutant, with the ability to communicate telepathically with seven or eight other children in Labrador. The novel follows his slow realisation that if others were to ever discover their secret, they would be killed. Eventually they are discovered, and are forced to flee to the Fringes.
The novel largely deals with themes of intolerance, bigotry and xenophobia; the awful things people are capable of when frightened or brainwashed. But towards the end of the book, Wyndham’s more familiar theme of two intelligences pitted against each other comes into play. David and his fellow telepaths are more than just mutant deviations with an extra finger or hand, like the others exiled to the Fringes – they have an ability which makes them the next step in human evolution, and the people of Labrador are arguably justified in fearing them. (Incidentally, SFReviews.net is usually quite a good website, but I found it hilarious that an intelligent person capable of writing an articulate review like this could so badly miss the point of the book.)
The Chrysalids is often considered one of Wyndham’s best works, but of the Big Four, I think it’s probably my least favourite. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a great book – just that it falls short of The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos. It’s certainly a simple book, compared to his others, and a bit repetitive in parts. One of the more interesting sections involves David speaking to his Uncle Axel (Wyndham’s staple wise man, like Coker, Dr. Bocker or Zellaby) about his adventures as a sailor, and what lies in lands beyond Labrador. But The Chrysalids is largely an allegorical novel, dealing with the plight of David and his friends in a dangerous world. Unfortunately this is also a basic world, which means a lot of farms and Fringes, and not as many hints about the past or the rest of the world as I would have liked – as you find, for example, in Cloud Atlas, where the chapter “Sloosha’s Crossin” was partly inspired by The Chrysalids.
In any case, a good novel and an important part of 20th century science fiction.