The Chrysalids – John Wyndham (Review and comment)

Hello all. Firstly a shout out to John Bainbridge (https://walkingtheoldways.wordpress.com) who suggested I read this book. Thanks John, it’s certainly an interesting story. I had read what is arguably Wyndham’s most famous story – The Day of the Triffids – when I was at school many, many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it, as I did the movie and TV series that followed. I didn’t quite know what to expect of The Chrysalids though.

The story is one of 6 of Wyndham’s best yarns in an omnibus edition hard cover book that I picked up a few years ago and had been languishing on my bookshelves until the prompt by John to give The Chrysalids a read. The blurb on the cover states – “A thrilling and realistic account of a world beset by genetic mutations and of a community whose rules will not allow for any abnormality, even at the expense of its own children – and the chances of breeding true are less than fifty percent.”

The Chrysalids was first published in 1955. It is regarded by some critics as his best novel. An early manuscript version was entitled Time for a Change.

Amazon.co.uk: John Wyndham: Books, Biogs, Audiobooks ...

The story follows a young boy called David, who lives with his puritanical parents and sisters in a “closed community” where the bible is strictly followed. The part of the bible that describes how man is made as a perfect image of god, with 2 arms, 2 legs, five digits on each hand and foot etc. is strictly adhered to. Any plant, animal or human, found to be “deviant” in any way, by the local inspector, is destroyed – or in the case of humans, driven out to live in the Fringes or the Badlands. For humans, the flaw could be something as little as a birthmark, or different coloured eyes, or an extra toe…….”ACCURSED IS THE MUTANT IN THE SIGHT OF GOD”…well, you get the idea.

Early in the story, David has a dream about this fantastic city with things flying in the sky. He tells his older sister Mary about it and she advises him to keep quiet and not to tell anyone else. As David grows, he realises that he is different from the others, but not physically different. His difference, or deviation, or mutation, is in his brain. He discovers that he can communicate with his cousin Rosalind by thought….but it’s not communication by simple words, it’s more a wholeness…a communication that includes feelings, of what they call “Thought Shapes”. He then discovers that there are more children just like him and Rosalind, a group of eight of them scattered across the district, who can transmit and receive thoughts from others over several miles. Naturally, this would be seen as abnormal by the older generation so they have to keep their abilities secret from the “Norms”. They manage this just fine for a number of years.

Meantime, David meets a girl called Sophie in an area beyond the banks of their settlement. Like kids do, and have done for thousands of years, they play and have fun sliding down the bank. One time though Sophie’s descent carries her into some rocks and her foot becomes trapped. David tells her to undo her laces and slip her foot out of her shoe to free herself. Strangely, she refuses and continues to struggle, her foot however is firmly stuck. Eventually, with no other way to escape, she agrees to let David undo her laces and pull out her foot. As he does he sees that she has 6 toes, not the regulation 5. Rather than recoiling and branding her a mutant, he accepts her for what she is and helps her back to her house. Along with Sophie’s parents, David is now part of the inner circle who know about Sophie’s deformity. He agrees to keep it a secret and continues to meet Sophie to play on the bank and in the stream nearby.

One day however another, older boy happens along as the two play in the stream and he sees a wet footmark on a rock, clearly indicating 6 toes not 5 and tries to capture Sophie to take her to the elders – to report a mutant in their midst. David fights with the bigger boy and keeps him occupied long enough for Sophie to escape and run home. But, now that someone else knows about her toes, her parents decide to pack what little possessions they can carry onto their two horses and head for the Fringes. Naturally David is devastated that his friend is gone…forced to flee by the puritanical regime. And for his sin of mixing with the mutants David is flogged mercilessly by his devout father.

He confides in his uncle Axel – who is himself a widely travelled man (for their day and age) – someone who David feels that he can trust with his secret. Axel becomes a close friend and advisor to David and warns him not to reveal to anyone else about his ability to “thought shape”. He also tells David about mysterious lands beyond the badlands.

After a few years, unexpectedly, his parents have another baby, a daughter called Petra. When she achieves the age of about 5, Petra wanders off and falls into a body of water and struggling to make it to the shore – unbeknown to her, she sends out very strong thought shapes of panic and terror which are picked up not only by her brother David, but also by Rosalind who instantly drop what they are doing and sprint off in the direction of the transmission and successfully rescue her. Suspicions are aroused by a few other people who wonder how the two of them knew that Petra was in peril. They claim to have heard her calling for help. They then try to explain to Petra about her unusual ability and swear her to secrecy.

A little later on Petra is again in trouble when she rides her pony into the woods – a place that is off limits – and her pony is attacked by a wild animal and killed. Again she sends out loud and violent “thought shapes” and again David and Rosalind sprint to her rescue….but this time she had sent out such a strong signal that all 8 of the kids who had this “power” came running to her rescue. Unfortunately 2 of the girls were followed by a man, a stranger to them, who demanded to know what this group of kids were doing in the woods and how they had heard Petra’s calls for help, when he hadn’t and was in fact closer to Petra’s location than they. They managed to fob him off saying that they had definitely heard her and eventually he let them go on their way.

However, not long after this event, 2 of the girls were taken in for questioning by the authorities. The questioning soon turned to torture and one of them broke down and confessed to being able to communicate by thought alone. After using hot irons on her, the inquisitors gained the names of some of the children involved. Fortunately the girl managed to send out her thoughts to the others and warn them. David and Rosalind had no choice but to flee to the Fringes and onward toward the Badlands, taking Petra with them.

It becomes clear that Petra’s gift of being able to transmit thought shapes is significantly more powerful than any of the other children as she is able to contact others who share their abilities over a much larger distance. It also soon becomes clear that the authorities are not content with driving them away from the community when they form a posse to hunt them down. A reward is issued to take them prisoner preferably….or to kill them all. The kids are soon running for their lives – threatened not only by the pursuing posse, but also by the mutants and outcasts already dwelling in the Fringes and the Badlands.

I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who wants to read it by telling you any more of how things progress or the ending. But let me just say that Petra’s range of thought shaping is vast. More powerful than anyone else on earth. For anyone who likes a little SciFi or Dystopia it’s certainly worth reading.

My own thoughts….just the standard sort of thoughts…I don’t have the ability to send out thought shapes, is that the puritans (or Norms) are too set in their ways and are totally inflexible when it comes to anything that deviates from the normal. In their world you can’t have anything to do with evolution. An evolved being would be considered a mutant and destroyed. They are very reluctant to accept change of any kind and so live what we would term a rather backward existence. It seems that perhaps the old world has been destroyed by nuclear war – hence the genetic mutations and the Badlands where nothing grows and the survivors have gone back to a subsistence existence and have embraced the teachings of the bible for guidance. But the rigidity of sticking exactly to the Word is their downfall.

In modern life it’s a timely reminder to us all that “different” doesn’t automatically mean inferior and we need to embrace all types of people. Not turn them away or shun them for being different – whatever that difference may be. The current situation with the Coronavirus outbreak has sparked racism against the Chinese. We need to recognise that it’s not the Chinese people who are the enemy, it’s the virus.

Thank you again for reading my blog posts. If anyone else has read the Chrysalids – what was your take on the story? And again thanks to John Bainbridge for recommending the book to me. For anyone interested in history and walking in the UK, John’s blog is well worth a visit. The link is in the first paragraph at the start of this post.

Lecture 06 - Some Characteristics of SF

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