Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids is John Wyndham’s take on a post-apocalyptic North American theocracy. The novel focuses on David Strorm, a child growing up in Waknuk, a community in Labrador. Most technological processes have been lost to humanity during ‘the Tribulation’ (nuclear war); civilization has regressed to an agrarian, almost feudal state. Genetic mutations, resulting from the aftermath of the long-distant Tribulation, are rooted out and sent to live in ‘the Fringes’ - areas deemed uninhabitable due to nuclear fallout.

David, the book’s narrator, realises from a young age that he can communicate telepathically with his half-cousin, Rosalind. Soon David and Rosalind discover a number of other children who can communicate in this way. Though outwardly normal in appearance, the children grow up in constant fear that their secret will be uncovered, and they be deemed ‘Deviations’ and sent to live in the Fringes.

Not to give too much away, there is a catalyst that causes the children’s (though by this point, they’re young adults) secret to be discovered. David and Rosalind flee, along with David’s ultra-telepathic sister, Petra, encountering all sorts of dangers along the way, until the story reaches its dramatic conclusion.

The Chrysalids differs from much of the rest of Wyndham’s oeuvre. The book isn’t a ‘cosy catastrophe’, like The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes. Also, The Chrysalids doesn’t feature an educated everyman as its narrator and main protagonist. The book’s dystopian, post-nuclear war totalitarian setting is kind of reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale (always a good thing). The book also reminded El T of Keith Roberts’s Pavane (not exactly an unqualified recommendation).

The most unusual aspect of the novel is its skewed moral compass. For most of its length, The Chrysalids reads like an allegory promoting tolerance. When a childhood friend has to go on the run from the authorities on account of an extra toe, young David doesn’t understand why everyone can’t just get along. The book then ends in an odd coda, with it being suggested to David that it is all right for telepaths to kill off the norms, as telepaths represent the next stage in the race’s evolution; natural selection will kill off all the non-telepathic humans eventually, so why not lend a helping hand? David questions this notion briefly, and then seems to go along with the idea.

Its inconsistent position on the subject of eugenics aside, The Chrysalids is kind of a dull book. Genre novels in the classic 200 page format really need to get going from the first page; The Chrysalids meanders along for its first 100 pages and then, just when it has begun to get moderately interesting, finishes. A real disappointment for a book that some people compare favourably to Triffids (at one time, El Tarangu's favourite novel).

Not one of John Wyndham’s better efforts, El Tarangu would not recommend.

Buy The Day of the Triffids on Amazon.

Image from A Penguin a week.

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