The Chrysalids (Re-Birth)
by John Wyndham
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I bought the paperback pictured to the right several months ago, thinking The Chrysalids was a Wyndham book I hadn't read before. I wasn't even finished with the first paragraph before I realized I was wrong. At least forty years ago I read this under its American title, Re-Birth. The cover image fooled me because the artist's work does not reflect anything directly described in the book, but I'm featuring it because the currently available paperback has a very non-descript cover. Chrysalid is another form of the word chrysalis, the hard-shelled pupal form of a moth or butterfly, and in Wyndham's usage it becomes descriptive of a group of people transforming from one stage of their humanity to another. If I'm not mistaken this is only the second time I've read it, but I shouldn't have waited so long since the memory of it was still strong, so much so that I listed it as a recommendation in one of the very first articles I posted on the site thirteen years ago, Science Fiction: Where To Start. It's possible I enjoyed it even more this time.
Any good piece of literature, no matter the genre, should work on at least two different levels. First, the straight forward, what you see is what you get of the premise, plot and character. You should also be able to read between the lines and see another intent of the author, a way to penetrate the concepts of what it means to be human, not just the what, but the why of the way we do the things we do. Being much younger at the time, as well as a newcomer to SF, I'm sure my first experience with this book was primarily of the former type. Another thing about good literature is that it should stay relevant to readers no matter when it was written. This time I interpreted some things in such a way that it made me think this book is even more relevant now than in 1955.
The Cold War was heating up at that time, and this book is set in a post-apocalyptic future, hundreds of years, maybe thousands, following a nuclear holocaust. The main action takes place in central Labrador, a desolate region of northeastern Canada, but in this future its climate is more temperate. To the southwest lies the Wild Country, and further along is the Fringes, with very little known of territories beyond that. A few sailors' stories tell of the Black Coasts and the ruined cities of the Old People. The society of this region has reverted to subsistence farming and ranching, as well as a strict, fundamentalist approach to maintaining the "true image" of living things, culling out genetic anomalies referred to as Deviations. Crops that don't breed true are burned in the fields, deviant livestock is slaughtered and burned, and human mutations are declared non-human and either destroyed or, if detected at a later age, sterilized and exiled to the Fringes. Most of the human mutations mentioned are not that severe (except in the minds of the fundamentalists); extra fingers or toes, abnormal growth of limbs, maybe a lack of something like earlobes or fingernails. Nothing like the cover art above, which seems to be some human/insect hybrid, so I guess the artist was taking the title too literally.
The main character, and first-person narrator, is David Strorm. He does not exhibit any physical deformity, but from a very early age he realized he did suffer from a deviation from the norm, since he, and at least nine others of whom he is aware, are telepathic. In an early review of the book, Damon Knight said, "...[Wyndham] failed to realize how good a thing he had. The sixth toe was immensely believable, and sufficient; but Wyndham has dragged in a telepathic mutation on top of it; has made David himself one of the nine child telepaths, and hauled the whole plot away from his carefully built background, into just one more damned chase with a rousing cliche at the end of it...this error is fatal." I disagree.
Perhaps if read in that first way, as a straight narrative, then the telepathy might seem a bit over the top. It is certainly the type of thing that I assume turns mainstream readers away from the genre. I'll admit the novel's ending does have a deus ex machina quality to it, and a later character does get a bit preachy. But, on the other hand, if you consider why Wyndham might have chosen that ability for David and his friends, things fall into place in a logical manner. So, what is it I think Wyndham was after? What caused the nuclear holocaust, or as the characters refer to it, the Tribulation? What has caused every war in history, and continues to plague humanity to this day? It is the lack of communication, the lack of understanding, the inability (or unwillingness) to see things from another perspective. David's father is one of the strongest proponents of the strict genetic protocols, someone who sees any deviation from "normal" as the work of the Devil. David and his fellow telepaths learn that full knowledge of another person, their hopes and fears, their frailty as human beings, brings them closer together rather than drives them apart.
As advanced a species as I sometimes think we are, we still have major faults. There are still those who are prejudiced against others for various reasons, their race, religion or national origin, the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. They hate and fear the different rather than try to understand them. Compromise and moderation in politics seems to be avoided by almost everyone. It's still a "Us vs. Them" mentality, "My way or the highway." Sorry to get a bit preachy myself here. I'm not trying to promote any particular agenda, just pointing out what science fiction has been doing for years, or at least what it should attempt to do. It should point us toward a possible solution to our problems, or away from a particular mindset that threatens our future. Wyndham, in The Chrysalids and many other books, has done that admirably. No, we don't have to become telepathic, we just need to learn to communicate better, and that includes actually listening to and considering alternate viewpoints.
There is really only one negative I can think of about this book, but it's minor and by the end it's easily explained. David lives in a very primitive time, and though he has learned to read and write, there are very few surviving books. His narrative might seem too polished and literary from someone so limited in knowledge. But considering he is recounting this later in his life, and considering where he ends up and how much he is able to learn in his new home, it is understandable. It is the main reason the book made a lasting impact on me. Wyndham is a very humanistic writer, similar to Clifford Simak and Theodore Sturgeon, not necessarily in style, but in intent. If only all of us were able to perceive the beauty of the human spirit the way he and David Strorm do. Then we might be able to live in a future as bright as the ending of this book promises.
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