Telepathy and Tribulation: John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids

John Wyndham was a very odd person. He was a middle-class Englishman who lived for most of his life in clubs, without any close relationships. He had a very odd view of women. Yet he singlehandedly invented a whole pile of sub-genres of SF. It’s as if, although he was so reclusive, in the 1950s he was plugged in to the world’s subconscious fears and articulated them one by one in short, amazingly readable novels, which became huge worldwide bestsellers.

The Day of the Triffids (1951) certainly wasn’t the first disaster novel, but it established the genre of “cosy catastrophe”, with its slightly silly disaster, deserted city, and small group of nice survivors building a better world. John Christopher wrote tons of them, to this precise formula. I adored them as a teenager. I have a theory that the reason they were huge sellers in post-war Britain is because the middle class reading public had been forced to accept that the working class people were real, but secretly wished they would all just go away, or be eaten by giant bees or something. Teenagers, of course, all quite naturally wish this would happen to adults, so they remain the readers interested in this genre. I’m clearly not the only person to figure this out, as a lot of cosy catastrophes have been republished as YA.

The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), which became a successful film as Children of the Damned, set the pattern for a lot of horror stories about strange children. All the women in the village become mysteriously pregnant, and all the children are born very similar and with unusual abilities. It’s genuinely creepy.

My favourite of his books, The Chrysalids, (1955) set the pattern for the post-apocalyptic novel. Unlike the cosy catastrophes, The Chrysalids is set generations after nuclear war has permanently destroyed our civilization. It unites the themes of Wyndham’s other best known work—it has a catastrophe sure enough, and it has a strange generation of children growing up different in a world that fears them, but it’s a different and interesting world, and it tells the story from the point of view of one of the children. (Wyndham, like Spider Robinson, believed that telepathy would make people get on much better. It must be charming not to have thoughts that are better kept to yourself.)

I first read The Chrysalids when I was about six. (I’d heard of New Zealand but not of Labrador.) It was the first Wyndham I read, and the first post-apocalyptic novel, and the first story about mutants and telepathy. I probably read it once a year for the next ten years.

It’s an odd book to re-read now. I picked it up because I was just reading an advanced copy of Robert Charles Wilson‘s Julian Comstock, which is coincidentally also set in a post-apocalyptic future featuring Labrador where things have returned to something closely resembling the nineteenth century. Wyndham’s (1955) Tribulation is nuclear war and we, as adult readers, understand what the characters do not about the lands of black glass and the prevalence of mutations when the wind is from the south. Wilson’s False Tribulation is caused by the end of oil and global warming. To each age its own ending, and I hope in fifty years this catastrophe will seem just as much a quaint thing people worried about back then. The books make a very interesting paired reading, but it wouldn’t be fair to you to keep comparing them extensively when Julian Comstock isn’t even listed, never mind out.

Like so many books I read as a child, The Chrysalids is much shorter than it used to be. It is only 200 pages long. Wyndham really was a terrific storyteller. He manages to evoke his oppressive world of “Watch Thou For The Mutant” and burning the blasphemous crops is evoked in impressively few words. I have no idea what I’d think if I was reading this for the first time now. As a child I identified totally with David and his telepathic mutation. I felt that Sophie, Rosalind and Petra were solidly characterised, whereas now I see them as barely more than plot tokens. Wyndham’s attitude to women is exceedingly peculiar. It goes way beyond the times he lived in. But the book does pass the Bechdel test, which is pretty good for a first person male novel—the narrator overhears two women have a conversation about a mutant (female) baby.

The real strength of The Chrysalids is the seamless incluing of the way it builds up a picture of the future world from the point of view of a child entirely immersed in it. I also give it points for not making the rescuers from Zealand entirely nice—something I totally missed as a child. There are many conventional ways in which Wyndham is not a good writer—I’ve mentioned the characterisation, and his plots often work out much too neatly. He was much better at thinking up situations than having something actually happen in them. But there’s a writing skill that doesn’t have a name, unless it’s called readability, with which he was well endowed—the ability to write a sentence that makes you want to keep reading the next sentence and so on and on. He has that compelling quality, whatever it is, that makes me want to keep reading a book and not put it down. It got me even on this nth re-read in which I knew in advance every single event of the novel and was also looking deeply askance at the female characters. I was reading it standing up at the bus stop, I was reading it on the bus so that I almost missed my stop, I sat down and kept right on reading it when I came in instead of  making dinner.

16 Comments

Subscribe to this thread