Oct 27 2008 10:52am

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.

Helen Wright
1. arkessian
Yes -- a favourite re-read, for all the reasons you set out, and also because it was for me one of the earliest examples of "show not tell" that made me think: kerblam! there are some ways of doing this writing thing that work better than others...
alastair chadwin
2. a-j
Not one of my favourite Wyndhams though I haven't read it since I was a teenager. Might give it a re-read though. A fun thing however about Wyndham is how prescient he appears to be with genetic modification in The Day of the Triffids and rising sea levels owing to melting ice caps in The Kraken Wakes (my favourite). Also, I think I'm right in thinking that he is the only SF author to have an accountant as the hero (Chocky, which I would argue is his best novel)
Clifton Royston
3. CliftonR
It must be charming not to have thoughts that are better kept to yourself.

Oh dear, yes. There is only one person I am comfortable having a telepathic experience with, and amazingly, she is prepared to deal with those thoughts.
zaphod beetlebrox
4. platypus rising
I've read this book when I was 12 and was beginning to realize I was a homosexual,in a household and general environment of loving but strict catholics.
Needless to say,this book hit me like a ton of bricks
-the way the kids in the novel realize they are exactly the deviants their families abhor, the shock they suddenly experience, the need to reassess the religious worldview they unquestioningly absorbed from their parents and the costant fear of betraying themselves in front of their families seemed to mirror my experience perfectly (the fact that the devil I feared revealed itself a painted one a few years later is beside the point).
David G. Hartwell
5. David G. Hartwell

As I understand it from reading the Wyndham bio, he did in fact have a decades-long relationship with a woman, Grace Wilson, whom he married after 20 years. If my memory is correct, she lived in the same building, or nearby.

His body of work is in my opinion extremely important to 20th century SF.

Jo Walton
6. bluejo
David: I don't know much about his life, and I'm basing what I do know mostly on a biographical lecture I heard someone give at the 2001 Celebration of British SF in Liverpool. From the impression I got, he and Grace Wilson lived in the same club for a long time, and when the club closed they married and kept house together. Whether they had a relationship, and if so how long it lasted and of what it consisted, it seems he wasn't prepared to speculate.

Wyndham certainly, as revealed through his fiction, had an exceedingly peculiar view of women.

I'd be fascinated to read an actual biography, and it seems he'd be an ideal subject for one.
Jon Evans
7. rezendi
We studied The Chrysalids in my (Southern Ontario) high school during, mmm, grade nine? Grade ten? It and 1984 were the only science fiction we were assigned to read.
Sammy Jay
8. Malebolge
I enjoyed the Chrysalids, but have to say that Triffids stuck deeper with me; as you say, the readability is one major factor. Another is the way in which he plays to his strengths: creating scenarios, rather than developing and solving them. He sets up this event, but only shows it to the audience on piece at the time, with a flourish that most post-apocalyptic genre pieces should strive for. In fact, 28 Days Later based their whole opening scene on the start of Day of the Triffids, with the protagonist waking up in an eerily empty hospital ward in the same way.
Beth Friedman
9. carbonel
I loved this story when I read it in my teens, in A Treasury of Great Science Fiction as Re-Birth.

It's the one Wyndham novel I've reread multiple times; most of them were only good for one reading. I'm not sure if it's the telepathy that appealed to me so much, or the cast of characters. It certainly wasn't the kind of future I wanted to live in, except maybe in Zealand (and that was the first time I realized that there was such a thing as Zealand that "New Zealand" had to be named after).

After I read this one, I looked up a bunch of other books by Wyndham, but none of them had the same quality of readability for me.
Clifton Royston
10. CliftonR
As well as The Kraken Wakes with its sudden ocean level rises, The Trouble with Lichen (immortality treatment) are also well worth a read as I recall.

I read all of his books so long ago that I no longer remember the odd views of women that Jo is referring to; now I'm interested to go back and see how the characters hold up with my present-day eyes.

One bit of trivia nobody's mentioned yet: after reading Chrysalids, look through the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane's 'Crown of Creation'. Many of the lines of that song are taken verbatim from dialogue in the book, and its theme is the theme at the root of the book.
Bruce Cohen
11. SpeakerToManagers
I read The Chrysalids (as Re-Birth) in my early teens, and it spoke to me about being different and not fitting the expectations of the surrounding culture also. It's really a perfect book for that age, when we all feel alienated from a world that's suddenly become a lot bigger and stranger than we thought it before, and even alienated from ourselves, when we've become something we don't yet understand or are ready to accept. And it is an excellent YA novel, because it does read so well, partly, I think, because everything in it is subordinate to that theme.

Some years later I read The Trouble with Lichen and Day of the Triffids and liked them as well, though they didn't fill quite as profound a place in my head. I wish I remembered them better; I'd like to know what the view of women is that Jo is referring to, but that level of detail is long gone.

Clifton, it's funny, as I said I liked the book, but I remember playing the Crown of Creation album when it first came out (when I was in my mid-20s), and not liking that song at all. It seemed horribly self-aggrandizing then.
René Walling
12. cybernetic_nomad
The Chrysalids was my first Wyndham book and I loved it. A friend lent it to me along with several of his other books and after reading them, I quickly ran out to buy myself copies.

He achieves that rare balance where a book is just long enough to satisfy you and yet leaves you wanting more, yet at the same time you also realize that more would ultimately be disappointing.

There was a discussion on bloat awhile back. Wyndham is a great example of a writer who didn't bloat.
individ ewe-al
13. individ-ewe-al
I am so pleased to see this post! I devoured most of John Wyndham as a child / young teenager, and I thought most of his stuff was fun in a pulpy but forgettable way. I considered Day of the Triffids in particular extremely overrated. For me, The chrysalids stood head and shoulders above the rest, and I've always thought it undeservedly obscure. It's somehow comforting that you picked this one too.

As for the attitude to women, I've long held the opinion that Wyndham somehow independently invented the idea of women's rights, without having any awareness of the actual real world feminist movement. In some ways, yes, his attitude is peculiar, but it's very different from the usual run of misogyny or lack of awareness that women are people. I confess to a soft spot for Trouble with lichen, because I wanted to be Diana Brackley in a way that I very rarely related to any fictional protagonist.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Individ-ewe-al -- what an interesting thought. I like that a lot. If he'd independently invented the idea of women's rights without actually knowing very many real women that could account for it.

There's a short story called "Perforce to Dream" in the excellent collection Seeds of Time in which a man invents a machine that imposes dreams on women. The dreams are of the most romantic nature, and he implies that they are also erotic. The women adore the dreams. At the end of the story the inventer is literally torn to pieces by the dreamers. It's Orpheus and the maenads, obviously, and I always cite it along with Poul Anderson's "Goat Song" as best science-fictionalization of classical myth, but it's also, when read in conjunction with his other work, just very odd. It sort of belongs in my head with Lewis's "The Shoddy Lands".
David G. Hartwell
15. Nicholas Waller
There was a BBC4 documentary about Wyndham a few years ago - in 6 parts on YouTube, part 1 here:

"Drama-documentary exploring Wyndham's unusual private life and the science behind his fiction. The author's private photo collection and his only TV interview feature alongside clips from the movie and TV adaptations of his most popular work, The Day of the Triffids. Chris Langham plays the writer, with contributions by fellow science fiction exponents Brian Aldiss and Sam Youd"

Youd, of course, is also John Christopher, and I think Brian Aldiss is credited with coining the term "cosy catastrophe".
Debbie Moorhouse
16. GUDsqrl
It's lovely to see this somewhat-neglected novel getting so much attention! It's definitely my favourite Wyndham novel, although I also have a soft spot for Triffids. I was crushed when Chrysalids was adapted for radio, and I missed it :(. You wouldn't believe how many times I've watched the Triffids BBC tv adaptation though....

When reading Chrysalids, I loved the experience of working out what had happened to the world from the black glass and the mutations. Altho' a few readings later, I wondered, given that the reverend had written his description of the "true man" so long after the event, how come he managed to get it right.

It's funny that about the working class--my father always used to say that the tv series Survivors was about how the middle classes would cope if all the working class got killed off.

There's a Wyndham archive at the University of Liverpool:

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