First edition hardback cover
|Cover artist||Spencer Wilson|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Preceded by||The Kraken Wakes|
|Followed by||The Midwich Cuckoos|
The Chrysalids (United States title: Re-Birth) is a science fiction novel by British writer John Wyndham, first published in 1955 by Michael Joseph. It is the least typical of Wyndham's major novels, but regarded by some as his best. An early manuscript version was entitled Time for a Change.
The inhabitants of post-apocalypse Labrador have vague knowledge of the "Old People", a technologically advanced civilisation they believe was destroyed when God sent "Tribulation" to the world to punish their forebears' sins. The inhabitants practise a form of fundamentalist Christianity; they believe that to follow God's word and prevent another Tribulation, they must preserve absolute normality among the surviving humans, plants and animals, and therefore practice eugenics. Humans with even minor mutations are considered blasphemies and either killed or sterilised and banished to the Fringes, a lawless and untamed area rife with animal and plant mutations, and suggested to be contaminated with radiation. Arguments occur over the keeping of a tailless cat or the possession of over-sized horses. These are deemed by the government to be legitimate breeds, either preexisting or achieved through conventional breeding. The government's position is considered both cynical and heretical by many of the orthodox frontier community, and it is suggested that they support the usage of these animals for the sole purpose of their greater efficiency.
The inland rural settlement of Waknuk is a frontier farming community, populated with hardy and pious individuals, and is where the story mainly takes place. David Strorm, the son of Waknuk's most religious man, Joseph Strorm, has dreams of large cities and "horseless carts", although he does not understand why he has these dreams or what they mean, and is cautious about mentioning it to his father, lest he raise suspicion that he's a mutant. He makes friends with Sophie, a girl who secretly has six toes on one of her feet. Later, Sophie's family attempts to escape from the reprisals (ceremonies where blasphemies are sterilized) when, having walked ashore from swimming, her wet footprints are observed by a local boy.
David and other children in Waknuk hide their form of mutation: telepathy. David's Uncle Axel, who knew about the group from talking to David about his telepathy when he was young, protects them from persecution. Axel kills the husband of one of the group's members (the boy who told the Inspectors about Sophie) because he was going to blackmail the telepaths with the threat of revealing their mutation to the Inspectors. When David's younger sister, Petra, cries out to the other telepaths mentally for help when a large catlike creature attacks her horse while she was riding into the forest, they become stunned and immobilized seemingly randomly, and thus almost get outed.
Later, two telepaths, Katherine and Sally, are captured and tortured for information, while David, his cousin Rosalind, and Petra go to the Fringes. A telepath named Michael stays behind to throw off the people who are tracking the telepaths. A group of men from several districts chase them. The group includes Michael, who is trying to lead them off the trail. Later, with Petra's strong telepathic abilities, they contact a society with telepaths in a different country, called "Sealand" (New Zealand). With Sophie's help, who is living in the Fringes, David, Rosalind, and Petra escape the group hunting them and are rescued by a Sealand expedition. Unfortunately, they do not have enough fuel to take the craft back to Waknuk to pick up Rachel, the lone remaining Waknuk telepath; instead, they continue to Sealand. Michael stays in Waknuk to save Rachel from the Inspectors.
Though the nature of "Tribulation" is not explicitly stated, it is implied that it was a nuclear holocaust, both by the mutations and by the stories of sailors who report blackened, glassy wastes to the south-west where the remains of faintly glowing cities can be seen (presumably the east coast of the US). Sailors venturing too close to these ruins experience symptoms consistent with radiation sickness. A woman from Sealand, a character with evident knowledge of the Old People's technology, mentions "the power of gods in the hands of children", referring to the nuclear capabilities of world power which were lead by incompetent political leaders.
- David Strorm is the narrator of the story. David is one of a small group of youngsters who can communicate with each other via telepathy. However, their community's theological prejudice against anyone who is abnormal means he and the others must keep their abilities carefully hidden. David and Rosalind's love for each other is kept secret from their parents because of a bitter feud between their families.
- Sophie Wender is a young girl born with six toes on one of her feet. Sophie lives with her parents in an isolated cottage somewhere north-west of Waknuk, her deviation from the "norm" keeps her from associating with other children. She befriends David after he discovers her secret but promises not to reveal it.
- Joseph Strorm is the father of David and Petra. He is a domineering personality, deeply religious, and unyielding on the subject of mutations and blasphemy, even punishing David severely for an unintentionally blasphemous remark about "needing an extra hand" to apply a bandage.
- Uncle Axel is a widely travelled former sailor, open-minded and willing to question conventional religious precepts. Upon discovering David's telepathy, he counsels caution and extracts a promise that David take great care not to allow others to learn of his mutation.
- Petra Strorm is the youngest of the Strorm children. The group of telepaths discovers that her ability is extraordinarily strong and difficult to resist, placing the group at greater risk of discovery.
- Rosalind Morton is David's closest friend among the group of telepaths. They become more of a couple later on in the book. She lives on a neighbouring farm and is David's half cousin.
- The Sealand woman and her people are from a more technologically advanced society where telepathic ability, while not ubiquitous, is far more common and is accepted, promoted and studied. The woman calls her country "Zealand", but the telepaths insist on calling it "Sealand" instead.
- Michael is the most objective, perceptive and decisive of the telepaths, the best educated, and in many ways plays a leading role in the group despite his physical absence from events in the story. His telepathic abilities remain secret, and during the pursuit into the Fringes he joins the leading posse to give updates and warnings to David, Rosalind and Petra as they flee.
- Rachel is the last remaining telepath in Waknuk after David, Rosalind and Petra depart to Zealand. As her own elder sister who was also a telepath had committed suicide earlier in the book, her possible fate of being left alone whilst the others depart, carries even greater pathos. As an act of heroism, commitment and love, Michael remains behind with Rachel when they find out that the aircraft bringing the four of the telepaths to Zealand does not have enough fuel to also collect Rachel from Waknuk and get home again. He declares the intention to find some other way to come to Zealand with Rachel at some future time.
Allusions to actual geography
The inland village of Waknuk (Wabush) is in southwestern Labrador. Labrador has become a much warmer place in the fictional future, with large tracts of arable land. Rigo (Rigolet) is the capital of Labrador and the fictional government in the book, a fairly large river town near the east coast. The port of Lark (Lark Harbour) is mentioned as a way-point on the west coast of the island of Newf (Newfoundland) where sailors may obtain provisions.
A large island to the north-east (Greenland) is rumoured to be inhabited by an amazonian people with bizarre habits. Northern islands are described as being cold and inhabited chiefly by birds and sea animals (islands of Nunavut). Uncle Axel, a former sailor, has travelled far to the south of Labrador, and from a distance seen the "Black Coasts", where there are areas with what look like ruins of the old civilisation. He also recounts second-hand tales of South American primates living in forests.
Later, the existence of geographic areas far less affected by the nuclear exchange and fallout are established, particularly Sealand (New Zealand), which is home to a socially and technologically advanced society where telepathy not only is the norm, but is encouraged and developed as a survival advantage.
Although stylistically The Chrysalids does not differ markedly from Wyndham's other novels, the subject matter is rather different. While most are set against a mid-twentieth-century English middle-class background, The Chrysalids is set in a future society which is described in some detail. Unlike most of his novels, it is also a coming-of-age story.
J. Francis McComas, reviewing the American release for The New York Times, declared that the "outstanding success" of the novel lay in Wyndham's "creation of humanly understandable characters that are, after all, something more and less than human" and concluded that the novel "will be well noted and long remembered".
The critic and science fiction author Damon Knight wrote that 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."
SFreviews.net gave a mixed review, stating that "The Chrysalids comes heart-wrenchingly close to being John Wyndham's most powerful and profound work", but that "Wyndham stumbles—catastrophically—at the climax, in a way that actually undermines the story's thematic foundations".
The novel also got some positive reviews. The Ottawa Citizen judged the novel as "brilliant" and "a top-notch piece of sci-fi that should be enjoyed for generations yet to come". The Guardian described it as "a remarkably tender story of a post-nuclear childhood" and "a classic to most of its three generations of readers". Hartford Courant reviewer George W. Earley praised it as "a compelling story and Mr. Wyndham's best novel to date."
Galaxy reviewer Groff Conklin praised the novel as "so skillfully done that the fact that it's not a shiny new idea makes absolutely no difference". Anthony Boucher similarly found the novel made "something completely fresh" out of a familiar theme, commending Wyndham's "accumulation of minutely plausible detail" and "greater depth and maturity than he has shown in previous novels". Writing in Astounding, P. Schuyler Miller reported that Wyndham "has made the Mutant theme believable in a way that Odd John, Slan and the stories of the Baldies never quite were".
Critics have disagreed with Wyndham's implication that two differently evolved species must necessarily fight to the death. Wyndham justifies this in a lengthy speech from the Sealand woman near the end of the novel, but her reasoning seems at odds with the implicit plea for tolerance in the earlier part of the novel. This implication also exists in The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos.
The novel was adapted by Barbara Clegg as a single 90-minute drama for BBC Radio 4, directed by Michael Bartlett, and first broadcast on 24 April 1981. The cast includes:
- Stephen Garlick – David
- Amanda Murray – Rosalind
- Judy Bennett – Petra
- Spencer Banks – Michael/Alan
- Philipa Ritchie – Katherine
- Jenny Lee – Rachel
- Kathryn Hurlbutt – Anne
This version was released on CD by BBC Audiobooks in 2007.
In popular culture
The song "Crown of Creation" by Jefferson Airplane was inspired by the novel. Its title and lyrics are drawn from the text and plot with permission from Wyndham. One example lifted almost verbatim from the text reflects a philosophical explanation by the New Zealand woman: "But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks, change is its very nature." This line is rendered in the lyrics as "Life is change—How it differs from the rocks." The portion of the song that reads: "In loyalty to their kind / they cannot tolerate our minds. / In loyalty to our kind / we cannot tolerate their obstruction" is from an explanation by the New Zealand woman that asserts the inevitability of conflict between a more advanced species and its less advanced progenitors. (The book's original phrase is "they cannot tolerate our rise".)
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