Summary from Goodreads
The Chrysalids is set in the future after a devastating global nuclear war. David, the young hero of the novel, lives in a tight-knit community of religious and genetic fundamentalists, always on the alert for any deviation from the norm of God’s creation. Abnormal plants are publicly burned, with much singing of hymns. Abnormal humans (who are not really human) are also condemned to destruction—unless they succeed in fleeing to the Fringes, that Wild Country where, as the authorities say, nothing is reliable and the devil does his work. David grows up ringed by admonitions: KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD; WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT. At first he does not question. Then, however, he realizes that the he too is out of the ordinary, in possession of a power that could doom him to death or introduce him to a new, hitherto unimagined world of freedom.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is a book that has sat at the fringes of my interest for a long time, neither forgotten nor explored, even before I read and enjoyed The Day of the Triffids. I first heard about the novel from my older brother many years ago when he was reading it for a high school English class. While I distinctly remember him saying he found it boring, the idea of religious extremism directed at physical mutation and/or deformity in a post-apocalyptic world left a lasting impression on me.
While told from the first-person perspective of our protagonist David, the plot is approached from a more thoughtful, philosophical angle. This is done especially early on as David recounts his formative years and the experiences he has with deviations of all kinds and the people who inflict the laws upon them. I liked that these moments were done through the lens of a child’s frank and less biased perspective. The dogma is all around him, but when he happens upon another child who has a minor abnormality he quickly begins to realize how unfair and cruel his society is.
The first half or so of the novel is more of a collection of vignettes such as this that help build our understanding of the world and the prejudices of the people. We also learn more and more about David and his abilities, as well as the other children who share them, though it is a time when their secretive existence is not compromised. David and a number of others in his community share a form of telepathy, commonly referred to as “thought-shapes.” This deviation of theirs allows them to hide in plain sight and makes for a more methodical build as a result, before things come to a head.
Though David is our only window into the world, the characters are at their most interesting as an integrated collection of minds, all communicating and watching out for one another. Wyndham represents telepathy in an interesting way, though explained as difficult to truly express in words. It seems to be not so much reading minds as it is a pooling together, allowing a freer flow of feelings, ideas and consciousness that can be shared and learned from much more intimately than any conventional means of communication. It balances between being advantageous and suspenseful as well, since they can keep in touch and share information in an undetectable way, but they cannot read the minds of normal people. They’re completely lost as to how much the community does or does not know, or how they might feel about it for that matter.
The only drawback for me, though it is minor, is how underdeveloped David and other characters feel at times. They’re not boring or devoid of personality to me, but they feel more like vehicles driving through the more contemplative story. A lot of personal relationships are developed off page, for example, and though this does keep the focus of the novel more concise, characterization does suffer a little as a result. This does shift gears a little in the latter half of the book, however, as events become a more continuous endeavour.
The Chrysalids, despite being over half a century old now, holds up well as a science fiction novel. This world of mutants and telepaths still feels nicely grounded, making the persecution of these “deviations” all the more unsettling to behold. It all feels grimly believable, demonstrating the all-too-real truth of how our beliefs can bitterly divide us as much as they can unite us. It also stands as a dour reminder of the delicate balance our modern world is in, with the threat of impending global disaster caused by our own negligence still lingering at the boarders of our imaginations. If you’re interested in reading from the classic era of science fiction, or just looking for a good sample of the genre, look no further.