Sunday, July 10, 2011

Classic Science Fiction: The Chrysalids byJohn Wyndham, a review.

The Chrysalids, first published in 1955, is by English author John Wyndham. I remember reading, arguably Wyndham's most well known novel, The Day of the Triffids when I was about 13 and couldn't get over how exciting and scary it was. So it has been interesting for me to return to a Wyndham novel. Mind you, I am going through a bit of a flirtation with sci-fi, currently, and loving it.

Firstly The Chrysalids does not have much in common with The Day of the Triffids in terms of its plot. The Chrysalids is set in a future post apocalyptic world called Labrador, where life has returned to a pre industrialised state and the primary concern is farming. Our protagonists live in the small village of Waknuk.  When the novel opens David is 10, and largely ignored by his hard working, fundamentalist family.  David befriends Sophie who has six toes on each foot.  He is confused because under the doctrine that has been taught to him since birth, any "deviations" from the strict physical norm are seen as blasphemies and must be discovered and destroyed or banished, at all cost.  Genetic "purity" is pursued ferociously not just in people, but crops, and livestock.

The treatment of Sophie at the hands of David's father, who is a prominent community leader, leaves a lasting impression on him and he begins to question this so-called natural order of things.  Subsequently a small group of the village children, including David, discover they have telepathic powers, whereby they are able to communicate with each other using "thought shapes."  For the next decade the group of telepathic children live in fear of discovery and sterilization and banishment to The Fringes, a wild, inhospitable land where human deviations are sent, including children.

Concealment of their special abilities works, until David's much younger sister begins to show signs of very strong telepathic, projection powers; far stronger than any of the other children, and due to her young age she has little control over this power which brings the group to the brink of disaster.  They are forced to flee.

What works about about this novel?  I liked the tone and fast pace of the story.  In a way, it reminded me a little of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Not so much the plot, which is completely different, but the pace, and the idea of a group of young people having to fight against societal limits and tyrannical rules.  There is also a scene where members of the group have to seek refuge in a cave, which brought to mind a similar scene in The Hunger Games.  Like the Hunger Games, the adolescents' trials, form part of their development and character, as they are forced to reject a long established status quo and literally fight for their lives.  I also liked some of the literary devices used.  The "telepathy" intensifies the action as, even though different members of the group become captured and separated, they still contribute to the action of the fleeing group as they can communicate over distance.  One of the undiscovered telepaths joins the pursuing forces so he can keep David and the others informed.  Keeping everyone in contact, certainly increased the momentum of the story.

Limitations:  The ending is a bit silly, and doesn't really fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.  There is literally an "out of the blue" resolution that took the novel from being tense and compelling to a bit trite and Hollywood. 

Overall, this is a small matter, I could scarcely put the book down.  For those who haven't read any Wyndham, and would like to, I would recommend reading The Day of the Triffids (1951) first.  It's appeal, compared to Chrysalids, which is still marvellous, is that the apocalypse happens in the modern (twentieth century) era, and the Triffids are, frankly, the scariest creatures you can imagine.  I will have to read The Day of the Triffids again, because I am sure as a 12 or 13 year old reader, much of the societal comment would have been lost on me.

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