Fiction Reviews

The Chrysalids

(1955/2016) John Wyndham, Gollancz, £12.99, hrdbk, 201pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21268-8


This short book is a classic of British science fiction.

David is growing up in a world that at first seems a bit like the wild west but, as we progress only a little way into the story, we discover that this is a far future that had been bombed (presumably many decades earlier) back into an almost pre-industrial state by a near-global nuclear war.

No one can quite remember what the apocalypse was, but now they must deal with its aftermath, Tribulation. Mutant births – human, animal and vegetable – occur with disturbing regularity in the agrarian community on Labrador. Mutants are feared and ostracised with an almost religious fervour. But unknowingly, even to himself, David himself is a mutant, though not of form, but of the mind. He and at least eight other children seem to possess telepathic powers. Eventually some in the community realise the children's abilities and so the youngsters are driven out and hunted. With nowhere else to go, a few of the children must travel ever deeper into the Badlands among the outcasts. Things look hopeless but for a possible rendezvous with hope, from the other side of the world.

Wyndham’s post-WWII career was markedly different from his pre-war pulp contributions. Supposedly the writer of ‘cosy catastrophes’ (according to Brian Aldiss), Wyndham’s work was often disturbing within its middle class framework, and was for many years among the only SF regularly found in school libraries (along with Wells and Verne). The Chrysalids is reminiscent – in its treatment of the child mutants, as sympathetic characters in adversity usually brought about by the adult world – of Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels (1950) and More Than Human (1953). Wyndham examined the other side of the mutant coin in 1957, in a style more reminiscent of Van Vogt than Sturgeon, with the publication of The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned (1960 and 1995)), in which the children were anything but sympathetic.

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was known mainly by his principal pen-name 'John Wyndham' but also wrote stories under a variety of combinations of his given and familial names. The Chyrsalids has been more or less continually in print since its publication, though these days we have to wait around half a decade between fresh editions. This 2016 edition, just over 60 years since the novella's first publication, is arguably a good one to get. It is part of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, is a hardback, and has a full colour cover integral to the cover (not as a loose dust jacket): these are the SF Masterwork formats I love: and there is even a yellow tint, topped spine to remind us oldies of the yellow-covered Gollancz SF hardbacks of the 1960s and '70s.

This 2016 SF Masterwork edition also comes with an introduction by Ken MacLeod who notes that Brian Aldiss' labelling of some of Wyndham's stories as 'cosy catastrophes' is a little unfair (as does Stephen Baxter in his introduction to The Day of the Triffids): the story is grim, explores intolerance (on both sides), contains suffering and violence. Yes, it does have a 'cosy' simplicity, but then it is told through the eyes of a youngster. Also, are not those living in a society in which harsh judgement and violent suffering are common place, taking such things as matter of fact commonplace happenstances? Dig just a little and this short novel hits a rich and somewhat uncomfortable vein. However, if you really hanker for a less cosy, more gritty, exploration of much of the same -- post apocalyptic lost civilization -- theme then you can find such with Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz written just four years after The Chrysalids.

The Chysalids will appeal to both a juvenile and well as a young adult, let alone even older, readers. If you have not come across it then do check it out: it really is one of the proverbial SF classics of 20th century science fiction (along with three or four of Wyndham's other books).

Jonathan Cowie

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