I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction, from young adult favourites such as The Hunger Games to the classics of Orwell and Huxley, but The Chrysalids by science fiction legend John Wyndham (see Day of the Triffids) is a new favourite of mine for how it doesn’t focus on a huge struggle against authority, but rather much smaller battles on a more minute scale – the book centres on the children of a tiny village in a future where a disaster has caused humans to revert back to more primitive, provincial roots.
The story is narrated by ten-year-old David Strorm, who has been bought up in a claustrophobically Christian fundamentalist society, and whose god-fearing world is based on one attribute of this future planet: genetic mutations, or ‘blasphemies’, occur on a regular basis, and anything which deviates from the norm, such as David’s young friend Sophie who has six toes, is either killed or sterilised to prevent the mutation spreading. In this reactionary and volatile atmosphere David and his other childhood friends must deal with their own invisible mutation, telepathy, something they are able to conceal; at least until a series of events leads to them fleeing from their homes and families.
The story, based more on biological than technological advance, is different from many dystopias I have read before. This is because the dystopia has not become inhuman – unlike the cold eyes of Big Brother or the indifference of many in Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale – but more so. It is fear which fuels David’s society, a very human society, and all the characters are flawed; there are no absolutes. The persecutors are evil but the persecuted, the sterile mutants who are forced to live on the fringe of the country, are similarly cruel, misogynistic and violent, though this could be seen to stem from bitterness. Even the ‘saviours’ of the piece (I won’t go into too much detail) suffer from a form of hubris which we see throughout history: the belief in their superiority over those with different races and cultures. There is also the fact that, with its rural setting and Bible recitations, the future Wyndham imagines is very believable – you can, as with Huxley and Orwell’s works, see aspects of the contemporary Earth in his imaginary one.
I didn’t particularly like the main character, but I did enjoy that Wyndham did not make him the be-all and end-all (like Katniss in The Hunger Games or *cough* Stephenie Meyer). In fact, an interesting twist is that his sister Petra is the most powerful telepath of the group, also leading them to safety through contact with the outside world. However, Wyndham makes it clear that power does not make you infallible – it is Petra’s strength which places the group at risk of discovery, meaning that what makes her special also makes her a target.
Another clever example of characterisation is the use of romance as subplot – it makes you feel a lot more for the characters and, while I was vying for the relationship between David and Rosalind, the moment I enjoyed most in this book was the moment when the very small, slightly overlooked character Michael refuses to leave without saving another tiny (barely present) character, Rachel, who is stuck in the village after being able to hide the fact that she’s telepathic despite the hunt which has ensued for the others. It was a moving moment that made you enjoy the book all the more, restoring your faith in humanity rather than (in the style of 1984 and Brave New World) crushing it. (Not exactly a cultivator of ‘Christmas spirit’ but an exciting story with an ending that provides hope for the reader, so not exactly a condemner of it either.)
And on the subject of Christmas, this is my last post before the big 25th. Merry Christmas to everyone on The Student Review‘s team and (if you exist) any readers out there! I hope at least one of my recommendations gets you through the dull post-Christmas lull, or enables you to survive the deluge of relatives I’ve somehow managed to circumvent this year.