John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which is being reissued by New York Review of Books Classics, is primarily an idea novel. It is also a page-turner, despite a premise that may sound discouragingly familiar to a modern reader (the book was written in 1955). Set in a post-apocalyptic future where human beings are struggling for survival, the novel tells the story of a boy who discovers he possesses mutant powers. The discovery is problematic, since the society into which he is born is at war with mutants. So far this may sound like the plot of an X-Men comic book. However, Wyndham isn’t interested in nifty mutant-power tricks or spectacular super-human battles. He is concerned, instead, with those characteristics of humanity that make genetic mutation such a rich subject for fictional exploration: our self-love and tendency to elevate our species above all others, our desire for control, our fear of change and of the other, and the intolerance that these often breed. These themes would make the novel relevant at any period in human history, but they are of course especially resonant in America today, as religious and conservative groups are asserting their political power.
In The Chrysalids, the religious fundamentalists are firmly in control, and have been for some time. And their most sacred commandment is to keep the stock of the Lord pure, free of unholy deviations. They are intent on rebuilding the world as it was before the cataclysm that had plunged them into a dark age made worse by genetic instability. No one knows what that world was like, nor why it would be desirable to rebuild it, since that world had resulted in catastrophe. But reason is no match for dogma, and children that are determined to be different from the prescribed norm are taken away, sterilized, and banished to the wild “fringes” (a sentence actually seen as too soft by the old-timers, we learn, who remember the days when man, animal and crop alike were destroyed outright if found deviant). This fate awaits David, the novel’s protagonist, if his secret is discovered. And while he is the son of a man of some importance, his father is also the most zealous about applying the letter of the law in cases of deviation. David’s situation is helped by the fact that his mutation is not visible: he is capable of a telepathy of sorts, which both saves him from immediate detection and allows him to locate others of his kind. By learning from each other and coordinating their actions, the members of the group are able to remain hidden for quite some time, but the birth of David’s youngest sister, who happens to possess tremendous extra-sensory powers, blows this cover and forces them to escape to the fringes.
The story’s denouement is something of a deus ex machina, and it gives the author another chance to deplore (and punish) man’s arrogance in deeming himself the pinnacle of evolution. Yet it is a satisfying finale to a fast-moving, laconically told, and ultimately hopeful–even if the hope is reserved for a being not quite human- tale about man’s struggle to rise above himself and reach the next, the higher level of existence.
–Ilya Lyashevsky lives in Brooklyn, where he writes fiction and software. His current project, combining technology and literature, can be found here.