Though not nearly as renowned as The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids comes heart-wrenchingly close to being John Wyndham's most powerful and profound work. 98% of the book is a five-star masterpiece. Sadly Wyndham stumbles — catastrophically — at the climax, in a way that actually undermines the story's thematic foundations. (To put it more bluntly, Wyndham practically commits literary harakiri.) But up until that point, it's a rich and memorable reading experience made important by the timelessness of its themes.
The most popular trope of the Cold War era was perhaps the post-holocaust scenario, but whereas such writers as Nevil Shute (On the Beach) and George Stewart (Earth Abides) focused on the disaster of global armageddon itself, Wyndham here uses the setting as a framework to address the even more immediate and relevant issues of xenophobia, intolerance, bigotry, and the dangers of holding to strident and inflexible fundamentalist dogmas and ideologies. And all of this wrapped around an exciting young-adult adventure yarn to boot. Rarely has SF produced such a chilling story about trying to survive while hiding one's identity in a hostile culture where your most beloved family member can become your bitterest enemy in an instant.
There is much in The Chrysalids that is a clear reflection of horrors that were still painfully recent at its time of publication. When one character pontificates on the "purity of the race," it's impossible not to recognize the allusion to the Nazis. But what is particularly alarming is how the book's themes resonate nearly a half-century later. Dammit, this shouldn't be relevant any more, but it is, and it's galling. During Bush's second term, when war blights the globe, with laws being passed targeting gays, creationists making strides to invade schoolrooms, and over 40% of poll respondents in a 2004 survey agreeing the rights of Muslim Americans ought to be curtailed, it leaves one's head reeling with the question "How on earth did it come to this?" Hostility towards anyone not just like you has become many Americans' favorite pastime. When we ought to be uniting to defend ourselves from the enemies without, Americans are instead turning on each other, and the increasingly theocratic climate — actively supported by Washington — is only encouraging it. Forget "it can't happen here." It's happening. Wyndham, I'm sure, would be deeply saddened to see how his novel became, not merely a commentary on the past, but a prophetic vision of the future.
The protagonist is David Strorm, who lives in the farming community of Waknuk a couple of millennia after a global catastrophe called the Tribulation, which, though it's never explicitly described as such, was obviously a nuclear war. Waknuk is governed by strict religious dogma — the Bible is one of two books to survive from the time of the "Old People," about whom almost nothing else is known — in which "breeding true" is the most important virtue. Livestock, crops, and even children born with deformities are exiled or eliminated as offenses to God, as they blaspheme the image of Himself which He bestowed upon Man. Beyond Waknuk and its surrounding farm communities lie the Fringes, whose pathetic and deviant inhabitants now and again launch little invasions to steal crops and tools. Beyond the Fringes lie the uninhabitable Badlands.
We first meet David at the age of ten, when he befriends a little girl named Sophie with six toes. Even such a little deformity as this is enough to bring down the wrath of the community, led by David's tyrannical, Cotton Mather-ish father. When Sophie's secret is discovered despite David's attempts to protect her, she and her parents must flee.
The oppressiveness and bigotry of the life David has always taken for granted begins to hit close to home for him after this incident. Because David, and several other of the kids in Waknuk, have a secret of their own. They have developed telepathic talents, and can communicate with one another, mind to mind, using images and words. It's not difficult to conceal, because it's not a readily visible abnormality, like an extra limb. But if the secret were to get out, it could prove even more dangerous to them. For how threatening would it be to the frightened fundamentalists who rule Waknuk if they knew there were blasphemies among them whom they couldn't tell just by looking at them? How high would fear and suspicion be ratcheted? With the exception of a few close calls — including a near betrayal by a girl among them desperate to be normal, who no longer wants to live a secret life — everything goes more or less smoothly until the birth of Petra, David's sister, whose mental powers are exponentially greater than any of theirs.
Some extremely powerful scenes drive home the book's themes without resorting to mawkish sentiment or button mashing. The best of these deals with David's aunt, who pleads for the life of her own baby, whose deformity (the nature of which we aren't explicitly told) she tries to dismiss as "just a little thing." But there are no "little things" to people whose hearts and minds are encased in stone, and the scene has a tragic gravitas, aided immeasurably by Wyndham's understated writing, that never once feels melodramatic or forced.
It is only at the book's climax, following a tremendously exciting flight from town when David, Petra, and their cousin Rosalind — all of whom share the mental link — are finally found out, that Wyndham runs his powerful story off the rails so tragically. So great was my disappointment at what happens in the last ten pages of the book — I was all ready to give this one five stars, gang — that I cannot avoid explaining it in detail.
[Major spoilers follow.]
While fleeing Waknuk, Petra — whose talents are so powerful it's physically painful for the other kids when she uses them — makes contact with an advanced civilization in New Zealand, all of whom are telepathic. Appraised of the kids' situation, the "Sealanders" mount a rescue expedition (mainly for Petra's sake) while David, Rosalind and Petra make their way into the Fringes. Michael, one of their group who hasn't been found out, keeps in regular contact with them so that they know how the pursuit is going. Waknuk has decided to kill two birds with one stone: since the kids are heading for the Fringes, why not turn the pursuit into a full-scale assault on the Fringe-dwellers and wipe out the whole nuisance once and for all?
So far, so good. But at the tail-end, when the Sealanders arrive, something happens that disturbed me greatly, as it literally negates the themes Wyndham has been exploring throughout the whole book. The problem isn't that the Sealanders' arrival in the midst of a pitched battle is a deus ex machina. Wyndham establishes earlier on that they're on their way, and I tend to think of a deus ex machina as a sudden lucky break granted our heroes at the last minute by a writer who's written himself into a corner he can't get out of. What happens is this: the Sealander aircraft shoots out this sticky filament substance, which encases both the Waknuk and Fringe armies, killing every last one of them.
The Sealander woman, with whom Petra has been in contact this whole time, realizes this drastic action might be troubling, and Wyndham has her begin justifying it in a lengthy speech in which her justifications sound exactly like the justifications used by Waknuk. It basically boils down to this: We're better than they (non-telepathic humans) are. We threaten them, so they want to destroy us; we have to destroy them first. That's life. Life is change, inferior species must make way for superior ones. That's survival of the fittest.
Answer: wrong. "Survival of the fittest" — easily the most misunderstood and abused term in our lexicon — is not about "I'm better than you so I can kill you if I please." That's not "survival of the fittest," that's "Might Makes Right." Which is quite a different thing. And it's exactly the same justification used by Waknuk — and, in reality, the Nazis, the Inquisition, and any other gang of self-righteous murderers you could care to name — for their oppression of those they consider "offenses" and "blasphemies." This group of people isn't as good as we are. If they are allowed to flourish, they'd threaten us. Before that happens we must wipe them out. It's us or them.
So the novel's happy ending is tainted, because what you're left with is Petra, David, and Rosalind flying off to an idyllic future which is run by people no different than those they fled from — the only difference is, in this community, the kids happen to belong to the approved group.
Wyndham's further attempts to make the Sealanders seem morally defensible after what they've done only get clumsier. Their rescuer tries to express pity for the Fringe dwellers — "condemned through no act of their own to a life of squalor and misery" — while simultaneously justifying murdering them — "there could be no future for them". It doesn't wash. Either help them or leave them alone. If they attack you, then fight them off, but this is crucial: the Sealanders' self-defense rationale ("we have to preserve our species against other species that wish to destroy it") doesn't work because Waknuk, with its muskets and flintlock rifles, can't possibly pose any threat to a high-tech people with aircraft that shoot deadly goo. (Not to mention the fact they live on the far side of the planet.) It's as bad as the whole made-up WMD threat — "mushroom clouds" indeed — offered by the Bush administration for invading Iraq. And, setting aside the fact none of them has this erudite a vocabulary, one can easily imagine a white supremacist justifying a racial hate crime with the Sealander's following line: "If the process shocks you, it is because you have not been able to stand off and, see what a difference in kind must mean. Your minds are confused by your ties and your upbringing: you are still half-thinking of them as the same kind as yourselves."
I almost needed a crane to hoist my jaw from the floor. I cannot believe Wyndham could screw up this badly, especially when, considering how masterfully he had woven his story up to that point, he seemed to really understand and empathize with the themes he was exploring. How wrong it is for any group of people to set themselves up as judge and jury over those less fortunate or privileged then they are; how damaging and dangerous it is to allow intractible dogma and cant to rule one's life; how the true test of superiority lies in our humanity, our capacity for compassion and altruism. Or, as David's Uncle Axel tells him, "What makes man man is his mind." How Wyndham could convey these ideas so eloquently, only to flip-flop in his climax, is stupefying. If only he had believed in his own story, John Wyndham could have delivered one of SF's all-time masterworks. As it stands, The Chrysalids' near-perfection is marred — like the Fringe dwellers — by deformity.