On My Bookshelf: The Chrysalids

the chrysalidsI read this sf novel as a boy–it was published in the US under the title Re-Birth. Neither title really attracts me, but the story does. Let me tell you a bit about it.

This 1955 novel by the British author John Wyndham is a coming-of-age story set unknown centuries after worldwide nuclear war. Humankind is emerging from a dark age, and the protagonist, David, lives in a culture of religious fundamentalism on the island of Labrador. His parents are even more rigorist in their approach to life as “civilization” attempts to reclaim “the Fringes” from mutations, including mutated humans.

The one piece I remembered was David’s befriending of Sophie–both of them are about age ten. Sophie has a problem that renders her non-human by the authorities: she has a sixth toe on each foot. To David she seems to be a normal girl, courageous as well. Her parents have tried to hide her mutation from the authorities, but she is eventually found out, and David pays a heavy price for his loyalty.

Other elements pull together in the boy’s life, and it turns out he has a significant mutation of his own: an ability to communicate telepathically with a handful of other children in Labrador. They cautiously maintain their network, but one-by-one they are tested, found out, or attempt to assimilate into “normal” society. This subterfuge is complicated by David’s younger sister Petra who has a mental ability far beyond the power of her older brother and his conrades.

Before this book resolves, a few key unions and reunions move the plot forward toward a final showdown between the purists, the mutants, and the telepaths. Something of a spoiler follows …

There is a battle at the end in which more “civilized” human beings use technology to kill a good number of purists and mutants alike. This action is justified–rather impartially–as part of the natural development of things. Beings more highly evolved have a right to survival, even to the point of killing those less evolved.

I’m not sure about the author’s intent here. It could be interpreted as a kind of eugenics. It might also be an honest portrayal of how human beings think and what they believe. Reminded this book was written in post-WWII Britain, before modern ecological concerns, and as the Cold War was heating up, The Chrysalids may be just a reflection of the age.

Even if Mr Wyndham favored the position he portrayed, I don’t have a problem recommending this novel for high school age and above. How pre-emptive killing is handled as a moral issue is an important discussion for young people.

I happen to be of the opinion that authentic human society is beyond anything smacking of “survival of the fittest.” That is how animals and plants work, and they do so without malice. Human beings have reached the point where we can be concerned less about the strongest among us and more about the weak.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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