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  • Yehoshua Paul

1955 - The Chrysalids

1955. Nuclear electricity, nuclear submarines and nuclear warheads. The Montgomery bus boycott. John Wyndham writes The Chrysalids.

“There was often a great deal of grown-up fuss that seemed disproportionate to causes.”

The United States is discovering that nuclear power has a wide range of uses:

  • Nuclear generated electrical power is sold commercially to the town of Arco, Idaho.

  • The USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine, puts to sea.

  • The Pentagon announces plans to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with nuclear warheads.

The Soviet Union has some catching up to do on the nuclear front so it forms the Warsaw Pact: a collective defense treaty signed with seven other socialist republics in Central and Eastern Europe. Also a Soviet zulu class submarine becomes the first to launch a ballistic missile (not armed with a nuclear warhead).

Meanwhile, the civil rights movement is gaining steam in the United States, specifically, Montgomery Alabama. On March 2, 15 year old Claudette Colvin is dragged kicking and screaming off a bus after refusing to give up her seat to a white woman.

Nine months later, on December 1, Rosa Parks refuses an order by bus driver, James F. Blake, to give up her seat to make room for a white woman. Parks is arrested, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott begins. Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent black ministers form the Montgomery Improvement Association to coordinate the campaign.

The boycott will last for a little over a year, until December 20, 1956 when buses were officially desegregated after the U. S. Supreme Court affirms that racial segregation policies are unconstitutional (Browder v. Gayle). Claudette Colvin is one of the plaintiffs in the landmark suit that brings about the change.

However, until the courts can rule on the issue, Eisenhower’s government makes its stance known and outlaws all racial segregation in interstate buses, trains and waiting rooms.

The nuclear warheads and racial segregation of 1955 serve as the fuel which will spark the imagination of many science fiction writers. One of these writers is John Wyndham who that year publishes The Chrysalids, a coming of age story which takes place in a post-apocalyptic society founded along racial principles.

"The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution: and we are part of it.”

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903 – 1969) was an English science fiction writer best known for his works written under the pen name John Wyndham, such as The Midwich Cuckoos, which was later adapted into a movie twice as Village of the Damned.

Wyndham’s writing career can be divided into two phases: his early writing before World War II and his postwar writing after he reinvented himself.

During his early writing phase, Wyndham sold short stories and serial fiction to American science fiction magazines using various combinations of his names: John Beynon, John B. Harris, John Beynon Harris and Wyndham Parkes. During this period he also published a handful of novels: two science fiction and one detective story.

After the Second World War, Wyndham reinvented himself. Inspired by the success of his younger brother, he altered his writing style, changed his pen name to John Wyndham, and pretended to be a new writer. This enabled him to publish The Day of the Triffids in 1951 to a mainstream audience as a modified form of ‘science fiction’.

The move worked. The Day of the Triffids was a huge success and established Wyndham’s reputation as an important figure in science fiction – even as he himself was trying to distance himself from the genre. Mainstream audiences loved his writing, and he continued to publish six more bestselling novels, which also included The Chrysalids.

“We’ve got to believe that God is sane, Davie Boy. We’d be lost indeed if we didn’t do that.”

The book is a first person narrative told from the perspective of David Strorm, a young boy who is being raised on a remote farm in the district of Waknuk. Waknuk is part of Labrador, a tiny corner of civilization in a post apocalyptic world desroyed by the tribulation (nuclear holocaust) that God sent to punish the “old people” for using their science to alter the natural order of things.

Labrador is founded on the principles of the Bible and Repentances, a religious text that defines what constitutes the true image of god. Anything that does not conform is classified as mutant or deviant and must be cast out or destroyed.

David’s parents are deeply religious people who do their best to live according to God’s will as defined in the holy books. This results in David growing up surrounded by sayings, such as: “Only the image of god is man”, “Keep pure the stock of the lord”, “Blessed is the norm”, “In purity our salvation”, and most importantly “Watch thou for the mutant”.

There are very strict definitions of what is normal. Children must be born with one head, two arms, two legs, five fingers and five toes all correctly proportioned. This is a problem because radiation (i. e. God’s punishment) causes large numbers of people, animals and crops to be created with differences.

David discovers the consequences of mutation the hard way when at age 10 he befriends Sophie, a girl born with an extra toe on one foot. Their friendship lasts six months until Sophie is discovered and she and her family are forced to flee. As he grows older, David witnesses more disputes surrounding mutation, such as when his father secretly kills an approved tailless cat for being a deviation, or the feud started over horses that were domestically bred for size. This is a problem as David has his own secret – he and seven other children can communicate telepathically.

First edition hardback cover

“'In my experience,’ he told me, ‘if you run away from a thing just because you don’t like it, you don’t know what you find either. Now running to a thing, that’s a different matter, but what would you want to run to?'”

The Chrysalids is science fiction masking itself as a mainstream novel, and this fiction of normalcy, a characteristic of Wyndham’s later writing, is what makes this book an absolutely amazing read (and also more than a little disturbing).

Wyndham begins the story by introducing us to the dream of an ostensibly ordinary 10 year old boy, and then having that boy strike up a friendship with a totally normal 10 year old girl. This is a familiar setting that anyone can identify with.

As the story unfolds, we gradually learn about the post-apocalyptic world in which young David is being raised; a world that is different, yet similar enough to our own, to leave you feeling very disturbed. This sense of normalcy also helps the reader connect with the characters and form a bond that lasts throughout the entire story.

I had a very hard time putting down this novel. It was really that good. My heart went out to David and his friends even as I was horrified by the fundamentalist society in which they were being raised, a fundamentalism that no church then or today would have ever endorsed.

Considering the historical context, the novel serves as a stark warning to the potential consequences of unchecked nuclear escalation, and the distorted worldviews that develop in societies that isolate themselves from the rest of the world. The more closely you seek to adhere to God’s will, the more you wall yourself off from the rest of society, the more likely it is that you will end up producing something horribly distorted. This is something that we as a religious society need to think about when we form our own isolated homogenous communities, and it’s something I’m taking with me now that I’ve finished the book.

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