Review of The Chrysalids (1955)


John Wyndham (writer).

Read in 2017.

Telepaths are born into a biologically conservative society centuries after global thermonuclear war.

I like the carefully understated writing style. It shines in the creepy undertones, making this a poor fit for Aldiss’s 1973 “cosy catastrophe” label, which was more appropriate to The Day of the Triffids (1951). It is implied, to the extent that Wyndham considered the problem, that the people of Labrador chose to forget about the concept of ionizing radiation because they don’t have any means of protecting themselves from it anyway. The horrors of the resulting standard of living come to light only gradually.

I like how the incredible environments associated with pulp post-apocalypse settings—glass deserts and huge wild fungi—do exist here, but are barely glimpsed. However, the theology and culture of Labrador are too simply sketched and too familiar. In particular, it seems that Wyndham was unwilling to settle on an orthodoxy as to what triggered Tribulation, despite this being crucial to the way that local society would be striving to develop. He simply transplants a 17th-century Salem style of Puritanism into a future where it would indeed be helpful for the first century after the war, but would certainly get more adapted to the concerns of the population over time. The only evident adaptation happens under 18th-century economic pressures, as in the acceptance of great horses: a realistic detail as far as it goes.

I would have liked to see more material on the treatment of cancer, damage to the eyes and skin from the loss of stratospheric ozone etc. Instead, the climate of Labrador is just a bit warmer in nuclear summer. The protagonist’s parents are also too simply characterized as barely credible zealots, a stereotype of young-adult literature.

The “Sealand woman’s” evidently sincere disregard for pre-telepathic humankind mirrors the Labrador inquisitors’ disregard for post-apocalypse mutation. She’s just honest about eventually losing the fascist struggle to root out other strains. Though it is one of Wyndham’s customary attacks on sentimentality, the woman’s speech makes sense as part of the horrific worldbuilding. In particular, her rationale for the superiority of telepaths rests on their ability to communicate honestly and easily, in such a way that another apocalyptic war will be impossible. As a prodigy in a society of telepaths, it is likely that she has not developed non-telepathic social skills, and is simply incapable of seeing how independence of thought and action (freedom from Petra’s noise and mind control) would have benefits even in the new world. There is no need to assume, from the text itself, that Wyndham admired the character’s genocidal philosophy.

References here: “Now We Are Three” (1957), Visitor of a Museum (1989).

text fiction