The Chrysalids is a great example of how John Wyndham manages to make what is essentially science fiction seem very plausible and frightening. Focusing on how it feels to be different and persecuted, parallels can be drawn both to eugenics and the persecution of the Jews during the Second World War. Published in 1955, the book could also be seen as a precursor to the X-men comics, first published in 1963.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic Labrador, several hundreds of years after a disaster known as ‘Tribulation’, which is never explicitly defined, but which is implied to be nuclear in origin. As a result of Tribulation, genetic mutation has become very common, ranging in severity from very bad in the area nearest to the original disaster, known as the Badlands, to relatively low in the area around Waknuk where the main story takes place. Mutation is seen as a blasphemy and is exterminated wherever possible.

The community in which David Strorm and his family live resembles those of the American Frontier, particularly in its fundamentalist Christianity. David is the son of the particularly fanatical Joseph Strorm, and he begins to realise how dangerous it is to be abnormal or different when his friend Sophie and her parents have to flee the area owing to her having six toes. In private, and with his friends and uncle, David begins to seriously question the validity of the preaching and doctrine of the regime.

Comment is made on the hypocrisy of the situation, with mutations that are profitable being accepted by the authorities (e.g. the giant great-horses) while other less useful mutations are outlawed. Likewise, the doctrine followed by the community that they must try to stay as close to the ‘true image’ of the ‘Old People’ as possible is exposed by David’s uncle, who points out there are no exact definitions of the true image so no one can be sure what is meant by ‘true’.

The novel is a fine piece of writing by Wyndham and arguably his best work. Published only three years after the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick, the themes of genetic mutation and evolution are still extremely relevant. The ending is slightly clumsy in comparison with the rest of the book, but still fits with the general post-apocalyptic theme.


Other Reviews

Ottawa Citizen: “Absolutely and completely brilliant… The Chrysalids is a top-notch piece of sci-fi that should be enjoyed for generations yet to come.”

Scotsman: “John Wyndham's novel The Chrysalids is a famous example of 1950s Cold War science fiction, but its portrait of a community driven to authoritarian madness by its overwhelming fear of difference - in this case, of genetic mutations in the aftermath of nuclear war - finds its echoes in every society.” “The Chrysalids comes heart-wrenchingly close to being John Wyndham's most powerful and profound work.” “Re-Birth (The Chrysalids) was one of the first science fiction novels I read as a youth, and several times tempted me to take a piggy census. Returning to it now, more than 30 years later, I find that I remember vast parts of it with perfect clarity… a book to kindle the joy of reading science fiction.”

Observer: “[Wyndham] was responsible for a series of eerily terrifying tales of destroyed civilisations, created several of the twentieth century's most imaginative monsters and wrote a handful of novels that are rightly regarded as modern classics.”

Guardian: “Science fiction always tells you more about the present than the future. John Wyndham's classroom favourite might be set in some desolate landscape still to come, but it is rooted in the concerns of the mid-1950s. Published in 1955, it's a novel driven by the twin anxieties of the Cold War and the atomic bomb… fifty years on, when our enemy has changed and our fear of nuclear catastrophe has subsided, his analysis of our tribal instinct is as pertinent as ever.”