Sunday, 9 May 2010

Book: The Chrysalids

We read The Chrysalids by John Wyndham for discussion at our May Page Turners meeting. According to one source, this is a post-nuclear apocalypse story of genetic mutation in a devastated world and explores the lengths the intolerant will go to keep themselves pure.

That sums the plot up rather well, actually. David is a telepath in a world (Labrador in Canada) where any deviation from normal is cast out. As a child, he witnesses this time and again (usually as the result of babies having extra marks, limbs, digits etc), and has the good sense to keep his talents -- and those of his fellow "thought-shapers" -- secret. Ultimately they are of course discovered, and in the course of being hunted down are rescued by a group of evolved humans for whom telepathy is normal . . .
I hadn't read The Chrysalids before, and found it an easily digestible and straightforward story that examines themes of belonging, power, fear, and evolution. There are even some parallels with Life of Pi -- here, the power of "story" in the form of the bible and other warped religious doctrine dictates all too literally who is considered "human" and who is not. Yet even in this environment, some characters, such as David's Uncle Axel, have the insight to question the idea of "normal" and acknowledge that elsewhere the idea of normal might actually be something rather different.
It seems to be accepted that the title, The Chrysalids, refers to the idea of metamorphosis -- I can only suppose from what we know as human into a telepathic race that can share thoughts almost to the point of becoming a hive mind. It seemes as though this evolution is not due to the radiation effects that cause the other mutations, but is rather the path humanity is destined to take. I base this assumption on the fact that most of the telepaths come from "Sealand" (New Zealand) where there doesn't appear to be too much radiation. Clearly, this new race considers themselves superior to the so-called savages of David's people.
While I enjoyed The Chrysalids enough to keep reading, I didn't love it. It certainly engaged me on an intellectual level, but I found it to be generally lacking in complexity, emotion and character depth. David narrates the story in a remarkably calm voice, even when bad things are happening, and always tells you something bad is going to happen before it does. As a result, I rarely felt "in the moment" and didn't really care much about any of the characters. Perhaps this is a characteristic of 1950s Science Fiction.

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