Book review: The Chysalids, John Wyndham

‘The Chysalids’ is, as far as I am concerned, one of the classics of the Science Fiction genre, which leads me to one question. What were the people at Penguin on when they approved this cover art? I guess it follows the grand tradition of sci-fi covers having nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but you’d think that with a book which was in its thirty-sixth edition by the time this one came out, they might have noticed.

For those not familiar with John Wyndham’s work, you may have heard of ‘The Day of the Triffids’, or ‘The Kraken Wakes’. This one is perhaps a little less well-known, but is still a terrific book.

It portrays a world where ‘Tribulation’ (we assume a large scale nuclear war) has rained down on Earth, leaving only small areas of land inhabitable. The worst areas are nothing but black glassy plains, then zones where the rate of genetic deviation is so high that there is nothing recognisable, and finally, pockets where relatively normal life goes on. The story focusses on a farming community in Labrador, where the fight to keep ‘the true image’ – that is, to keep crops, animals and people from any kind of genetic deviation – is fought with a righteous religious fervour.

As this book was first published in 1955, the horrors of nuclear war would have been much more immediate, and this book really is a very believable and exploration of what might happen to civilization if things really did go very pear-shaped.

It follows the story of David Strorm, who is the son of one of the most hard-line bigots in the area. Crops are burned if they show signs of ‘deviation’, and animals slaughtered. It is a very interesting observation on human nature that ‘Great horses’, which stand 27 hands high and can do the work of two or three normal horses, have been officially approved, which is a lovely take on our sometimes hypocritical pragmatism.

David is shocked when a friend of his, Sophie, is sterilised and driven away to the wild lands of ‘the Fringes’ when it emerges that she has six toes. Even more so, when he discovers that the telepathic ability he shares with eight others in the district also prevent him from being a ‘norm’.

There are two particularly fascinating elements to the story for me. One is the investigation of the dangers of religious fanaticism. Everyone seems absolutely sure what it is that God intended people to look like, and it is always themselves. There is a lovely section towards the end of the book, which actually comes as a bit of a breath of fresh air, which says:

“But who are you? What is this Sealand?”

“We are the New People – your kind of people….We’re the people who are going to build a new kind of world – different from the Old People’s world, and from the savages.”

“The kind of people that God intended, perhaps?” I inquired, with a feeling of being on familiar ground again.

“I don’t know about that. Who does?

The other area he explores is the difference in communication between the telepaths, the ‘think-togethers’ and normal people. Those gifted with telepathy see those without it as really quite disabled, clumsy in their expressions, and ultimately alone. This is an interesting take from a prolific author, but perhaps expressed that frustration we all feel in trying to get the feeling of the story out accurately and compellingly on to the page.

“We are able to think-together and understand one another as they never could: we are beginning to understand how to assemble and apply the composite team-mind to a problem – and where may that not take us one day? We are not shut away in individual cages from which we can reach out only with inadequate words.”

It’s a gripping story, and all the better for being told in Wyndham’s wonderfully straight-forward, deceptively simple way. It’s something I adore about this author, that he both fully thinks through the worlds he creates, but then tells us about them without the need for flowery language, or the unnecessary creation of ‘alien’ names and objects. I can put it no more eloquently than an early review mentioned in the blurb:

“John Wyndham really does write…with a sort of hyaline simplicity, perfect timing, miraculous avoidance of cliché and a gentle, sophisticated humour. He is one of the few authors whose compulsive readability is a compliment to the intelligence.”

I can only hope that my own writing takes on something of his style.

My rating: 5 stars.


9 thoughts on “Book review: The Chysalids, John Wyndham

  1. Oh my! That cover really makes no sense at all does it? lol I read this in high school and was so surprised that so many of my classmates disliked it, I thought it was great, probably the best out of all the books they made us read! It always sort of reminded me of planet of the apes in a way. I wonder why they never made a movie….

    • I suspect that reading books in class never does much for them. All that analysis can really kill a story. I hear that there is a new ‘Day of the Triffids’ movire coming out, but I’m not 100% sure this would work. So much of the tension is built during the times when the telepaths are talking to one another. Maybe it just needs a clever filmmaker!:)

  2. Thank you – I’ll add it to my list (and might not have normally picked it off a bookshelf if I were just judging it by that cover art)! Some of the description reminds me of Earth Abides or A Canticle for Leibowitz and I loved those.

    • I was talking to someone yesterday, and they said that their copy had a handprint – with six fingers – which is much cleverer and more appropriate. Definitely worth a go!

  3. Great review, and totally agree about the cover art. Having never read the book, it looks like some sort of Christmas version of that animated movie Ants gone wrong… I’ve got it at home, though, so I’ll definitely give it a go.

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