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“Watch Thou For The Mutant”: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)

chrysalids-front-coverIn previous posts I have looked at The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which were set in the contemporary Britain of the 1950s,  and showed the breakdown of society when faced with an unprecedented  threat.  John Wyndham’s third novel  The Chrysalids is quite different in tone and content.

The novel set  in the future, perhaps  several centuries after our own time. The story is told through the eyes of David Strorm as he grows  up in a rural part of Labrador, called Waknuk, which is a religiously fundamentalist society, fearful of any kind of physical difference in human bodies. Every Sunday  without fail they recite a creed:

And God created man in in His own image. And God decreed that man should have one body, one head, two arms and two legs; that each arm should be jointed in two places and end in one hand; that each hand should have four fingers and one thumb; that each finger  should have a flat finger-nail..

We, the readers, soon divine that the “Tribulation” of which  they talk of was in fact a nuclear war,  and that this is the society that has somehow survived,  plunged back into a subsistence way of life, based on farming, with no technology. They use  horses for travel, and  bows and arrows for weapons, for instance.  It’s clear that the fall-out is still creating mutations in humans, “deviations”,  which when discovered  are driven out of society to “The Fringes”. David’s father  Joseph, is particularly fervent on rooting out “blasphemy”. They believe:

The penance of Tribulation that had been put upon the world must be worked out, the long climb faithfully retraced, and, at last, if the temptations  of  the way were resisted, there would be the reward of forgiveness. – the restoration of the Golden Age.

chrysalids-1As he grows up David’s austere but orderly world is disrupted by a series of events. This begins when he becomes friends with a girl called Sophie,  and  discovers one day that she has six toes, not five. He  does not report this, as she is his friend and he does not see her as a “deviation” but as a person.  Eventually, of course,  this secret  is discovered: Sophie and her family are driven out, while David is brutally beaten by his father.

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But David has his own secret, he too is a “mutant”,   able to communicate by telepathy with his cousin Rosalind and a number of other teenagers. Somehow they have made it  into adolescence  without being discovered. David does have one ally, his uncle Axel who finds out about David’s ability,  and warns him that he must never reveal his secret. Axel is that  familar figure in Wyndham’s novels, the older man who challenges  the received wisdoms and “commonsense”  of their time. He is a close cousin to Michael Beadley in the Day of the Triffids and Alastair Bocker in The Kraken Wakes.  A former sailor, Axel  has travelled widely and seen things on sea and land  which make him very  sceptical of the rigid pieties of his own society.

“Preacher words!” he said,  and thought for a moment. “I’m telling you,” he went on, “that a lot of saying a thing is so, doesn’t prove it is.  I’m telling you that nobody, nobody, really knows what is the true image. They all think they know – just as we think we know, but, for all we can prove, the Old People themselves may not have been the true image.”  He turned, and looked long and steadily at me again.

“So,”  he said, “how am I, and how is anyone sure that this “difference” that you and Rosalind have does not make you something  nearer to the true image than other people are? Perhaps the Old People were the image; very well then , one of the things they  say about them is that they could talk to one another over long distances. Now  we can’t do that  – but you and Rosalind can.  Just think that over, Davie. You two  may be nearer to the image than we are.”

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David’s mother gives birth to another child, Petra, who appears perfectly normal  until  one day, when still  a young child,   she falls into the river, and in panic  displays  astonishing telepathic power,  summoning  Michael and the others to rescue her. As she grows up they are able to teach her to use her power – and to  keep it a secret. Then one day, whilst out riding,  Petra is attacked by a  wild cat which kills her pony. Again she screams for help telepathically summoning  all the group to help her. This gathering  is observed by a passing stranger,  who becomes suspicious and starts to make enquiries. A few days  later in the middle of the night two of the group, Sally and Katherine, are seized by the authorities  and tortured to make them reveal their secret. Alerted by the sisters,  David, Rosalind and Petra steal horses and flee towards The Fringes. Another of their group, Michael, undiscovered,  is with the armed posse which sets off to hunt them down. He tells his friends;

They’re afraid of us. They want to capture you and learn more about us – that’s why there’s the large reward. it isn’t just a question of the true image – though that’s the way they’re making it appear. What they’ve seen is that we could be a real danger to them. Imagine if there were a lot more of us than there are, able to think together and plan and co-ordinate without all their machinery of words and messages : we could outwit them all the time. They find that a very unpleasant thought; so we are to be stamped out before there can be any more of us. They see it as a matter of survival – and they may be right, you know.

That “matter of survival” is the key theme of the rest of the novel, both of the travellers and  of the human race.  As they flee Petra tells them  that she has made contact  with another “think-together” person, a woman who lives  a very long way away across the sea  in a place called “Sealand” where everyone is telepathic.  The woman tells them that she will come and rescue  them because of Petra’s remarkable power.  In the meantime,  Michael, Rosalind and Petra make it to the Fringes,  where they are helped by Sophie who is living there in poverty and squalor. The pursuing posse attacks the camp and Sophie is killed, but the group is saved when the flying  machine  arrives and sprays glistening threads that  land on everyone in the camp, and bind them tight. The  Sealand woman makes her way to the cave where they are hiding:

Petra raised her hand and tentatively touched the woman’s face, as if to assure herself that it was real. The Sealand woman laughed, kissed her, and put her down again. She shook her head slowly, as if she were not quite believing. “It was worth while,” she said in words  so curiously pronounced that I scarcely understood them at first. “Yes, certainly it was worth while!” She slipped into thought-forms, much easier to follow than her words.

“It was not simple to get permission to come. Such an immense distance; more than twice as far as any  of us has been before. So costly to send the ship: they could scarcely believe it would be worth it. But it will be…” She looked at Petra, wonderingly.”At her age, and untrained – yet she can throw a thought half-way around the world!”

David  suddenly realises that the threads have killed all the attackers, but  the Sealand woman is unrepentant, explaining that they are  a doomed race and that the  “think-together” people are the future:

Your minds are confused by your ties and your upbringing: you are still half-thinking of them as the same kind as yourselves. That  is why you are  shocked. …They  can see quite well that if it is to survive they have not only to preserve  it from detioriation, but they must protect it from the even more serious threat of the superior variant. For ours is a superior variant…The essential  quality of life is living: the essential  quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.

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The woman takes David, Rosalind  and Petra in the flying machine off to New Zealand:  Michael stays behind  to rescue another member of the group,  Rachel, promising to make their way to find them one day. The novel finishes as the machine  arrives above a sunlit city with  David sensing  something new,  a kind of suffused glow:

“What  is it?” I  said,  puzzled. “Can’t you guess, David? It’s people. Lots and lots of our kind of people”.

The Chrsyalids is Wyndham’s  masterpiece.  His chilling  vision of a dystopian  future is perfectly realised and the narative is compelling,  carrying the ring of truth  in its  depiction on how societies  can bond in fear against perceived “Outsiders” and repress dissent and change.

Wyndham wrote, of course, during the Cold War:  a time when there was a real fear that the two superpowers, the USA and  the Soviet Union – now armed with hydrogen bombs of enormous destructive power –  would  destroy the world between them. This  fear found its way  into a good few science fiction novels  and plays, some of which I have listed below  This survey is by no means exhasutive.

Novels

The Spurious Sun, by George Borodin (1948) begins  with an H-bomb-like explosion in Scotland which ignites the upper atmosphere; savage wars ensue worldwide, the UK is eliminated by nuclear weapons, and both Leningrad and San Francisco are obliterated. 

 Death of a World by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1948). An expedition to a deserted Earth turns up a diary describing the last days of Earth.

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (1948) is a  satire on the potential for the destruction of humanity.

Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril (1950)  tells the story of Westchester housewife, Gladys Mitchell, coping with the aftermath of a nuclear attack on New York.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)  is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war and  it portrays a world where scientific knowledge is feared and restricted.

 On the Beach by Neville Shute (1957) is   set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear  war,  and follows the fate of  group of  people awaiting the arrival of  the fallout from the northern hemisphere. The government  issues suicide pills to the population. The novel was a worldwide bestseller and  was filmed in 1959 and again in 2000.

On the Last Day by Mervyn Jones (1958)  features  a Russian/Chinese invasion of Britain, during a non-nuclear Third World War , and of the successful attempt of the British government in exile (in Canada) to build a new intercontinental missile. Jones was  an activist  in CND.

Two Hours to Doom by Peter Bryant (1958)  imagines an attack on the Soviet Union by American  planes,  ordered in by a paranoid general. The USA cooperates with the Soviets to shoot the planes down, and when one plane  gets through the Americans  offer to destroy one of their own  cities as quid pro quo. At the last minute the plane fails to reach its target. The novel was the basis for the the film Dr Strangelove.

Alas,  Babylon, by Pat Frank, (1959) shows the aftermath of a nuclear war as it affects a small town in Florida, Fort Repose.

The Last Day, a novel of the day after tomorrow  by Helen Clarkson (1959).  The story takes place in a  village on the New England coast, and tells what happens in the six days following a nuclear war.   You can read it here

Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1959) is the story  of soldier X-127 living with others  in an  underground military bunker,  Level 7,  who  narrates the tale of  life in the bunker  before, during and after a nuclear war that kills the rest of humanity. 

Dark December  by  Alfred Coppel (1960) is set in a world after a nuclear war. A soldier sets off on a journey to his home in California. En route he saves a captured Russian pilot.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960) is a  series of linked stories which begin  six  hundred years after a nuclear war.  Society rebuilds itself,  but political conflicts lead to  another  nuclear war.

Drama on television

Number Three, broadcast by the BBC on 1st  February 1953. This was dramatised from a novel by Charles Irving by Nigel Neale and  others.  Scientists at an atom research station  working on a new form of nuclear power discover  the project leader plans to  use it as a weapon.

Doomsday for Dyson  by J B Priestley, broadcast on ITV on 10th March 1958. An anti-war fantasy about a man standing trial in the afterlife for killing his family in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. It was followed by a short studio discussion on the issues raised.

Underground, broadcast  by ATV on 30th  November 1958 in the “Armchair Theatre” series.  It was written by James Forsyth, adapted from novel by Harold Rein Few Were Left, directed by William Kotcheff.  The survivors of a nuclear holocaust are trapped in the London Underground.

The Offshore Island, broadcast by the BBC on 14th  April 1959. It was written by Michael Voysey, based on a play by  Marganita Laski, an activist in CND.  A  drama about a family whose farm remains unaffected, eight years after a nuclear war. Their peace is disturbed by a force of American soldiers and then a Russsian one.

The Poisoned Earth, broadcast by  ITV on 28th  February 1961 in the “Play of the Week” series. It was written by Arden Winch. Moral problems are raised when a new type of nuclear bomb, with limited fallout range, is developed.

The Road, broadcast by the BBC on 29 September 1963.  It was written by Nigel Kneale,  and was  part of  the “First Night” drama series.  A  scientist and a philosopher  in C18th investigate  “ghosts” that appear on Michaelmass Eve each year. In the end we realise  that they are actually visions from  the future of  people fleeing down a road from a nuclear war.

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