In 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. This 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 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” as they call them, who 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.
As he grows up David’s austere but orderly world is disrupted by a series of events. H 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.
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 who 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.”
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.
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, of course.
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. Unfortunately The Road was wiped. An adapation for radio, written by Toby Hadoke, was broadcast by Radio Four on 27 October 2019. This is a an interview with Toby about his work on this version.