Sympathetic Stupid

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Chrysalids: John Wyndham

Wyndham's books can only be classified as science fiction, but there's no hardcore science in the Kim Stanley Robinson mould, with fiction as a sideline. Wyndham writes tales which just happen to be set in a possible future, or even an alternate present. And he writes, as the quote on the back of the back says, 'with a sort of hyaline simplicity' which keeps his books oh-so-readable, even fifty years after publication. That said, The Chrysalids remains a book of its time - the mid-1950s, with the world zipping headlong towards destruction as the Cold War escalates.

The setting is Labrador in the far east of Canada, in a miniscule community swamped by a post-apocalyptic world covered with Badlands, where the chances of 'breeding true' - without mutations - are less than 50%. It's an unsubtle flash-forward to a nuclear future. The community' run by theocrats who preach the creed of purity, getting rid of any human, animal or plant with mutations.

The star of the show is David, who grows up in the most fundamentalist family in town. He appears normal on the outside but has telepathic powers which he shares with a small clique in the area. He befriends a girl who he later discovers is a mutant and so discovers that mutants are only human too. Eventually, his group, with the help of his more telepathically powerful younger sister, gets in contact with a much more advanced society in New Zealand. In the climax of the book, this society steps in and rescues them from a clash between outcast mutants and an establishment army, by the use of overwhelming technological force.

The plot sounds prosaic; well, it sounds similar to Harry Potter, I suppose: boy grows up in unhappy family, discovers special powers, ends up somewhere more appreciative. The skill is in the telling, in the understanding of human nature that Wyndham brings to the task. The obvious possiblities for moralising and preaching, on tolerance and respect for life and evolution, unsubtly push the plot aside in a few places. But clear language and solid pace win the day.

Incidentally, isn't it time for another movie version of Day Of The Triffids? Hollywood, are you listening? Modern special effects could possibly even get it right!