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THE CHRYSALIDS

A novel by John Wyndham
(1986, Penguin Books)
[original copyright 1955]
 
 

A boy with telepathic powers discovers how dangerous this post-apocalyptic world is, when only those with the true human form, in the image of God, is permitted to survive.

 
 
 
   

-- 2nd reading (paperback)
September 2nd to 6th, 2017

 
   

A truly engaging story of prejudice and hiding within such a world, with the added bonus of raising the very relevant question of how to deal with deviations so that the race as currently defined doesn’t die out. I really enjoyed the author’s style, getting into the mind of the main character, and the dichotomy of following rules without understanding them and hiding from those same rules.

Spoiler review:

The book showcases the typical view from the 1950s on how the world would end, in a complete and total nuclear holocaust centered of course around the US (and presumably the USSR also). The author gives some serious thought of how the world could continue in the centuries afterwards, and how a little information, given from dubious sources, could go towards creating a cult mentality.

I have a greater skepticism than the author in the kinds of mutations that could evolve from being irradiated for such a long time. The creature on the cover of my copy, for example, implies some sort of insectoid intelligence, which is nowhere hinted at in the book. But it’s not that far off from the mutations described within.

In the case of this area, somewhere in Labrador -itself close enough to the US to be affected, but far enough that it would recover quickly- the settlers used the Bible to model their lives, which is a good moral guide. But then they supplemented that with somebody’s guide that describes what a human being must look like, and added definitions as to what all other living things, from crops to animals, must look like to be true. Any deviations are destroyed; in the case of people, they are sterilized and sent out into the Fringes, the wild lands where deviations run wild.

The book is more about the setting than the characters. As David grows up, he knows intellectually that deviations must be destroyed, but not why. The people who are more educated, like his uncle, or more emotional, like his sister, are more lenient about his difference, and urge him to hide it. Others, like his father, are a lot more rigid, and will go to all lengths to eliminate them. Even though it’s the wife who is punished, I find it interesting that this couple has produced at least three mutant children -it could just as easily be the father who is responsible. The people from New Zealand should try to keep David's parents alive to try and produce more telepathic children.

The setting and beliefs of the people are not fully addressed, allowing the reader to think about the moral implications of following the doctrine about the true form or not. It’s an interesting topic. While the rules seem like a religious doctrine, especially when used in conjunction with the Bible, they are actually absolutely essential -if the goal is to keep humanity true to what it was before the disaster. While nobody would argue that it’s wrong to kill a person because he is different, every one who is different and allowed to reproduce will weaken the original strain of humanity. The types of mutations described here seem trivial, and I think they are supposed to appear that way.

But think to Richard Rahl in Pillars of Creation, where he learns that anybody who has no magic in them will only produce offspring that also have no magic in them, no matter the magical abilities of the other parent. In time, unless those with magic adhere to a strict breeding program, magic will die out of the world -completely. If Richard truly wants magic to continue to exist, he must not allow these people to breed -and that’s the correct thing to do, if magic is essential. But it’s wrong on so many other levels, and mostly on what it means to be human. It’s a matter of choosing which is the more important long-term result for the species. In Richard’s case, he chooses a world without magic, even though he’s fighting for the continued existence of magic. Because allowing magic to continue to exist many generations down the road by killing those without would destroy the compassion in humanity. Which definition is the better one?

In this book, the same question is answered by the Zealand woman, and her choice is an evolved humanity, though it, too, seems to lack compassion. It is her belief that telepaths will rule the world. In another part of the world, maybe the three-eyed humans think they will take it over in the near future. Legacy humans like those who adhere to the rules of the True Form will also fight to survive. To each one, the goal is different, and they are justified in what they are doing. It is the mark of a species in transition -caused by global nuclear holocaust.

When David is young, he doesn’t understand the long-term philosophy, and why Sophie’s six-toed foot represents a threat. This, along with his own difference, colors his interpretation of other mutations that he sees. And the fact that his father dictates what must be done, instead of explaining why -in an understandable sense, which might be too philosophical anyway -adds a certain amount of defiance, as well.

Most of the book is a buildup to the inevitable discovery. In fact, I found the discovery and the subsequent chase into the wilderness to be less interesting. But it does allow us to visit the Fringes, where the mutants all go when they are exiled. David’s uncle, exiled because he has extraordinarily long arms, takes an ominous interest in Rosalind, which was really the only weak spot for me. David’s uncle escaped before he was sterilized, so I have trouble believing none of the women in the Fringes are also fertile. But Sophie is in love with him, and is jealous of Rosalind, so she helps the other woman escape, and hides David and Rosalind in her cave-home.

David’s father (and followers) arrive at the camp at the same time as the Zealanders, who drop a paralyzing fiber from their helicopter-like craft, killing everybody except David, Rosalind, his sister, and Michael, who arrives late. I liked the fact that Michael doesn’t want to leave without Rachel, but the Zealanders can’t take her anyway because of weight restrictions -so he goes back to their village for Rachel and plans to find his own way to Zealand. He’s particularly na´ve, like the others, about the size of the world.

David had visions through his life about a big city with flying vehicles and tall buildings, but thought it was all imaginary. But it turns out he was seeing the city of the Zealanders, where they will be living and will contribute to a new evolution of the human species.

 
   

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