I was abruptly perturbed – and considerably puzzled, too. A blasphemy was, as had been impressed upon me often enough, a frightful thing. Yet there was nothing frightening about Sophie. She was simply an ordinary little girl. – if a great deal more sensible and brave than most. Yet according to the Definition…
Clearly there must be a mistake somewhere. Surely having one very small toe extra – well, two very small toes, because I supposed there would be one to match on the other foot – surely that couldn’t be enough to make her ‘hateful in the sight of God…’?
The ways of the world were very puzzling…
Source: Bought copy.
Publisher: Penguin Books
Date of Publication: 1955
David Strorm was a normal little boy, growing up in the normal way, taking the ways of the world around him for granted. All he knew of the world was his family, their modest holding in the settlement of Waknuk, Labrador, and what his people taught of the Tribulation, a time when God destroyed the Old People and took away their technology to punish the world for its sins. David would spend his days avoiding chores and wandering the fields and forests surrounding their settlement, while his nights consisted of sermons from his theologically legalistic father, himself the son of Waknuk’s founder. Sermons, or more accurately diatribes, on the issue of physical deviation and the need to guard against any aberration, for fear that God might notice any new blasphemy and re-visit the Tribulation on the good citizens of Waknuk. Foremost among those warnings: “ONLY IN THE IMAGE OF GOD IS MAN”, followed closely by: “WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!” David could never escape these admonitions. They were carved both in his mind and on the plaques that line the walls of their kitchen.
So when David finds a new friend in the form of Sophie, a young girl living in a secluded cabin with her parents on the outskirts of the district, the joy of her friendship turns to confusion when he innocently discovers that Sophie has a subtle imperfection, one that would label her unclean in the eyes of his father and subject to censure by their pious community. Her crime: an extra toe on each foot, such an inconsequential thing really, but enough to question her humanity if ever discovered.
And discovered she is, forced to flee with her parents, caught and sanctioned with banishment to the Fringes, where life is nasty, vicious, and short, all for want of ten toes. Confused and horrified by these events, David, his cousin Rosalind, and various children of the district vow to keep their own secret, lest they suffer a similar fate. For David and his friends have their own aberration, less noticeable, yet more substantial. They can talk to each other using their minds, and surely this would be much worse a transgression than such a little thing as an extra pinkie toe?
As David and his friends grow into young adults, so does their fear of discovery, especially after his sister Petra develops their talent at an extraordinarily young age, too young to know either fear or caution, and exhibits the talent with far greater strength and much less restraint. Soon their secret becomes impossible to hide, and David and his fellow telepaths must flee in the face of their society’s fanaticism and xenophobia, lest they too be sanctioned as aberrations in the eyes of God.
But there is hope in the form of distant settlement across the sea, one whose inhabitants exhibit the same talent as David’s small band, a place of acceptance, understanding and security – if only they can remain free from their hunters long enough for those distant voices to come collect them.
John Wyndham (1903-1969) wrote several science fiction novels of note, perhaps most famously The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, each of which has been translated to film, The Midwich Cuckoos filmed as Village of the Damned. When Penguin Books re-issued his oeuvre back in the late 1990’s, I jumped on the chance and collected as many as I could. Previously having enjoyed both The Midwich Cuckoos and Day of the Triffids, Wyndam’s tale of hope in the face of fanaticism went on my “to be read” list and was dutifully shelved for future enjoyment.
And there it sat, until late last year, when I read a review copy of S.C. Flynn’s Children of the Different, another post-apocalyptic novel of children with unique abilities that explored similar themes. My thoughts then returned to Wyndam’s classic, and here we are with no regret, for The Chrysalids is a wonder of a novel, with a host of themes to unpack, and a denouement that has some unexplored and chilling implications perhaps not intended by the author or recognized by the casual reader.
It’s a novel ripe with allegory, most notably regarding the unfortunate tendency of the human psyche to fear “the other”; those among us who are different, whether physically or psychologically. In The Chrysalids, this tendency is exhibited in the perverse form of Christianity the citizens of Waknuk observe. They’ve taken religious legalism to the extreme, painting any one or thing that varies from what is considered “the image of God” as sacrilege, allowing extreme punishment with neither compassion nor compunction. Any “defect” is dealt with by a series of progressively harsh actions. Crops are burned, animals are examined and if found wanting, euthanized. Infants showing signs of divergence are left to the elements, or if discovered to be defective later, banished from their society. It’s a primitive form of eugenics, but one that’s been a common theme in history, from the NSDAP labelling Jews subhuman, to Margaret Sanger’s call for the forced sterilization of those deemed feeble-minded, or poor, or those her followers saw as “the ignorant”. David and his friends are the allegorical Jews of this oppressive society, attempting to hide in plain sight while living in a constant state of fear.
Complementing David’s society’s religiously fundamental take on eugenics, a more scientific take on the subject motivates the Sealanders to rescue David’s group, and more importantly, his sister Petra. As the strongest telepath yet discovered, their motive is not so much altruistic as it is selfish, evidenced in their desire to use her as breeding stock to augment and amplify their own telepathic society. Believing themselves the next step in human evolution, they are merciless in dealing with their evolutionary inferiors, resulting in the massacre of both David’s people and the “mutants” of the Fringes at the climax of the novel. The emissary of the Sealanders excuses their actions in a chilling monologue on the difference between her people and David’s:
‘In loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.
‘If the process shocks you, it is because you have not been able to stand off and, knowing what you are, see what a difference in kind might mean. 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.’
Just as David and his kin were dehumanized by their society, the Sealanders have divorced themselves from their less evolved counterparts, justifying their actions by dehumanizing their foes.
She then goes on:
‘The static, the enemy of change, is the enemy of life, and therefore our implacable enemy. If you still feel shocked, or doubtful, just consider some of the things that these people, who have taught you to think of them as their fellows, have done. I know little of your lives, but the pattern scarcely varies wherever a pocket of the older species is trying to preserve itself. And consider too, what they intended to do to you, and why…’
Her rationalization of the massacre lays in the idea of progress, much the same as Stalin’s when Communism enslaved a large part of the globe and murdered millions in the twentieth century. Her lack of awareness of the similarity of views (one quasi-religious, one quasi-scientific) puts a chill on what otherwise would be considered a happy ending. For David and his fellow chrysalids have been saved from one oppressive society, only to discover they’ve traded one form of fanaticism for another, whether they or the reader are aware. Whereas religion can subvert morality in the wrong hands, the pursuit of science can at times ignore morality altogether, justifying it by declaring the subject irrelevant to progress. “Can we do this thing?” becomes the over-riding argument-divorced from the morality based question, “should we do this thing?”
The Chrysalids is an excellent criticism of the binary relation between fundamentalist religion and scientific progress without an ethical underpinning. Wyndam was writing from the viewpoint of a citizen of Western society, much as Margaret Atwood when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, so it’s entirely unsurprising that he would choose Christianity as his subject. In light of recent history, his warnings still hold sway, especially considering the rise of groups like ISIS, whose corrupted interpretation of a major religion give his overall criticism of fundamentalism a very topical feel. Wyndam explored ideas and ethical considerations that have timeless ramifications for humanity, and in the end, such thought experiments are the goal of good Science Fiction.