The Chrysalids-John Wyndam

the-crysalids

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.

 

Advertisements

Children of the Different -S.C. Flynn

childrenofthedifferentfinalanimation2.gif

“‘We’ve got to go back,’ she said.

‘Back where?’ Narrah looked shocked.

‘Into the Changeland.’

‘What? Why?’…

…’If we go back into the Changeland, perhaps we’ll find what we need while the memories are still strong.'”

***

Source: Review Copy

Publisher: The Hive

Date of Publication: September 10, 2016

Print Length: 227 pages.

     When the world ends, it ends in madness, leaving few survivors and even fewer still considered human.  Those who survive with their humanity intact live in fear of the technology believed to have caused the apocalypse and of the roving packs of cannibalistic “ferals” that comprise the rest.  Yet life goes on, diminished but not defeated, if only in small settlements such as the one near the outskirts of Perth, Australia, where survivors have banded together into families of necessity, rather than biology.

Young Narrah and Arika have never known another life than this, neither a time when technology worked, nor a time of safety beyond the walls of their settlement.  They’ve also never known a time without “the changing”, a coma-like sleep children fall into upon puberty, from which they either die or return changed, whether into mindless ferals or beings with bizarre and wonderful powers of the mind.  Their friends Wirrah and Toura have already been to the” Changeland”, as it is called, one returning with an unnatural sense of danger, the other as prophetess whose prognostications are infallible.  Yet Narrah and Arika are unique even in a world of the special, sharing a psychic link they refer to as “the path”, an ability inherited from their long dead parents.  Fraternal twins who once shared a womb, they utilize this ability to communicate, whatever the distance between them.

While in the Changeland, Arika finds herself in a reality made up of memories of those who lived before the fall, and meets a malevolent creature who has taken the form of an echidna that preys on those undergoing the changing.  It’s only through the intervention of Narrah (who is able to enter the Changeland by way of their psychic link) that they are both able to escape.  When she awakes, Arika gradually discovers she can mimic the senses and abilities of myriad animals.  Locked up by the settlement’s inhabitants for fear she may become feral, Arika uses her newly found powers to escape and flees with Toura to find Narrah, who has been kidnapped by the City people (those who still believe in science and technology).  Little does she (or Narrah) know, but he’s essential to them by way of the gift he receives on his own journey to the Changeland.   Arika and Narrah, with the help of their childhood friends and the City People, will embark on a journey to unlock the past to save the future.

***

When evaluating whether I’ve enjoyed a novel, I like to imagine the process as akin to a balance, with one arm representing the mechanics of the prose (how well it’s written), the other representing the plot (the framework of the story), and the fulcrum upon which they rest as my resulting enjoyment.  Topple the balance one way or the other and as a reader, I come away dissatisfied.  It’s an especially tricky tightrope to walk (just like mixing metaphors) when the novel has been self published.  In such cases, my balance is relatively flexible, in that I’m willing to forgive rough prose or a loosely developed story as long as its counterpart shifts the balance into equilibrium. Such is the case with S.C. Flynn’s Children of the Different.

The dystopian novel is a well-worn genre in literary circles, whether it be the post apocalyptic world Stephen King’s The Stand, or perhaps more appropriately to our subject, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids*. In Flynn’s case, he’s travelling well trodden dystopian ground, what with the apocalyptic plague of madness, the loss of technology (and irrational fear of it), the hero’s journey, exemplified in both Narrah and Arika and their individual storylines that inevitably converge, and of course, the idea of the chosen one (or two)  whose path may lead to salvation.  Yet these obvious tropes are manipulated with skillful effect to engage the reader (at least this one) in Narrah and Arika’s exploits, and at the end of the day, leaves the reader wanting more of their story.  It’s not that the plot remains unresolved, but that much of the story falls outside the margins of what we’re allowed to see.  There’s much more to the history of the madness and what led up to it, more of the tale of the twin’s parents and their special connection, and especially, more of Arika and Narrah, whose story is both resolved—yet  not—at the end of the novel. Personally, I’d like to know it.

The other end of the balance is where Children of the Different finds some hurdles to overcome.  At times the author can be overly verbose, specifically regarding the chase scenes, which tend to come across as overlong.  It’s a situation where the use of a professional editor would be useful to tighten the pacing and guard against the aforementioned verbosity while retaining the author’s voice.  Yet it is a quibble rather than criticism, as Flynn’s story more than makes up for the deficit of brevity.  However, as a reader, I must admit to a certain bias regarding concise writing, preferring an economy of words, especially with regards to Young Adult novels, for fear of intimidating the reader.  So it’s a subjective rather than objective criticism, and in the final analysis, the balance between writing mechanics and entertaining story is kept.

Children of the Different is a Young Adult post-apocalyptic novel by S.C. Flynn, an Australian ex-pat currently living in Ireland.  He maintains a blog at scflynn.comChildren of the Different is his debut novel, and I look forward to his future endeavors.

 

*note to self—sit down and read your copy of The Chrysalids.