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Wednesday, 28 April 2021

John Wyndham: The Chrysalids

John Wyndham: 
The Chrysalids (5*)

Chrysalids sound like some kind of horrible pupating insect things, yet the book contains nothing so nasty at all. 

The title must put a lot of people off, especially from a science fiction writer known for Krakens, Triffids and Midwich Cuckoos. In fact, even after reading it, I still have no idea what Chrysalids are, and hardly think of this as science fiction. Something less frightening might have been better. In America, it was called Re-Birth, but that misleads too. An early manuscript was called Time for a Change.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world that was ravaged by nuclear war so long ago that only vague memories of the previous civilisation remain. Descendant survivors live in an isolated fundamentalist agrarian community struggling to eliminate mutations from crops, livestock and people. Anything that is not normal is destroyed. Children with even the slightest deformities (such as the six-toed footprint on the cover) are regarded as abominations, “blasphemies against the true image of God, and hateful to the sight of God”, and are sterilized and outcast. This claustrophobic setting is brilliantly constructed and utterly believable.

Trying not to give away too much of the plot, a small group of children find they differ from others in that they are telepathic, which they must hide to avoid persecution and banishment as mutants. There follows a tense tale of questioning. near-discovery, escape, an anxious chase through the dangerous countryside of ‘the fringes’, and rescue – I won’t say how. It touches upon deep issues, such as religious bigotry, freedom of thought, social perceptions of normality, deformity, tolerance, discrimination and eugenics.

Many think Wyndham is remembered for the wrong book, that he should be remembered more for The Chrysalids than The Day of the Triffids. Others believe that by turning it into a clichéd chase with a ‘deus ex-machina’ finale he failed to make the most of the profound setting he had created. Both are probably right. A different author might have made more of the potential. Nevertheless, it is a compelling and exciting story. I nearly dropped my Kindle into the bathwater.

Mmmm! Telepaths forcibly sterilised because they are a threat to society. I wonder what Salman Rushdie read before writing Midnight’s Children.


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

22 comments:

  1. If only I had more time and better eyes for reading than I do!

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    1. Available from Faded Page for Kindle. I have mine set to quite a large print size.

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  2. You don't mention the significant point being when it was written, the mid 1950s. Cold War, post WW2 Nazi atrocities, a pure race, and even Communist ideology thrown in by Wyndham. I have read the book, some 45 years ago when many were reading it. (I simply understood the Chrysalids was the name given to the children). I remember finding it disturbing but enjoyed it.

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    1. Excellent point, and true of so many books in that they are products of their time. I didn't associate it with Communism, although one can't miss the Nazi eugenic parallels. The book touches on these things but doesn't shove them hard in your face. It leaves the reader to make the association.

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  3. After "doing" Day of the Triffids at school I went on to read some of his other books - but as that was 50+ years ago I can't remember anything except feeling uneasy reading them - won't be re-reading

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    1. I didn't feel at all uneasy reading The Chrysalids, and found it essentially an exciting story that touches on, but doesn't dwell too much on deep issues. I'm undecided about re-reading Krakens, Triffids and Cuckoos.

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  4. The mental image of you naked in your "Matey" bubble path holding a "Kindle" has put me right off my "Weetabix" this morning. Thanks for your review of "The Chrysalids". I would now definitely like to read it some time.

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    1. I wouldn't use anything less than my daughter's best scented bath salts. You can float the Kindle on the bubbles.

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  5. I guess Chrysalids are different to Katydids. You've made the book sound interesting and I have made a note.

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    1. I guess you mean the Australian insects. Or are you a fan of the books by Susan Coolidge?

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  6. I remember being suitably impressed by both books when they were first published - suspect they would seem somewhat dated if I read them again now though.

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    1. That's something few can now say. Chrysalids didn't seem dated to me. You're bringing me round to having a go at the Triffids. Hope it's not too scary.

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  7. I don't remember reading this one, although I did read The Day of the Triffids and the Midwich Cuckoos. I shall look for The Chrysalids on the Faded Page site and see if any of it jogs my memory. Thanks Tasker.

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    1. It really is exciting. Had me trembling towards the end.

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  8. I hesitated before clicking when I saw you had reviewed this one. Exhaled when I saw five stars. Have re-read a few Wyndhams over the last year. Like you, I found they stood the test of time and didn’t feel dated. Particularly enjoyed Chocky.

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    1. I didn't realise so much depended on my star ratings. What if I'd only given it two? "Chocky" - Wyndham comes up with truly scary titles. I can't think why that should be scary, but it is.

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  9. Interesting to ponder how many 'natural' mutations that might have arisen in an evolutionary way might also have been destroyed in such a world. I don't find Chrysalid scary, it sort of suggests what caterpillars do before they metamorphose into butterflies.

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    1. I think the concept of changing form is where the title comes from, but the word does not appear anywhere in the book. I find caterpiller chrysalises a bit revolting, but Phoebe the cat crunches them up and eats them.

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  10. Thanks for this review. I have not read this one and it does sound good. I generally like science fiction and I have read several post-apocalyptic books and find many of them are similar. This one seems to have a religious slant which is a bit different. I may give it a try!

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    1. It has interested me in reading The Handmaid's Tale which is a similar kind of idea

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  11. I thought this was a great book, Tasker. Even more so if you consider when it was written. I also love Day of the Triffids and Trouble with Lichen. I'm not such that big a fan of The Midwich Cuckoos.

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    1. I may have read some other Wyndhams when a teenager, I can't remember. I'm gradually being persuaded to take a look.

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