book by John Wyndham
annotation by Philip Barragán
In 1955, John Wyndham wrote The Chrysalids, a post-apocalyptic novel centered around a small, religious village concerned with keeping the purity of the human race in the face of genetic mutations around the world.
The novel is filled with good dialogue, excellent characterizations and a smart plot. Wyndhams’s style is subtle and he does not overwrite the story. The world he creates is believable and set with a balance of reality that pulls the reader into the story. The pacing of the story gently increases as the reader arrives at the end of the novel.
Wyndham wrote The Chrysalids after The Day of the Triffids, a classic science fiction story of the 1950s, but very different in tone. Whereas The Day of the Triffids invokes a typical species of monsters, The Chrysalids examines the prejudiced monster that lives within human beings, and he produces a truly satisfying novel.
There has been much discussion about the end of the novel which has been described as deus ex machine, the God out of the machine. Wyndham introduces a new species that arrives in a flying ship in his agrarian world of the novel. While I didn’t have trouble with this plot twist, several critics have made it very clear that Wyndham destroyed his story with this ending. However, to its credit, The Chrysalids was made into a stage production by playwright David Harrower in 1999. A story about being different in a world of “others” is timeless. And John Wyndham tells it perfectly well.
As a writer, Wyndham demonstrates how good pacing helps the story move along, faster and then slower but always keeping the reader’s interest. Wyndham also minimizes the amount of characters that the reader must get to know, although telling the story in first person helps.
The voice of David Strorm, the protagonist, is realistic and smart without being too juvenile when he is a young boy and then later as a young man in his early twenties. Wyndham uses dry wit to keep a pleasant tone in the novel. He writes smartly and succinctly.
The Chrysalids is an excellent example of mid-twentieth century speculative fiction. It takes the reader into another world but filled with many of the same hopes and fears of “othering,” intolerance, discrimination and what it means to be human—which is always up for debate in our modern world.
The Chrysalids, now over 55 years old, is a great example of the relevance of sci-fi and speculative fiction in our world. It reminds us that the darker side of humanity will never go away and as good fiction does, it makes the same, unchanging ugliness tangible and escapable. Even if for a moment.