Postal Reading group
May 2021
Notes on the book The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

This month’s book, The Chrysalids, is by the same author as The day of the Triffids, a book which has entered the national consciousness to a remarkable degree. For example, my parents would often say “Its like something from the Day of the Triffids”. Despite, or perhaps, because of this, I have never actually read the latter book; Whatever it was being likened to the Triffids was rarely good! This opportunity to read a similar title by the same author is therefore welcome.

The present book would appear to fall into the same genre as much of the author’s other works, a form of science fiction that he called “logical fantasy”. The story is simple: in a post apocalyptic world, a society has somehow survived by regressing to an earlier, more primitive, state. Interpreting a major disaster (a nuclear explosion, perhaps) as God’s judgement on their wicked ways, conformity to their religious views is ruthlessly enforced. However, once David and a few others realise that they are marked out by their ability to communicate by their thoughts alone, they are all in danger.

While I don’t actively dislike apocalyptic or dystopian fiction, it can sometime make for difficult reading. This is not true in this case, and I found the present book to be well written, and a quick read, helped by it being a short book, with an easy to follow storyline. Of course, given the technology available to the people of Waknuk (a primitive steam engine was a major attraction for its rarity value), it is perhaps difficult to classify the book as science fiction, after all, even the Sealand people (or should that be New Zealand), with their flying machine are arguably no more advanced than our present society, or that of the 1950s when this book was written. It was a nice touch that the helicopter with its conical spiral seemed to imitate an idea of Leonardo da Vinci. Comparisons abound, but the people of Waknuk put me in mind of the Amish community who also eschew much modern technology. Perhaps I’m being unfair to them, but I doubt that their way of life is quite as idyllic as the Wikipedia page would suggest!

Of course, good dystopian fiction will make the reader think about their own society, or worry about what it might become. The Chrysalids is no exception, and I found this to be a very thought provoking book. The final sections, for example, offer an interesting philosophical take on evolution. I’m not sure that I, or any biologist, would agree with it, but it certainly makes you think. Other readers in this group have commented on the stereotypical gender roles in the book, and it is certainly true that this is one thing which has changed for the better, even if there is still more to be done. However, it is, perhaps no more, or less, than we might expect of a primitive, highly religious, society. Yes, the parallels between this and the Gilead of Margaret Atwood’s novels seems justified.

While the zeitgeist does move on, and our present society no longer puts people to death for what we would understand as genetic mutations, it is true that a high value is still placed on conformity. Views of women and coloured people may have improved, but consider some of the current battles for gay rights. When considering genetic or mental differences, as in this book, a better comparison is perhaps the way in which conditions like autism are seen as a disease to be cured, rather than as a difference in brain development.

Of course, Religion has always been the major factor resisting a more tolerant society, with women getting a consistently poor deal in most religions. Similarly, religion consistently resists every technological development or social change. Although many dogmas are held with an almost religious zeal (neoliberal economics perhaps), the idea of forcibly eliminating dissent for supposed ‘benefit’ of society as a whole must surely be limited to those who believe in the absolute values dictated by an unchanging deity.

The final sections of the book go further and offer an interesting view of evolution. While mutation is an essential part of the process, it is difficult not to feel sorry for some less fortunate species. Where the author is right is in warning us against the hubris of thinking that we can out-smart evolution. While an understanding of evolution may help us to take a long-term view, this would have been of little comfort to Michael and Rachel who could no more stay in Waknuk after such a revelation than they could fly to New Zealand. For that reason I find the ending of this book unsatisfactory, as Michael was clearly expected to choose between two equally unattractive options.

In conclusion this is a well written book and a surprisingly easy read, even if it is not altogether enjoyable. Although some of the more disturbing scenes have been avoided, the book is certainly thought provoking, even if some of the philosophy in the final sections is rather dubious. Although mankind has had a disastrous effect on the planet, those problems will not be solved by a return to simpler times. Even if we did, there must be better models than Waknuk!

Comments by Nicholas Cutler