Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Chrysalids

One thing that may be said of the best SF is that it has the quality of transcending the time in which it was written. It remains relevant in a way contemporary mainstream literature can't, because by its very definition it has to be stuck in its time (whereas SF isn't). A good example of a piece of SF that remains relevant is Dune, which has the same thematic relevance now as it did on its publication in 1965.

Another novel from half a century ago that retains its relevance despite its age is The Chrysalids, written by the author of The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham. First published in 1955, it's a story about intolerance that should be read by anyone who goes out into the world and deals with people on a day-by-day basis.

David Strorm is the son of the local community's chief preacher in a post-nuclear apocalypse world, where mutations are commonplace and religious zealotry rules over reason. Anything that differs from the norm is regarded as an offence against God, and has to be destroyed - including people. David and several of his contemporaries have a psychic link that they keep secret, fearing discovery as mutants. David's father is the biggest zealot of the community, urging his flock to stay pure and blaming any mutation on the weakness of others who slip into sin.

It may be because I haven't read The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos for quite a while, but Wyndham's writing feels different. There's far less 1950s sensationalism, and it's far more fluent than what I've come across from him before. On a sentence level alone it's a good read, without having the detailed exploration of intolerance and the actions of the intolerant. Throw in a compelling story and you've got a top-notch read, possibly finer than what are widely regarded as Wyndham's greatest works.

So how does The Chrysalids relate to the modern world? Even today, intolerance is rife, because we don't understand the differences between peoples. In Wyndham's devastated future, we see physical differences marking people out as being less than pure, and therefore inhuman. Such people are, at the very least, ostracised and sent into exile in the Fringes, lands affected more badly by the unspecified disaster that led to the breakdown of civilisation in the first place. In cases where it's felt the difference poses a risk to the way of life, people are hunted down and disposed of. There are so many analogies that could be drawn. Were it written today, Wyndham could have been writing about religious intolerances in places like Saudi Arabia. He could be talking about racial tensions in the Deep South in the 1930s. But as it is the broad analogy may be applied to any number of situations. In truth, it does make it required reading for living in the modern world, where tolerance is still sadly lacking.

One final word: the cover of the edition you're most likely to pick up at the moment is an interesting exercise in spotting the artist's error.

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