The Chrysalids (1955)
Author: John Wyndham
Genre: Science Fiction (Golden Age)
It is a thousand years or more after earth has suffered a nuclear holocaust. Young David Strorm is growing up in a small farmhouse where the only decorations allowed are religious placards. "KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD" and "WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!" they declare, reinforcing the values shared by his rural village. The village is surrounded by the "fringes," where mutants are outcast for nothing more than lacking a digit or having arms and legs longer than the approved norm. He even watches as his family and neighbors endure hardships because they must ritually burn any mutated crops or live stock. As David approaches his teens he grows increasingly uneasy in this environment, secretly questioning the justness of the religious authorities and distrusting any of their claims to know what forms God intended for the human body. In the midst of this inner struggle, David realizes he is developing a mutation himself. He can communicate telepathically with eight other villagers about his same age. Together, the nine are able to conceal their dangerous new talent until they begin to reach adulthood. New social obligations and responsibilities make keeping their secret nearly impossible. Eventually the entire village becomes suspicious and the telepaths are forced to flee to the fringes. SPOILER: The distress of their discovery causes one of the nine to send out a strong mental signal that reaches another telepath in a distant land. It turns out that far off New Zealand was less damaged by the nuclear holocaust then most other places. There telepathy is the norm and in the end a helicopter is sent which manages to rescue David and two of the other telepaths.
Geographical Setting: Canada and New Zealand
Time Period: 1,000 or more years after a nuclear holocaust
Series: Regarded by some as the third part of an apocalypse themed trilogy. The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes are the first two books.
The book's greatest strength is Wyndham's careful pacing. The plot develops slowly, but each scene is necessary and helps to build the convincing, thoroughly sketched post-apocalyptic setting. Moreover, the pace allows us to follow David Strorm's intellectual development in believably small steps. David is rendered so fully that the less subtle characterization among the minor characters hardly detracts from the novel's richness. Wyndham gives David's first person narrative a conversational, unpretentious style. It communicates clearly and without any panic the terror David feels at being different, which also makes the narrow minded and rural frame of the story seem even more claustrophobic. Overall, a thought-provoking story that personifies its tense and conflicted tone in its well-rendered main character.
Read-alikes: Those readers that enjoyed the convincing portrayal of David's development through adolescence and adversity might want to try Alexei Panshin's Nebula winning Rite of Passage. It is a coming of age story also set in a post apocalyptic future where teenagers are forced to undergo a month-long stay on an unfriendly planet in order to become adults. Though it's main character is thoroughly developed, it also features a faster, more action oriented pace. Olaf Stapledon's book Sirius, about a dog with the intelligence of a highly educated human, features fantastic but believable characterization and might appeal to those readers who were drawn to David because of his outsider status. Though they should be warned that Stapledon's take on that theme has a much darker tone and a less happy ending. Another title with a thought-provoking story-line and carefully created post-apocalyptic setting is J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World, about an individual coming to terms with a drastically altered Earth after the ice caps have melted. More literary in style and even more focused on the individual psychology of its central character, it should appeal to anyone interested in taking Wyndham's themes in a more extreme direction. For those who could stand more of Wyndham's measured pacing, Brian Aldiss' Greybeard is an excellent place to start. It is a carefully constructed portrayal of a man born just before radiation destroyed the atmosphere and now, in his fifties, one of the youngest people left on Earth. It is also another example of a thoughtful story line based in a fully realized post-apocalyptic world. Last, and maybe the most superficially similar of all the recommendations, is Henry Kuttner's Mutant. It is about a community of telepaths that are ostracized by a world frightened of their abilities. More fragmented than The Chrysalids, each of its five chapters focuses on the life of a different telepath. It is more issue heavy and philosophical as well, and the world it creates not as believable or carefully developed.
Red Flags: There is some violence (not too graphic) at the end of the book.