|REVIEW by John C Adams|
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
It’s saying something when a post-apocalyptic dystopia’s most frightening feature isn’t the radiation that has turned giant plants into glowing mockeries of their natural selves, nor even the genetic damage to livestock and humans that is still emerging hundreds of years later.
All this, and more, is present, since this is a John Wyndham novel written at the peak of the post-WW2 terror of nuclear weapons. Despite all this, the most disturbing aspect of this novel is the way that humanity has responded to the devastation. If you hope for a better tomorrow emerging from this kind of catastrophe, look away now.
The apocalyptic event (we guess it was a nuclear war rather than an accident) that changed the world forever is now long in the past. Youngsters like the narrator, David, his cousin Rosalind and their new friend Sophie know only in the broadest terms that the Badlands (where the radiation still renders plants into grotesque versions of their natural selves and kills animals) are dangerous. Anyone, or anything, coming from there must be shunned. In between the good farming land and the Badlands are the Fringes. There people look normal, but in fact they are Deviations. Any living thing carrying damaged genes is a Deviation. Some of them sneak into farming communities, and the most dangerous live there anonymously, carrying these genes invisibly and passing them on to the next generation without warning.
Sophie is a Deviation, something she’s able to keep hidden from the vigilant farming community only with the greatest care. When her deformities are accidentally discovered, she immediately flees with her family. David follows them, enabling him to discover the wider truth about the world. He establishes telepathic links with the other communities, where the prejudices of the farmers in his home environment do not hold sway, but instead a more inclusive and tolerant approach to differences abounds.
Fear of Deviations has achieved a level of Biblical proportions, with the required ‘safe’ distance maintained at the behest of an angry deity who forbids any contact with them. In this universe, the only God that exists is the one the farmers have invented to deny the humanity of anyone different.
It would be easy to assume that this novel is depressing and dismal. In many ways, it is quite a gruelling read. In other ways, however, it is surprisingly life affirming. The use of the first-person narrator (David, who is particularly sensitive, empathic and considerate) provides an intimate portrait of the insider within. His humanity towards Deviations is proven time and again, and his character arc was physically and emotionally a positive one.
This is an immensely perceptive novel and a cracking story to boot.