'Only God produces perfection, so although deviations may look like us in many ways, they cannot be really human. They are something quite different.'
The Chrysalids, written in 1955, was John Wyndham's third major novel and his most unusual. The plot and themes are an almost total inversion of his usual style and concerns, but for all this it is considered by many to be his most consistently successful book. (In some countries it is also known as Re-birth.)
David Strorm, Wyndham's narrator, is a young boy growing up on a prosperous farm. He occasionally has strange dreams but thinks of himself as normal. He thinks his friend Sophie is normal, too, until he accidentally discovers her secret - a secret so terrible that her father considers killing him when the discovery occurs. Sophie has six toes on each foot.
David does not immediately connect this with the truths of the religion his community, and especially his father, cling to fanatically. Many years before, the Old People had a marvellous but decadent civilisation - and for their sins, God sent a terrible Tribulation upon them, turning vast areas of the world into poisonous black glass deserts and cursing the impure with mutant offspring. Now, all such deviations are ruthlessly hunted down in David's country, Newf (implied to be the remains of Newfoundland in Canada). Mutant crops are burnt, mutant livestock slaughtered, and mutant humans sterilised and exiled to the Fringes, border country where mutations run unchecked and mutant tribes eke out a miserable existence.
Sophie's mutation is discovered by the authorities and she is exiled. David has other concerns, however; he can share his thoughts with a small group of others, through a process similar to telepathy. His uncle, a broadminded ex-sailor, warns him that this too will be considered a mutation and if they are discovered their fate will be even worse than Sophie's. As David and the others grow up, they have plenty of demonstrations as to how cruel their society can be...
But, the suicide of one of their number after a failed marriage to a norm notwithstanding, the telepaths reach adolescence in relative safety. Then David's baby sister Petra reveals herself to be a colossally powerful telepath capable of throwing a thought halfway round the world or placing the others under a kind of psychic compulsion. After one such incident, suspicion falls upon David, Petra, their cousin Rosalind, and two of the others.
The government moves to try and arrest all five simultaneously but the attempt is bungled and David, Petra and Rosalind flee for the Fringes with hunting parties at their heels. Petra reveals she is in communication with a colony of other telepaths on the distant isle of Sealand (implied to be New Zealand). Due to the value of Petra's natural talent an aircraft is sent to rescue them.
The fugitive trio are captured by Fringes mutants, whose leader is David's uncle - who but for his mutation would have been the heir to the family estate. Meanwhile a norm army has been sent after them with Michael, leader of David's group of telepaths, riding with it to provide them with information. David and Petra's father is also a willing participant in the hunt.
David is expelled from the camp - the chieftain wants Rosalind, as unlike the other Fringes women she has not yet been sterilised - but is rescued by Sophie. Wanting her place as the Chieftain's woman back, she rescues Rosalind and Petra. The norm army arrives and a pitched battle is fought with the mutants near the trio's hiding place. David's father, his uncle, and Sophie are all killed in the fighting.
The Sealander aircraft finally arrives and dispatches the survivors with a weapon of their own. Their leader impresses upon the telepaths their responsibilities to their own kind, and the truth that they and norms cannot coexist. David, Petra and Rosalind depart in the aircraft for Sealand, but Michael remains behind to rescue the last member of the Canadian group.
'Sometime there will come a day when we ourselves shall have to give place to a new thing. Very certainly we shall struggle against the inevitable just as these remnants of the Old People do. We shall try with all our strength to grind it back into the earth from which it is emerging, for treachery to one's species must always seem a crime. We shall force it to prove itself, and when it does, we shall go; as by the same process, these are going.'
The Chrysalids is an almost total inversion of John Wyndham's usual style and techniques - but, oddly, it remains concerned with all his typical themes and is often cited as his finest novel. A few recognisable elements from the earlier Triffids and Kraken linger on: this is a first person narrative, driven by desperate moral conflict, and essentially concerning the rise of a new hive-minded force which threatens to dislodge normal humanity from dominance.
But here the similarities end: rather than the usual contemporary English setting, the novel takes place in post-apocalypse Canada. Civilisation has already fallen and the characters are essentially fighting for control of the ruins. And unlike in other novels, here Wyndham's narrator takes an active role in the story - he is central to events, rather than merely observing or being caught up in them as elsewhere. There are other unfamiliar narrative elements - the last section of the book is concerned with a chase-and-capture plot as the fugitives are pursued into the Fringes. There is also the romance which develops between David and Rosalind, although this mainly happens 'off-screen' (and given the purplish prose Wyndham occasionally uses to describe the relationship this is by no means a bad thing).
More significantly, the archetypal Wyndham character of the sage is almost totally absent - unless one counts the practical wisdom of David's Uncle Axel or the ruthless ideology of the nameless Sealander woman. And, uniquely, the hive-mind in this novel is not an unknowable, implacable foe but the protagonist and his friends. The behaviour of David's monstrous father and the other norm authority figures is quite sufficiently horrific to ensure that the telepaths seem sympathetic. (For all this, though, the scholar Roland Wymer has argued that there are disturbing aspects to the Sealanders more reminiscent of an insect hive than the traditional libertarian utopia.)
One of the key themes of this novel is that of the different branches of the Strorm family in conflict - David and Petra with their father, their father with his mutant elder brother, and also with his brother-in-law Angus. This mirrors the strife between the different factions of humanity (norms, mutants and telepaths) that is at the novel's core. There is also the traditional Wyndham concern with the ruthlessness necessary in the struggle to survive. This is coupled, however, with an ambivalent attitude to racial purity: Uncle Axel suggests that the norm obsession with the rooting out of mutations is ultimately mistaken. It's an odd inconsistency given the theme of the novel, unless the suggestion is that the norms are ultimately bound to be replaced by their more evolved heirs, and nothing can prevent this.
Another major theme is an implicit criticism of religion, previously seen in Day of the Triffids. Here it is equated with the oppressive and unenlightened regime enforced in Newf, which is arguably presented as a religious dictatorship.
The Chrysalids represents a major development in Wyndham's technique and ambition after the time-marking Kraken Wakes. The novel functions superbly on every level save one: the actual presentation of the telepathy David and the others share is rather pedestrian and doesn't really reflect how David himself describes it to others in the novel. Clearly, Wyndham's deceptive conventionality of style - his great strength as a stylist - didn't allow him to explore the nature of psychic communication in a more experimental fashion. This remains a small blemish on what is arguably Wyndham's masterpiece.