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The Chrysalids - Wyndham's view of the future


Ade
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I've just finished reading the novel and am brimming with ideas so thought I'd start a thread.

Returning to the book as an adult gave me a very different view of it indeed. As a child, I thoroughly enjoyed the tension in the story and empathised with the idea of a group of young people at odds with the alien world around them.

And as an adult I did enjoy the narrative, but find myself disturbed by some of the ideas. I found myself in sympathy with the novel's message almost all the way through. The idea of a moralistic and religiously bigotted community arising in this post-apocalyptic world was compelling and Wyndham's criticism of this world is very powerful indeed. The use of the innocent narrator works well with this and much of Wyndham's message in the novel's earlier stages - about the need to accept change - is voiced effectively and thoughtfully through Uncle Axel.

However, it's the final few chapters that disturbed me. The problem with Wyndham's acceptance of the need for evolutionary change comes to have a fascistic resonance for me. The new telepathic race who come to save David and his friends are described as so physically perfect and have such an interest in Petra, as an even more highly evolved member of the species, that I began to doubt them. I was also disturbed by their callous killing of everyone aside from those with powers similar to their own - described as a 'necessity'. I realise that David is also upset by this, but he seems to forget this very quickly as he joins the glorious and bright future (and the writing at this point is all about luminosity and hope). An early liberal message about tolerance and acceptance of others seems to become a harshly fascistic message about a kind of master race who will be ultimately triumphant and eliminate the savages. Shades of 'tomorrow belongs to me', I thought. Very disturbing.

What do others think? Am I being overly dramatic about this? I certainly had a very different response as an adult and feel a little unsettled by it.

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  • 2 weeks later...

This is certainly a book of two <strike> halves</strike> parts. :P

 

The longer first section came back to me readily as the story developed and I remembered the characters and their relationships. Then from about the point where Gordon shoots David's father I couldn't remember any of it

I presumed that this reflected my attitudes/interests at the time I first read it (40 years ago?), but as I found myself skipping over the 'speeches' made by the Sealand woman, I realised that there was some sort of lack of authority in Wyndham's writing from that point.

 

Following on from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (what an apropriate time to be reading this book), and the beginning of the Cold War quite a lot of people had been thinking about how a remnant would survive a nuclear holocaust, using the model of having to re learn primitive skills. To write about a community like Waknuk, having gone through 3 centuries of development since such an event is not unlike writing about an earlier stage of our current history.

 

The bits about the more highly developed 'futuristic' society of Sealand (interesting lack of the letter 'Z' in Waknuk alphabet) require a flight of fancy that may have beem quite acceptable in the 1950s, but not to a society that has developed in ways not dreamed of then.

 

My image of Sealand is remeniscent of those 1950s TV ads/programs from America with the perfect family in the perfect house, full of labour-saving devices, in the perfect suberb. Improved of course by "Thinking-Together", which is presumably assumed to promote harmony.

 

It does leave one wondering about those people who have different thoughts.

Perhaps that's why Wyndham lets the woman pontificate, and there aren't too many questions about the negatives.

 

Am rambling here, thinking as I type, having only just finished the book, so I'll leave it at that until there have been more posts and more opinions to consider. :)

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*trying hard to send thought-shapes* :)

 

The end of the book was definitely disturbing, it made me think of Darwinism but its a twisted Darwinism, where the Sealanders are pushing their evolution rather than evolution just happening to them. Wyndham seemed to think evolution and deviation are neatly seperate and distinct. I'm not a scientist but I couldn't accept that idea, the girl Sophy who he can accept as a human being when she is a girl has changed by the end of the book into something else, something less human. Why should 6 toes be so bad? It might even give you a bit of an evolutionary advantage, and it doesn't seem to be a big disadvantage anyway. So much of the book works towards making the point that deviations aren't that bad and don't make you less than human but at the end it seems the Sealander is just as bigotted as the Waknuk people. I wonder if that was a point Wyndham made deliberately or not.

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Yes, I agree. And the connection to the character Sophy is a good one, I think. At the beginning of the novel, you feel huge sympathy for her situation and Wyndham is at pains to show the fact that 6 toes makes her no different in essence to David. Yet she becomes a kind of savage who has to be eliminated - where's the progress there? If Wyndham were criticising the way that the bigotted world reduces her to savagery by its intolerance, I would have felt comfortable. But he seems to lose his earlier point about tolerance and a common humanity that the characters share and the final showdown gives little sense of this. Both the religious bigots and the Fringeland savages have to make way for a better, more powerful race of superbeings.

 

Perhaps it's a bad book?? It is a book of two halves, the first written by an enlightened, humane writer but the second by a disturbingly callous fascist. And this inconsistency means it can never be a great book for me - but it certainly is an interesting read and made me respond with passion. :mad:

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Oh dear, I hadn't given any thought to the fact that Sophie was also caught and suffocated by the sticky stuff. I suppose that just demonstrates how that second part of the book failed to engage me.

 

I bet they have no intention of ever returning for Michael and Rachel, after all, it is Petra's skill they are interested in!

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Towards the end of the book I was hoping David and Rosalind would refuse to go with the Sealand woman, and would set off to found their own society where no one would kill each other because they had an extra toe or telepathic abilities... oh well...

 

The politics of the book really interested me, the Sealand woman says at one point that people before the Tribulations had learnt to work constructively in small groups but destructively in large groups. She seemed to say that being able to think-together meant there was no conflict anymore... I don't know if I would want to be able to think-together or if it would really help, didn't it seem as if there were different levels of ability in the telepathics, and Petra was finding it difficult to use her telepathy, so what would make it so much better than talking to each other? On the other hand there does seem to be a lot of conflict in the world where the Sealander's analysis rings true, where you think if only people would try to get along! And maybe being able to think-together would help you see a conflict from the other side and its pointlessness... sorry for the rambling of my post! There was no possiblity in the book that two different groups could get along and live together with their differences, and that seemed a sad thing to me.

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Interesting. Yes, telepathy seems to give the basis for togetherness - yet it is necessarily a very exclusive club and peace can only be achieved by ruthlessly eliminating those outside the club. I have to say, I was a bit shocked that the 'sticky stuff' actually killed people. I was expecting it just to be a way of immobilising everyone so that they could be re-educated in the ways of peace. What an idealist I am! And I was disappointed that David didn't make more of a fuss about it. Perhaps it was his process of growing up and Wyndham was showing his idealism as rather childish - he had to accept the reality of killing as he matured. Yet I think we are encouraged to empathise with him so much earlier on and he becomes a bit transparent by the end.

 

Does anyone know much about Wyndham himself? I'm not sure I would have liked him very much! :(

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The politics of the book really interested me, the Sealand woman says at one point that people before the Tribulations had learnt to work constructively in small groups but destructively in large groups. She seemed to say that being able to think-together meant there was no conflict anymore... I don't know if I would want to be able to think-together or if it would really help, didn't it seem as if there were different levels of ability in the telepathics, and Petra was finding it difficult to use her telepathy, so what would make it so much better than talking to each other? On the other hand there does seem to be a lot of conflict in the world where the Sealander's analysis rings true, where you think if only people would try to get along! And maybe being able to think-together would help you see a conflict from the other side and its pointlessness... sorry for the rambling of my post! There was no possiblity in the book that two different groups could get along and live together with their differences, and that seemed a sad thing to me.

 

As, I believe, this was written in the early stages of the 'cold war', I thought that Wyndham was pointing out the fact that the promise of a better society for people who were special was a way of showing that people could be led into another form of the same constricted, bigotted life by the promise that they were the 'true' worthy ones. In its own way, this mirrors the whole Communist thing of 'power to the people' where the regular people were encouraged to revolt (and do all the fighting and dying) and then the so-called superior ones directing them ended up with all the goodies. But maybe I'm reading too much into the whole 'out of one conscripted life and into another' scenario. Also, the 'S' and 'Z' thing was, I thought, a device to make the reader think 'New Zealand' - bottom of the world - and all the tribulation (probably a nuclear holocaust) came from the far North (i.e., Canada, USA, UK, etc.) :confused:

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I've just spent a couple of hours 'googling' for The Chrysalids, it has been interesting. All the synopses of the book concentrate on the escape from Waknuk, omitting more than the briefest reference to the ending. The same is true of most of the reviews. I did find one that gave a very thorough review of the last chapter. I have copied it here (editing out his references to recent/current political events):

 

MAJOR SPOILER FOLLOWING

 

<strike>(I couldn't get the 'spoiler'tag to work)</strike> Spoiler fixed:)

 

 

 

While fleeing Waknuk, Petra — whose talents are so powerful it's physically painful for the other kids when she uses them — makes contact with an advanced civilization in New Zealand, all of whom are telepathic. Appraised (sic) of the kids' situation, the "Sealanders" mount a rescue expedition (mainly for Petra's sake) while David, Rosalind and Petra make their way into the Fringes. Michael, one of their group who hasn't been found out, keeps in regular contact with them so that they know how the pursuit is going. Waknuk has decided to kill two birds with one stone: since the kids are heading for the Fringes, why not turn the pursuit into a full-scale assault on the Fringe-dwellers and wipe out the whole nuisance once and for all?

 

So far, so good. But at the tail-end, when the Sealanders arrive, something happens that disturbed me greatly, as it literally undermines the themes Wyndham has been exploring throughout the whole book. (my italics, M.)

 

The problem isn't that the Sealanders' arrival (in the midst of a pitched battle) is a deus ex machina. Wyndham establishes earlier on that they're on their way, and I tend to think of a deus ex machina as a sudden lucky break granted our heroes at the last minute by a writer who's written himself into a corner he can't get out of. What happens is this: the Sealander aircraft shoots out this sticky filament substance, which encases both the Waknuk and Fringe armies, killing every last one of them.

 

The Sealander woman (with whom Petra has been in contact this whole time) realizes this drastic action might be troubling, and Wyndham has her begin justifying it in a lengthy speech in which her justifications sound exactly like the justifications used by Waknuk. It basically boils down to this: We're better than they (non-telepathic humans) are. We threaten them, so they want to destroy us; we have to destroy them first. That's life. Life is change, inferior species must make way for superior ones. That's survival of the fittest.

 

Answer: bullshit. "Survival of the fittest" — easily the most misunderstood and abused term in our lexicon — is not about "I'm better than you so I can kill you if I please." That's not "survival of the fittest," that's "Might Makes Right." Which is quite a different thing. And it's exactly the same justification used by Waknuk — and, in reality, the Nazis, the Inquisition, and any other gang of self-righteous murderers you could care to name — for their oppression of those they consider "offenses" and "blasphemies." This group of people isn't as good as we are. If they are allowed to flourish, they'd threaten us. Before that happens we must wipe them out. It's us or them.

 

So the novel's happy ending is tainted, because what you're left with is Petra, David, and Rosalind flying of to an idyllic future which is run by people no different than those they fled from — the only difference is, in this community, the kids happen to belong to the approved group.

 

Wyndham's further attempts to make the Sealanders seem morally defensible after what they've done only get clumsier. Their rescuer tries to express pity for the Fringe dwellers — "condemned through no act of their own to a life of squalor and misery" — while simultaneously justifying murdering them — "there could be no future for them". It doesn't wash. Either help them or leave them alone. If they attack you, then fight them off, but this is crucial: the Sealanders' self-defense rationale ("we have to preserve our species against other species that wish to destroy it") doesn't work because Waknuk, with its muskets and flintlock rifles, can't possibly pose any threat to a high-tech people with aircraft that shoot deadly goo. (Not to mention the fact they live on the far side of the planet.) ... And, setting aside the fact none of them has this erudite a vocabulary, one can easily imagine a white supremacist justifying a racial hate crime with the Sealander's following line: "If the process shocks you, it is because you have not been able to stand off and, see what a difference in kind must mean. Your minds are confused by your ties and your upbringing: you are still half-thinking of them as the same kind as yourselves."

 

I almost needed a crane to hoist my jaw from the floor. I cannot believe Wyndham could screw up this badly, especially when, considering how masterfully he had woven his story up to that point, he seemed to really understand and empathize with the themes he was exploring. How wrong it is for any group of people to set themselves up as judge and jury over those less fortunate or privileged then they are; how damaging and dangerous it is to allow intractible dogma and cant to rule one's life; how the true test of superiority lies in our humanity, our capacity for compassion and altruism. Or, as David's Uncle Axel tells him, "What makes man man is his mind." How Wyndham could convey these ideas so eloquently, only to flip-flop in his climax, is stupefying. If only he had believed in his own story, John Wyndham could have delivered one of SF's all-time masterworks. As it stands, The Chrysalids' near-perfection is marred — like the Fringe dwellers — by deformity.

 

There is no version of this novel in print in America right now. (my underlining)

 

In an interesting letter, one reader suggests Wyndham may have ended the book the way he did as intentional irony. Though I see his point, I disagree.

(End of Review)

 

 

 

Although it does appear from Amazon that this book is not currently available in the USA, it is being used in 10th grade English Lit. classes over there, as I also read a weblog full of comments (mostly illiterate and condemnatory) on the book from kids. Glad I'm not a teacher!

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[This is a response to ChrisG's earlier reading before megustaleer's - I'll catch up with megustaleer now too!]

 

 

This is an interesting reading that does take account of the novel's context. However, while I think it's an interesting post-1950s reading, I can't see that Wyndham intended it to be read that way. The final few pages just seem too positive to me. The city is the city from David's dreams and the 'suffused glow', 'brighter sun' and 'white houses' all seem so perfect. Certainly, I think we can read it with a degree of cynicism - but I don't think Wyndham intended it to be a critique of another bigotted world that is being created on these hopes - there would have to be more indications of this or doubt in David at the end for this to be the case, I think. It may certainly be a reaction to the advances of Communism and a fear of mob rule in the earlier pages - but it seems to advocate a return to an aristocratic elite which is wholly positive by the end. I've scoured the ending again for any flavour that Wyndham might be being critical at this point and I just can't find anything.

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Have read megustaleer's contribution now. Brilliant review! I entirely agree and it was good to read, so eloquently, exactly my own response. And it is troubling that it's no longer in print in the USA. I can understand why - though I'm not sure that's the answer. I would defend its right to be in print as long as there's a forum like this to keep the debate open. Hoorar for BGO!

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In the comments by the 10th graders referred to at the end of my last posts, very many of them were dissatisfied with the ending because they wanted to know what happened next .(one or two more articulate ones did have concerns about the killing of the Fringelanders, and the basis for the Sealand society)

 

I don't think a sequel would show a happy ending at all. The more I think about it, the more it sems that Petra, and her special ability, is all that they are interested in. I think that she would have a very proscribed life, developing her talent, then training others to develop theirs...maybe even being used for breeding more powerfully telepathic citizens.

 

And as I said before, I very much doubt that, having 'rescued' Petra, they would bother going back for the other two.

 

How old are kids in 10th grade in USA schools?

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This was the first reading of only my second Wyndham novel - the first being "The Day of the Triffids". I came to it with high expectations as many friends had found it to be absolutely devastating.

 

I enjoyed the gradual ratcheting of the tension and was mighty relieved when the Sealanders came to the rescue .... only to find that in escaping one dystopian society, David, Rosalind and Petra were heading to another - a case of out of the fire and into the frying pan? In any case, the ending was a neat twist for neither did the Sealanders show any of the compassion and mercy for which poor Aunt Harriet prayed.

 

I personally didn't find the book devastating, although it was definitely unsettling and thought-provoking. Not a patch on "The Day of the Triffids" though.

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I really enjoyed re-reading this and am amazed at how much I missed when I read it as a teenager. I remember being happy that David, Rosalind and Petra all managed to get away and it never occurred to me to wonder what would happen to them when they reach Sealand.

Although nobody seems to agree with the ending, at least this book seems to have generated a lot more discussion than some of the other ones chosen.

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It has definitely been a stimulating read K8e, so I'm glad it was picked, especially as I have just read War of the Worlds so by suggesting it I was being lazy! This book seems particularly relevant to events in the world with fundamentalism flaring up all over the place, so i think it was a good pick. What site were you reading those 10th grader's comments on Megustaleer?

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Lol, I found that site. Amazed that quite a few of them say they thought the ending was 'perfect'. Amused at some kid complaining about having to do 'gay vocab exercises' - brings it all back! Worried by some other teacher assuring her pupils that Michael and Rachel will more than likely be rescued later...seems there are kids from grades 8 to 11 reading it. There spelling isn't exactly great, granted but that might partly be because they're on the internet and not writing in their school book... its great they're looking it up in their spare time though, isn't it?

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It's really interesting that the teenagers on the blog seemed to think the book had a 'happy' ending. And many of you have mentioned reading it in your teen years and not remembering the horrific bits of the massacre in the Fringes, too.

 

Perhaps that is the enduring facet of Wyndham's writing - the many levels that become apparent as you mature and gain more experience in the world? The most thought provoking aspects to an adult are totally passed over by a younger reader and the reverse is most probably true, also. What they see as the 'important' points probably aren't to mature readers. Great stuff! What a testament to the wisdom of re-reading books you loved as a younger person; to see if they still have the same resonance with you now or seem to be a totally different book. :)

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Like many of the people who have commented, I had read this book as a teenager. I was a bit wary of re-reading something that I had enjoyed at that time, specially since I am not a re-reader of books, however I did find it a pleasant experience.

 

I do think this is very much a book of 2 parts with the first part being the better read. The end of the book was quite depressing and I suppose one of the reasons I didn't enjoy it was that it didn't give me an idealistic scenario. Was Wyndham being ironic? cynical?

 

When I read this book the first time we were coming to the end of the cold war but it was still very much a part of people's lives and the threat of nuclear war felt very real and I suppose people were concerned by what might happen in a post nuclear world. As I read it this time I was struck by the inability of people to live alongside those who differ in some way. The idealist in me would have liked the Sealanders to be a tolerant race but they were fundamentally the same as the Waknuk community.

 

Was Wyndham saying that this intolerance of those who are different is what makes us human and that essentially we are bullies?

 

I have to say I didn't find the ending happy at all. I felt that Petra was going into a society that would use, and probably abuse, her - that David and Rosalind were only being taken because they were with Petra and that Rachael and Michael were being abandoned completely.

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      Secondly, the basic premise of the novel, time travel, is mishandled and cack-handedly written. Two versions of himself in the same time frame? (Believe me ladies, if we could do that to ourselves the human race would be extinct). Some evolutionary mishap in the human genome being allowed to rewrite the laws of physics? Those I could live with, but TTW is just an affront to basic common sense. I keep asking myself questions instead of losing myself in the book. Why just appear now? Why just disappear now? More important is the where? How does he go to a particular place as well a particular time?

      Also, the nastiness of the bloke: "I can't help myself so I can do whatever I like." Beat people up? Sure! Rob and steal? Why not! Buy stocks cheap? Who wouldn't! Run naked through the neighbourhood? Well, I tried this, and the police would just not believe my story!

      Most importantly, I don't care about the love story. So he loves her and they love each other, and so forth. I find both of them so insufferable that I don't care about their relationship(s).

      I'm half-heartedly interested in the secondary goings on. I like Kimy, and I like Clare's room-mate, but can't stand the room-mate's boyfriend.

      My current thinking is, "This is not a book to tossed away lightly. It is to hurled with great force."

      I'd like either an incentive to finish it (bearing in mind I have a long list of others waiting on my TBR pile) or, preferably, a precis of the ending. I'm guessing she dies of some disease he can't prevent, and he knows it (of course he knows it, he just can't get involved in any ethical situation that would ruin the house-of-cards plot), but doesn't tell her.

      God, I hate them both. Hey Audrey, try going back in time before Stephen Fry wrote Making History.
    • By Mad Dog & Glory
      Having finally finished The Time Traveler's Wife last night (yes, I know, I'm a bit behind), I was left feeling a little dissatisfied. I loved it for around 200 pages, but then I thought it tailed off badly and left a lot of unanswered questions. Not only the time travel - I had no problems with suspending disbelief, although the most unbelievable part was that they were allowed to lead a 'normal' life, rather than Henry being captured and studied by the US government.

      It's the so-called 'normal' life that concerns me. It seems incredible that I could read a 500+ page novel centring almost exclusively on two characters, and at the end not really have much of an idea of each other's personalities or how they went about their daily lives. At one point, Henry buys a lottery ticket knowing the result and wins several million dollars, so Clare can have a studio. No other mention is made of this. So are they millionaires? They seem to live in normal-sized house, in a normal street. So what do they do with themselves when Henry isn't time travelling? They're not watching TV, as Henry can't. They can't spend all of their time in bed.

      The other huge problem with the novel is lack of conflict, which is essential to all drama. Henry and Clare have this 'perfect' relationship, and are only unhappy with each other over the miscarriages. There were all sorts of potential themes and conflicts that Niffenegger shied away from. Why does Clare never question the fact that this man came into her life at the age of 5 and, as they say, ruined her for other men?
      Niffenegger seems so intent on making this the perfect love story that she misses a lot of tricks.

      My guess is that Audrey Niffenegger will be a one-hit wonder. She came up with a brilliant idea, and also came up with a good structure (although some disagree), and played out every permutation of time travelling possible. But in the end a great idea can get you only so far, and I don't feel she has the skills as a novelist to get as much out of the story as was potentially there.
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