Thursday, August 08, 2013

'Nuff Read: The Chrysalids

"And God created man in his own image. And God decreed that
man should have one body, one head, two arms and two legs:
that each arm should be jointed in two places and end in one hand:
that each hand should have four fingers and one thumb:
that each finger should bear a flat finger-nail... Any creature... that
is not formed thus, is not human."

The Definition of Man in The Chrysalids

When one sets their mind to it, finding a copy of a difficult to locate novel can be a journey in itself. Last summer after reading John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, I had hoped to follow up this summer by reading another of his novels. One title that came up frequently as a solid successor, and "youth science fiction classic" in its own right, was The Chrysalids. Little did I know that this book (like all of Wyndham's work it appears--including Triffids) was a hard to track down text. After a few days of searching in local book stores (chains and independents), as well as suburban public libraries, I was able to find, with the help of a librarian, a single large print edition in the bowels of our community's largest urban public library.

The cover to the only edition I
could find to borrow or buy
in Rochester, New York!
The post-apocalyptic world of protagonist David Strorm is one in which the slightest physical difference, an extra toe or unusual shape, will result in the plant, animal or human in question being destroyed. This concept is referred to throughout as "The Definition of Man." As the son of a fervent believer in this adopted social norm, David must deal with reconciling this belief-system with his own affection for a young girl, Sophie. David befriends Sophie and her family, whose only "crime" is attempting to hide the fact that she has an extra toe. Inadvertently, Sophie is "outed" by David. From this inciting plot point, Wyndham takes us from the perceived safety of the world with which David is familiar, the Town of Waknuk, on a personal and physical journey to that place he has dreamed of from the beginning: a world of light (Sealand--a newly rechristened New Zealand which has somehow remained isolated enough to survive the alluded to nuclear holocaust). During this journey it is slowly revealed that David himself, may possess difference enough to fear for his own life...

It is difficult for me not to consider this book in the shadow of Triffids. Both are engaging sci-fi, the overall impact of which is only slightly diminished by those who are more well read, because many authors who have followed Wyndham cherry-picked plot point or concepts. Where The Chrysalids is very different from Triffids is in imbuing some characters, including David, with a level of precognition and telepathy that makes for a less grounded, or "realistic" read. Where both are frighteningly realistic in their depictions of base human behavior, Chrysalids is clearly a "young adult" book while Triffids may skew to the older reader.

The Chrysalids has seen a resurgence of popularity in some high schools. After reading the novel, the reason for this resurgent popularity was not difficult to see, and the same reading also revealed some reasons why this book will likely not to be added to the approved reading list at the relatively conservative school distinct in which I teach. With the timely, and appealing, theme of societies ruled by dogmatism this is unfortunate, and I suppose in the minds of some, dangerous. (Check out Edwin Frank's article "Where Even Gifts are Censored" for a compelling take.) Because this book is clearly Science-Fiction, and therefore a genre in school that is only acceptable if derivative of sparkling vampires or lesser watered down updates, I will simply need to suggest it in class for those adventurous readers who wish to seek out the source for many more modern plot points.

Pieces of the philosophy behind Marvel Comics X-Men series' are here, too, and for some this may be the hook that prompts them to read. Like the better X-men comic books, Chrysalids is ripe with social commentary that is just as relevant (and therefore dangerous) as it was during its success in the late 1950s. I highly recommend this to young readers, and especially to the young adult reader who has a grasp on history and current affairs, as they will see the deeper satirical intention that Wyndham had in mind.

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