REVIEW: The Chrysalids (1955)

A book by John Wyndham

“The Chrysalids” by John Wyndham may not have received as much recognition in The United States, but it has earned its place as a beloved classic across the pond. It is the type of book that likely finds itself on mandatory reading lists in certain corners of UK secondary schools. Personally, I stumbled upon it after reading Day of the Triffids (a book by the same author) and wanting to explore more of Wyndham’s works. Being an evident critique of religious fanaticism and a unique post-apocalyptic tale, it immediately caught my attention. Like many of these esteemed British science fiction classics, I thoroughly enjoyed it, finding similarities to John Christopher’s Tripods series within its pages.

The Chrysalids is set in the future after a devastating global nuclear war. David, the young hero of the novel, lives in a tight-knit community of religious and genetic fundamentalists, who exist in a state of constant alert for any deviation from what they perceive as the norm of God’s creation, deviations broadly classified as “offenses” and “blasphemies.” Offenses consist of plants and animals that are in any way unusual, and these are publicly burned to the accompaniment of the singing of hymns. Blasphemies are human beings—ones who show any sign of abnormality, however trivial. They are banished from human society, cast out to live in the wild country where, as the authorities say, nothing is reliable and the devil does his work. David grows up surrounded by admonitions: KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD; WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT.”

A one-way ticket to exile or worse…

It’s intriguing to consider that a book from this time period delved into themes such as religious extremism, zealotry, and persecution of those who are different. While the author may not have made explicit allusions to any specific marginalized group, it is clear that these themes were likely intentionally written. Then again, I guess anyone can read into any work of art, finding themes the artist was oblivious to. Recent news articles have revealed instances where public figures, especially in the US, have seemingly missed the obvious allusions in fictional works and come to all sorts of weird conclusions. Take a state legislator that seemingly aligned themselves with the bigoted government characters in the X-Men franchise, using it as a means to attack LGBTQ youth. In such a context, nothing surprises me anymore. Considering the prevailing climate of the era, it is remarkable how progressive youth science fiction in the UK was during that time. Works like The Death of Grass, Day of the Triffids, Tripods, and others have consistently surprised me in this regard, especially when contrasting them with television series from the 70s, often featuring individuals ranting about “Women’s Lib” or immigration.

My only qualm with The Chrysalids is that it would have made an excellent start to a series that unfortunately never materialized. I am uncertain if a sequel was ever planned or if it was always intended as a standalone work. Nevertheless, the way the story concludes leaves a somewhat underwhelming feeling, knowing that there will be no further exploration of the narrative. If it were released today, I have no doubt it would have spawned a long-running young adult book series. However, as John Wyndham passed away in 1969, that possibility remains out of reach. I am genuinely surprised that no authorized sequel has been written, especially considering one was produced for his other work, Day of the Triffids, even though it didn’t necessarily require a continuation. It is truly a shame.

Overall, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is an enjoyable read, despite my reservations about its ending. The world-building is fascinating, the characters are compelling, and the book possesses the kind of stakes that would excite younger readers. It is a relatively short read and would fit well among many contemporary young adult books in terms of tone and structure. Perhaps one day, an author will find inspiration to expand upon the story, but until then, I am grateful that I don’t live in a world where imperfections like a flawed toe could lead to my demise, or at best, excommunication to a nuclear wasteland. Such a life would be truly harrowing.


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