“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
The much-revered writers of the Golden Age of science fiction can be quite rough around the edges, even downright embarrassing on occasion. The writing is hurried, the plots of plot-driven books are disturbingly inconsistent, and the characters are primarily stock types and authorial mouthpieces. To top it off, many of these novels are ambitious, earnestly offered as novels of big ideas. These ideas are usually sympathetic (tolerance, freedom, racial equality, escape from religious tyranny), but generally reduced to platitudes expressed in long, somnolent sermons by the your standard pointy-headed philosopher-scientist.
So why bother to read these books? Fun is the most immediate reason. These books can offer a hell of a good time with good-hearted characters working their way through exotic scenarios. But the best novels of this genre and era are more than just entertainment. The best Golden Age authors, in spite of themselves and their ambitions, manage to use the tropes of science fiction to achieve works that are more expressive and penetrating than the info-dumping speeches of the characters that populate those works. While later generations of sci-fi writers came along and finally upped the game of the genre by bringing in some of the best methods of modern fiction, the Golden Age authors proved, despite their pulpy get-up, that science fiction has tremendous potential for expressively exploring many of the most resonant concerns of literature.
John Wyndham’s books exhibit many of the classic traits of 1950’s science fiction, but in nearly all respects his books should be included among the best of their peers. Wyndham wrote some of the most well-crafted post-apocalyptic novels in a decade filled with end-of-the-world tales. Most notably, he stands out from much of the pulp sensationalism of his Golden Age peers with his straightforward style of understated elegance that reminds me more than anything of Robert Louis Stevenson. Wyndham’s books may share some of the clunkiness of pulp sci-fi, but his language is always a pleasure to read.
The Chrysalids (1955) is Wyndham’s third and best end-of-the-world novel. (It was titled Re-birth in the U.S., apparently since, like the word kraken, chrysalids is not a word U.S. readers were expected to understand.) Unlike Day of the Triffids and Kraken Wakes, two first-rate horror tales, Chrysalids is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story. It uses the setting of a brutal, post-nuclear frontier community to examine the damage done when societies are based on fear, especially fear of change and fear of difference.
The story is about Davie, a child growing up in a frontier society settled in Northeastern Canada after a catastrophic nuclear war has rendered much of the North American continent uninhabitable and forced people to again rely on 19th century technology. In the aftermath, the surviving communities have struggled restore the stability and genetic purity of the pre-holocaust world by eliminating one of the most persistent consequences of the war: mutants. Purity of body type is an essential element of the fundamentalist, Puritan religion that dominates Davie’s town. It is God’s will that mutants of all kinds be destroyed: crops, animals, and human infants. Davie’s father Joseph is the town’s most zealous devotee of this cult of genetic purity. The community’s religious devotion to purity has created a society in which relationships are dominated by fear and mistrust. Mothers don’t announce the arrival of a newborn infant until it’s been certified normal; infants who don’t meet the standard are quietly disposed of, and women who bear too many mutant infants can be cast off by their husbands. Those mutant humans, “Deviations”, who somehow manage to escape condemnation as infants, are exiled when discovered, banished to the still-radioactive fringes that are populated by bands of Deviants who struggle to survive and who launch the occasional raid on ‘normal’ towns.
What happens if you can’t identify a Deviation just by looking at it? For much of his childhood, Davie never realized he wasn’t normal. He and a small group of friends have been born with the ability to communicate telepathically. These children gradually realize that they are unusual, and that their lives are safe only as long as their secret is kept. Inevitably, as some members of the group reach early adulthood and begin to engage more with ‘normal’ humans, the secret becomes vulnerable and eventually Davie and the others have to flee. This leads to an exciting chase and apocalyptic showdown, at the end of which Davie and his telepathic friends are rescued by a team from a distant ‘Sealand’ (New Zealand) society of people who all have telepathic powers and have managed to recover the secrets of modern technology.
The Chrysalids exhibits the standard features of 1950’s sci-fi genre writing. Davie’s father is a caricature of a religious zealot; most human mutants have ridiculous, biologically implausible defects; and there is some hokey pop-evolution speculation about telepathy being the next evolutionary step. But the appeal of this book doesn’t lie in careful construction of the narrative or psychologically deep characterization; it lies in the impressively imaginative ways that science fiction props are used to develop some powerfully resonant themes. Davie’s society is one based on fear and conformity, and such societies make intimacy difficult, if not impossible; the result is a failure to build a humane society. As Davie matures he comes to experience the inhumanity in his society and discovers that he isn’t safe, even among his own family.
Davie discovers that with the power of telepathy, he and the other children have managed to form intimate relationships that are impossible to develop between normal humans. Fear and intolerance make it difficult for people to relate to each other, or perhaps fear and intolerance arise because of a failure to communicate. Normal humans are forced to rely on the inadequate tool of language to form connections, while telepathy enables people to transcend the limitations of language, and therefore build a more humane society. As the leader of the Sealand rescue team puts it (in one of those heavy speeches that are a staple of the genre):
We are able to think-together and understand one another as [normal people] never could; we are beginning to understand how to assemble and apply the composite team-mind to a problem – and where may that not take us one day? We are not shut away into individual cages from which we cannot reach out with only inadequate words. Understanding one another, we do not need laws which treat living forms as though they were as indistinguishable as bricks; we could never commit the enormity of imagining that we could mint ourselves into equality and identity, like stamped coins; we do not mechanically attempt to hammer ourselves into geometrical patterns of society, or policy; we are not dogmatists teaching God how He should have ordered the world.
Many Golden Age sci-fi books dump such ponderous dialogue on the reader in all earnestness; Wyndham, while taking these ideas just as seriously as his peers, proves his skill by having his most sympathetic characters react to speeches like this with boredom and barely hidden ridicule. More importantly, this speech is largely superfluous, since Wyndham has conveyed his ideas much more expressively in the experiences of the telepathic children.
As Christopher Priest writes in his introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of The Chrysalids, “John Wyndham was foremost a storyteller and literary stylist, [and] his books were written as intelligent entertainment.” The Chrysalids ranks with the best post-apocalyptic sci-fi of the era; it is at least as good as the better-known Childhood’s End (note the parallel title) and better than the contemporaneous The Long Tomorrow. It’s a great read that displays the expressive potential of science fiction.
And stay tuned for more reviews in my survey of 60 years of post-apocalyptic fiction.