The Chrysalids has been on my wish list ever since I read and adored The Day of the Triffids last October. It follows the adventures of David Strorm, a boy living in a dystopic, post-nuclear-apocalyptic society located in a region called Labrador. Labrador’s population leads a very agrarian, pre-industrial era lifestyle; with no technology, cars or electric lights. The society is an intensely Christian one, but the religion has been morphed into having an obsessive focus on eliminating any mutations in people, livestock and crops. Since an event called The Tribulation, presumably some sort of nuclear catastrophe, mutations are rife, and are seen as impure and the work of the devil. This is particularly the case when it comes to mutations in humans, as this is a deviation of the image of man and therefore of the image of God. Mutated crops and livestock undergo ritualistic destruction, and deviant people (those who have a mutation) are exiled to the fringes, which are lawless, almost uninhabitable areas that are still suffering the aftermath of the nuclear apocalypse.
This dystopia is revealed through the eyes of David, first as a very small boy barely comprehending his environs and later as a young man. When David is a child he makes a friend named Sophie, whom he accidentally discovers has six toes. Not understanding why this matters, he is confused at her horror at this revelation, and the instinctual reaction of her parents on hearing the news to start packing the family’s bags for escape. This is when he begins to question the radical slogans about mutants that he has been indoctrinated with. Under the guidance of his uncle, he begins to look at his society critically, something that is not encouraged. This was a really important theme in the book for me, the value of children looking at things critically, rather than just accepting things as they are and doing as they are told. I loved watching David’s mind awaken as he questioned and thought logically about his surroundings, from the young age of 10 onwards.
Despite his ability to see that all is not right with Labrador, David harbours considerable guilt and fear about his own deviation, his ability to “think speak” with his cousin and several other unknown children some distance away. This ability is both a gift and a burden for the children, who benefit from increased knowledge and powers of reasoning through “thinking together” about problems, but also dread detection.
An aspect of the plot I loved was that wherever David goes he’s perceptive enough to realise when he’s being fed a sermon pushing a certain point of view, whether it’s in Labrador, the Fringes or when in contact with other settlements. He has a discerning mind in the face of pervasive zealotry.
The Chrysalids is greatly concerned with themes of change and evolution. Labrador attempts to stamp out such things, while other settlements embrace them and argue for their importance. One character theorises:
“The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution: and we are part of it. The static, the enemy of change, is the enemy of life, and therefore our implacable enemy. If you still feel shocked, or doubtful, just consider some of the things that these people, who have taught you to think of them as your fellows, have done. I know little about your lives, but the pattern scarcely varies wherever a pocket of the older species is trying to preserve itself.”
Despite the strong influences of its mid-50s context; from the advances in nuclear weapons to genetics to the growing fear of technology in that period, The Chrysalids has in no way dated, and is a fantastic read. I can see how some might have qualms about the ending, but due to some of the plot aspects I’ve mentioned at I think it was actually quite clever.
I am not usually one for big books; I get bored, restless and a sore arm. For this reason I put off reading the almost 800-pages-long The Passage by Justin Cronin until the week before it was due back at the library. But this book was so addictive, so gripping and so wonderful that I finished it in under a week (being hit by a cold and having two sick days probably helped… but still). I’ve looked back over the posts by other bloggers linked at the bottom of the page and they all describe The Passage with the similar terms “page-turner” (Novel Insights), “addictive” (Savidge Reads and All the Books I Can Read), “faced-paced” and “enthralling” (Page Turners). And it really is.
To describe the plot of The Passage in a way that both does it justice and avoids misconceptions is a difficult task. Basically there are two main sections: one set in the present day, followed by one decades into the future. In the present day we meet Wolgast, a government agent tasked with convincing death row inmates to participate in a scientific testing for a government program in exchange for a lesser sentence of lifelong incarceration. It becomes clear that the virus injected into the subjects, with the hopes of discovering a way to prolong human life, has in fact caused them to mutate into monsters, or vampires. The twelve subjects break out into the world and bring about the apocalypse. Just before the outbreak and ensuing bloodbath, a six-year-old girl named Amy is experimented on and survives the experience without changing into a vampire.
The setting then shifts to the future, in an enclosed settlement of people attempting to shelter from the virals, who have killed or “taken up” most of North America’s population, and perhaps the world’s. It is with the characters in this small colony fighting for survival that the reader spends the majority of the book.
I’ve tried not to reveal too much more than the inside flap of the book makes clear, but since it’s such an epic book even that description encompasses a lot. I felt it was important to at least briefly outline the future section because that’s where the reader spends the most time and I felt the tone shifted considerably between the two time frames, from very bleak and to something more like the tone of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; a thrilling, but completely necessary, sometimes deadly and inescapable adventure.
A lot has been made of The Passage being a book about vampires, but the vampires here are so animalistic and lacking in humanity, except for in brief moments. They can’t even speak verbally like a usual vampire can, but they are sensitive to light and drink blood. The descriptions of them gave me the impression that they hardly even look human. They’re also rarely referred to as vampires, except for in the present day section. As a result The Passage avoids a lot of the usual subject matter of vampire novels and so readers sick of vampires shouldn’t miss out on this great novel by staying away from it. Oh, and it’s the first installment in a trilogy, so expect to hear more about this wonderful series.
“There was one great difference between the world as it was not and the world of the Time Before, Michael Fisher thought, and it wasn’t the virals. The difference was electricity… Fixing the batteries was impossible. The batteries weren’t made to be fixed. They were made to be replaced… The membranes were cooked, their polymer pathways hopelessly gummed up with sulfonic acid molecules. That’s what the monitor was telling him with that little-bitty hiccup in the day-to-day. Short of the U.S Army showing up with a brand-new stack fresh from the factory – “Hey, sorry, we forgot about you guys!” – the lights were doing to fail. A year, two at the outside. And when that happened, it would be he, Michael the Circuit, who’d have to stand up and say “Listen, everybody, I’ve got some not-great news. Tonight’s forecast? Darkness with widespread screaming. It’s been fun keeping the lights on, but I have to die now. Just like all of you.”
“By half day they had found the river again. They rode in silence under the snow, which was falling steadily now, filling the woods with a muffling light. The river had began to freeze at the edges, dark water flowing freely in its narrowed channel, oblivious. Amy, leaning against Peter’s back, her pale wrists slack in his lap, had fallen asleep. He felt the warmth of her body, the slow rise and fall of her chest against him. Plumes of warm vapour flowed back from the horse’s nostrils, smelling of grass and earth. There were birds in the trees, black birds; they called to one another from the branches, their voices dimmed by the smothering snow.”
My mum and my sister have been telling me for years that I MUST read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. “Oh yeah? What’s that one about again?” I would ask, with one of them replying with something along the lines of “Well it’s about killer plants…” before quickly insisting that this didn’t mean it was silly. I finally picked The Triffids up in August and found myself totally captivated, finishing it in one day.
Killer plants are a large part of The Triffids, but it’s far more multifaceted than that. A supposed comet causes a spectacular light show, only to plummet the world into darkness; the intense light has left the majority of the population blind. The sightless stumble the streets in hysterics, desperate for food. At first many die in the ensuing violence, are killed in tragic accidents, like mistaking windows for doors, others, not willing to live in perpetual darkness, suicide. The seers and the blind that survive the first few days find themselves in perpetual danger from a new and unusual threat. Without the power of sight mankind is left at the mercy of the triffids, plants that were created via genetic engineering in Russia and prior to the disaster were harvested commercially across the globe for their oils. The triffids are not your average plants, they are about six-feet tall, able to hobble along on their roots, and are equipped with poisonous, whip-like stingers that lash out at high speeds and reach several feet. Once a triffid has stung it will sit by its victim for days as the body decays, digesting bits of rotting flesh. The novel follows Bill Masen, one of the few whose sight remains intact, and his struggle to survive.
The Triffids was first published in the ’50s, and true to its era it oozes heavy themes of Cold War paranoia. Not only are the Russians responsible for the creation of the triffids, but Masen reveals that prior to the disaster people were living in constant fear of weaponry satellites circling the earth, created as a part of the arms race: “It was by no means pleasant to realise that there was an unknown number of menaces up there over your head, quietly circling and circling until someone should arrange for them to drop – and there was nothing to be done about them. Still, life has to go on – and novelty is a wonderfully short-lived thing. One became used to the idea perforce.”
Despite the heavy contextual impact of the Cold War, The Triffids has stood the test of time because Wyndham’s story is one of human nature and survival; ageless themes contemporary authors continue to wrestle with. It has influenced post apocalyptic writers for the past five decades and as a result its traces can be seen in many modern works (The Happening, I Am Legend, The Handmaid’s Tale…). Wyndham might have been preoccupied with the events of the ‘50s, but he also managed to foreshadow modern concerns about genetic engineering and bio warfare, increasing the text’s longevity even further.
All of this aside, The Triffids is simply so well written. Wyndham paints a vivid, thrilling, disaster story that successfully walks the line between frightening and funny without ever becoming overwhelmingly dark; a fate many post-apocalyptic works often succumb to.
I’m dying to read more of Wyndham’s works, and next on my list is The Chrysalids, which, according to Wikipedia, some fans consider his finest work.