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.