book reviews by Althea

The Chrysalids – John Wyndham ****

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It seems wrong for the first adjective I’d use to describe a rather miserable future dystopia to be “nostalgic” but that was the mood this book swept me into. Not a nostalgia for the world described within the book, but rather for the style of writing. I read a great deal of fiction very similar to this in my early teenage years, but somehow, I believe I missed this one. Even if I had read it before, it would’ve held up to re-reading – this is quite an excellent book.

In a post-nuclear-war society, life is restricted by radioactive no-go zones. Physical mutations are common, but, at least in the strict, religious, patriarchal village that is all young David has ever known, mutants – animal, vegetable or human – are ruthlessly weeded out. He’s never questioned the morality he’s been raised with – until the heavy hand of the law falls upon a childhood friend – and he realizes that he himself may be a new (and unprecedentedly dangerous) kind of mutant. Not only that, but his young sister, Petra, may share his mutation. He is not alone – but will a small group of young people be able to survive in the face of the firmly-held convictions of even their dearest friends and family?

There are a few weaknesses to the book – the “wise uncle” character is a bit too good and knowledgeable to be true, and once our characters are on the run, the plot feels a bit rushed… but…

The book does a superlative job of exploring the psychology of hatred, including the motivations behind it, while making a cogent, compelling argument for diversity in all its forms: what makes us human is not the physical form of our bodies, our gender, or even how we think, but something deeper than that. However, any ‘message’ is delicately understated, and the ending brings a beautifully structured ambiguity to it: MAJOR SPOILER [David’s father, and the village, regard mutants as less-than-human, to be destroyed. But when the psychic mutants from across the radioactive wastes sweep in, deus-ex-machina-like, to rescue Petra, the children may be delighted – but the reader can see that these more-advanced people, in turn, regard Humanity 1.0 as mere animals. David and Petra are disturbingly ready to accept their justifications for actions that may seem to us completely ethically unjustifiable. We are left wondering what David’s – and even Petra’s – place in this promised brave new world will really be. (hide spoiler)] There are no answers – it’s left up to the reader to decide.

While that open-endedness is, in that way, thought-provoking, there is another open end, however, which cries out for a never-written sequel: Petra. [Her power is unprecedented, and the story sets up the fascinating tension of what an innocent young child with uncurbed power might be capable of in the defense of herself and her friends. But it never goes anywhere with the idea: she never actually does anything with it. (hide spoiler)] With that setup, there really should’ve been a followup to explore the issue, in my opinion.

Read for post-apocalyptic book club.


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