The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids is the book that was chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. The deadline for posting our Spin book reviews was supposed to be yesterday, but I got confused with the dates and am a day late! Anyway, after enjoying all of the books I’ve previously read by John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky and The Day of the Triffids – I had high hopes for this one and wasn’t disappointed. It’s another fascinating, exciting and thought-provoking novel – although not quite what I’d been expecting.

I deliberately tried not to read too much about this book before I started it, so I assumed the Chrysalids must be some sort of monstrous alien beings similar to the Triffids. However, this is not really that kind of book at all; it’s a post-apocalyptic novel exploring the changes in society brought about by an unspecified (though presumably nuclear) disaster known as the ‘Tribulation’. There are no monsters, although some of the characters view their fellow humans that way.

Our narrator, David Strorm, was born many years after the Tribulation in rural Labrador, a part of the world where normal life has resumed to some extent, although the ‘Old People’ have been almost forgotten and their technological advances have been lost in the mists of time. The people of Labrador are living an almost medieval existence, ruled by religious zealots who believe that as God created humans in his image, all human life should conform to a set of strict specifications. Anyone who is found to deviate from this in any way is considered a blasphemy and exiled to the Fringes, a wild and lawless region to the south. Unfortunately, as a result of the nuclear apocalypse, mutations have become very common.

David is still a child when his best friend Sophie is banished to the Fringes after her shoe comes off, revealing a sixth toe. Having witnessed Sophie’s fate, David becomes aware of the importance of keeping his own mutation – the power of telepathy – a secret. A mental abnormality should be easier to hide than a physical one, but the very fact that he and his telepathic friends look just like everyone else makes them a bigger threat to the religious leaders who are determined to identify and drive out every blasphemy. Can David and the others continue to keep their special ability hidden – and what will happen if they get caught?

What makes The Chrysalids so interesting is that although it was published in 1955 and set in some distant point in the future, the themes and ideas it explores are still very relevant to our lives today. Intolerance, bigotry and prejudice have sadly not gone away and there is still a tendency for some groups to judge others for not being ‘people like us’. The Chrysalids raises the interesting question of what being normal actually means and why any of us should have the right to decide whether another person is normal or not. Later in the novel another community is introduced who also consider their own way of life to be superior and to them it’s the religious fundamentalists of Labrador who are seen as primitive and savage.

Like the other Wyndham novels I’ve read, the science fiction elements in this one are really quite understated; the main focus is on the changes in society and in daily life caused by an apocalyptic or paranormal incident. I think this is why I enjoy reading Wyndham so much even though I don’t consider myself a big fan of science fiction in general. However, although I loved most of this book and found it quite gripping, I felt that the message became a bit unclear towards the end, possibly intentionally, with the introduction of that other community (it’s difficult to discuss it properly here while trying to avoid spoilers). Still, I was left with a lot to think about, which is always a good thing, and I wished there had been a sequel, or at least a few more chapters, as it seemed there was a lot more to learn about this world and our characters’ place in it. If you’ve read this book I would love to hear your thoughts!

This is book 31/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Chocky by John Wyndham – #1968Club

When I read The Day of the Triffids earlier this year a few people recommended Chocky as my next Wyndham. Chocky was published in 1968 (developed from an earlier novella which appeared in the magazine Amazing Stories in 1963) so it seemed a perfect choice for this week’s 1968 Club, the latest of the events hosted by Karen and Simon in which participants read and write about books from a chosen year.

David Gore, the narrator of Chocky, becomes concerned when he overhears his adopted son, Matthew, having a conversation with what he assumes is an imaginary friend. Apart from the fact that Matthew is almost twelve years old and is surely past the age when he should be playing this sort of game, it also seems to be a very strange conversation, not the sort you would expect children to have. Soon Matthew is asking some unusual questions: Why are there only seven days in a week and not eight? Where is Earth? And, more bizarrely, why do cows stop?

David and his wife, Mary, have had some experience with this sort of thing. Just a few years earlier, their daughter Polly had been inseparable from her own invisible friend, Piff. They can sense, though, that this is different. While Polly – who had been five years old at the time – had been very much in control of Piff, it appears to be the other way round with Matthew and Chocky. Matthew is unable to tell his parents Chocky’s age, where Chocky comes from or even whether Chocky is male or female (he eventually settles on female). It’s all quite worrying for David and Mary who don’t know how to help their son – or even if he really needs to be helped at all.

Who or what is Chocky? Is she a positive influence on Matthew or a harmful one? And what should his parents do about it? This is a very short novel – about 160 pages in the edition I read – so I am not going to say much more about the plot. What I will say is that it’s not difficult to guess what is going on; I made my mind up about Chocky almost immediately and I was right. David and Mary, however, are unaware of the truth and so the interest is in watching them each try to deal with the situation in their own way. Should they just ignore all mentions of Chocky and hope she goes away, as Piff did? Do they need to get a doctor involved? The only thing they agree on is that, although Matthew doesn’t seem at all frightened or unhappy, his behaviour is certainly not normal.

I loved Chocky; it’s the perfect sort of science fiction for me – that is, for someone who doesn’t usually choose to read it! Like The Midwich Cuckoos (my favourite of the three Wyndham novels I’ve read so far), this book features ordinary people living quiet, uneventful lives…until something slightly out of the ordinary happens and shakes them out of their peaceful existence. The science fiction elements are subtle – in fact, until the final chapter, it’s as much a domestic novel about the relationship between parents and children as it is a science fiction one.

This was a great choice for 1968 Club and I’m already looking forward to my next John Wyndham book, whichever that will be. I have also read another book from 1968 for the club, but haven’t finished my review yet so that one will be coming later in the week.


More 1968 books previously read and reviewed:

Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer

Usually I am able to post a list of books from the relevant year which I’ve previously reviewed on my blog, but this time I can only find one. It seems that 1968 books have not featured very strongly in my reading until now!

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

A few years ago I read John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and loved it, which was a nice surprise as I very rarely choose to read science fiction. It has taken me a while to get round to reading another book by Wyndham, but now that I’ve finally read The Day of the Triffids I’m pleased to report that I found this another enjoyable, if unsettling, read.

The story is set in a world very similar to our own, but for one small but very significant difference: the presence of a species of plant known as the triffid:

There must have been plenty of them about, growing up quietly and inoffensively, with nobody taking any particular notice of them – at least, it seemed so, for if the biological or botanical experts were excited over them, no news of their interest percolated to the general public. And so the one in our garden continued its growth peacefully, as did thousands like it in neglected spots all over the world.

It was some little time later that the first one picked up its roots and walked.

Apart from the ability to walk, another characteristic of the triffid is its long stinging arm with which it lashes out with unnerving accuracy at anyone who gets too close. At the beginning of the novel, our narrator, Bill Masen, is in a London hospital with a bandage over his eyes, having been stung in the face by one of these vicious plants. Because of this, Bill misses out on seeing a spectacular display of meteors which light up the sky with green flashes all over the world.

The next day, when he tentatively removes his bandages, Bill is relieved to find that no damage has been done to his eyes – but on venturing out of his hospital ward, which is strangely quiet that morning, he makes a shocking discovery. It seems that everyone who watched the meteor shower in the sky last night has suddenly and mysteriously gone blind, meaning that Bill is one of the few people left in the world who is able to see.

When I read The Midwich Cuckoos, one of the reasons I liked it so much was that the focus was on a small community trying to deal with the consequences of one strange occurrence and the ‘science fiction’ elements were quite subtle. With giant killer plants, flashing lights in the sky and sudden worldwide blindness, those elements are a lot stronger in The Day of the Triffids, but there’s still the same sense of the ordinary blending with the extraordinary.

It’s never entirely clear what caused the blindness – or the introduction of the triffid to the planet – but there are hints of biological and chemical warfare (it’s worth remembering that the book was published in 1951, in the early years of the Cold War). But maybe the causes are not really important; what is important is the reaction of the characters to the post-apocalyptic world in which they find themselves. And I found the way most people reacted quite depressing – fighting, rioting, looting shops and stealing food. The most memorable section of the novel, for me, was the part immediately following the onset of the blindness, where Bill leaves the hospital to find that the world – or London at least – has descended into chaos:

We had turned a corner to see the street seventy yards ahead of us filled with people. They were coming toward us at a stumbling run, with their arms outstretched before them. A mingled crying and screaming came from them. Even as we came into sight of them a woman at the front tripped and fell; others tumbled over her, and she disappeared beneath a kicking, struggling heap. Beyond the mob we had a glimpse of the cause of it all: three dark-leaved stems swaying beyond the panic-stricken heads.

Personally, I think the idea of seven-foot tall plants uprooting themselves and walking around the streets is terrifying enough without all the other things that happen in the novel! The triffids play a surprisingly small part in the novel, though; much more time is spent on the implications of the blindness, the opportunity for shaping a new society and the varying opinions of what that society should be like. The role of the triffids in the story, I think, is to show how precarious our position is in the world and how just one small change (such as the loss of our eyesight) can result in the conditions being right for another species to gain superiority.

Although I preferred The Midwich Cuckoos, The Day of the Triffids really is a fascinating novel. Now I need to decide which John Wyndham book to read next.

Classics Club Monthly Meme: Question #42 – Science Fiction and Mysteries

The Classics Club

On the 26th of each month the Classics Club post a question for members to answer during the following month. It’s been a while since I last participated so I’ve decided to join in with this one. The question below was contributed by club member Fariba:

“What is your favourite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

I haven’t read a huge number of classics from either of these genres, so rather than pick favourites I’m simply going to write about a few books I’ve enjoyed which fall into each category. First, let’s look at classic mysteries…


And Then There Were None The first author to come to mind when I think about classic mysteries is Agatha Christie. Although I haven’t read all of her books yet (not even half of them), I’ve loved most of those that I have read, particularly And Then There Were None. It’s such a simple idea – ten strangers are cut off from the world on an isolated island and start to be killed off one by one – but the solution is fiendishly clever!

My next choice is from the Victorian period: a book which TS Eliot famously described as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”. It’s The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a novel which centres around the disappearance of a valuable Indian diamond. As anyone who has read it will know, the mystery itself is almost secondary to the wonderful array of memorable narrators, especially Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly servant.

With my interest in history, I also enjoyed The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, in which a detective recuperating in hospital decides to amuse himself by trying to solve the mystery of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. In 1990 this book came top of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list. I haven’t read any of Tey’s other mysteries yet, but I have A Shilling for Candles on my shelf to read soon.

Science Fiction

The Midwich Cuckoos A few years ago I read and loved The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic science fiction novel about a mysterious phenomenon which occurs in a quiet English village. I was (and still am) intending to read more of John Wyndham’s books, but haven’t got round to it yet. I know some of his other novels are regarded as being better than this one, so I’m looking forward to trying them for myself.

HG Wells is one of the most famous authors of classic science fiction and so far I have read two of his books – The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. I enjoyed both of these novels but I didn’t find either of them entirely satisfying. In the case of The Time Machine in particular, I felt that there were a lot of ideas which could have been explored in more depth. I’m sure I’ll read more of Wells’ novels eventually.

If I can also class dystopian novels as science fiction, there are quite a few that I’ve read including, years ago, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Otherwise, I really haven’t read much science fiction at all and would love some recommendations!

Have you read any classic mystery or science fiction novels? Which are your favourites?

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos The Midwich Cuckoos begins as our narrator, Richard Gayford, and his wife, Janet, attempt to return to their home in the quiet English village of Midwich after a trip to London to celebrate Richard’s birthday. As they approach the village they discover that the road has been closed by the police; something very strange is happening in Midwich, a place where, as Richard tells us, things just did not happen. That night, Monday 26th September, everyone within the boundaries of Midwich has fallen asleep and anyone who tries to enter the village also loses consciousness.

The next day this phenomenon, which becomes known as the ‘Dayout’, disappears as suddenly as it arrived – the invisible barrier is lifted and people begin to wake up. At first it seems that most of the villagers have been completely unharmed by the ‘Dayout’, but a few months later they make a shocking discovery. Something did happen during their twenty-four hours of unconsciousness and it’s going to have a big effect on the lives of everyone in Midwich.

I’ve decided to end my summary of the plot here rather than tell you exactly what happened to the people of Midwich. I’m sure some of you will already know (maybe you’ve seen the film based on the book, Village of the Damned, or maybe the title of the book and the cover of my old Penguin edition pictured here have given you some clues) but I don’t really want to spoil things for anyone new to the story so I won’t go into any more details. All I will say is that I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end!

I don’t often choose to read science fiction (looking back through my blog archives I can only see five or six that I’ve read since 2009) and I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but The Midwich Cuckoos was probably the perfect type of science fiction for me – instead of being filled with too much action or violence, it’s a subtle, thought provoking portrayal of a small, seemingly normal community trying to cope with something that is threatening their way of life. I think it was the ordinariness of the setting that made the story so effective; this, combined with Wyndham’s thoughtful, undramatic writing style, made it possible to almost believe in what happened in Midwich, while also creating quite an eerie atmosphere.

The only problem I had with this book was that I didn’t feel any connection with the characters. The narrator himself doesn’t have a big part to play and is actually absent from the village for long periods of time, leaving large portions of the story to be told through second-hand accounts, particularly through the philosophical musings of one of the Midwich residents, Gordon Zellaby. It was also disappointing that despite the women of Midwich having such an important role in the story, we never really get to know any of them and they are rarely given a chance to participate in any of the discussions or decisions being made by the men. But although there were a few aspects of the book that I thought could have been better, I did love my first John Wyndham book and am now wondering which one I should read next.