We begin with a scenario that resembles life in an 18th or 19th century country village, namely Waknuk in the land of Labrador. People live in cottages, get around on horses, farm the land. But soon we are given clues that this is not a tale from the past, but the future. The religion of this land is a version of Christianity that emerged from the ashes of a global apocalypse generations before. This was presumably a nuclear war, given that the chief religious preoccupation is the preservation of the “True Image.” Anything born with a genetic aberration is labelled an abomination in the sight of God, and is killed, including human babies.
David Strorm, the protagonist, is one such abomination, except he slipped through the net unnoticed due to the nature of his mutation. He is one of a small group of people who are able to communicate with each other mentally over distance. They all know that if they should be found out, they would be hunted down and killed. To survive they would have to run away to the Fringes – badlands where mutants of all kinds live. When the inevitable happens, only one thread of hope remains – another telepathic voice, very faint, calling from far, far away.
When I first read this book, aged fifteen, the anti-religious subtext was almost completely lost on me. Now, as a thirty-eight-year-old ex-Christian, this tale has more relevance to my life than ever, especially regarding the dangers of group-think and the need to protect oneself from the power of the religious herd, for the great “crime” of being different.
David’s Uncle Axel is an interesting character. He is a retired sailor, someone how has seen much more of the world than most people, and so he regards the small-minded religious people around him with quiet disgust. To me he represents the person who dares to educate himself beyond the confines of his upbringing. Uncle Axel is, symbolically, the old individualist who is wise to the dangerous ways of the herd. As David’s friend and confidante, he stands apart from the others adults as the one force of genuine good amid the callous hand-me-down standards of the world around him.
The book gets really brave in its closing chapters, where Wyndham uses the story to convey a message about the nature of existence as a game of survival of the fittest, where nothing is ever in stasis. Mutation, far from being a crime against nature, is the driving force of progress, and the idea of a true finished image of God in man is, by implication, a farce. The closing chapters will make or break the book for some readers, as Wyndham is conveying harsh truths about life that few are willing to face.
For me, this is perhaps Wyndham’s finest tale, topping even The Day of the Triffids. It’s also one of my personal favourite novels of all time.