The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

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.

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Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham

This volume contains two novellas and four short stories. The first novella is the titular “Consider Her Ways,” concerning a woman who accidentally trades minds with another woman who lives in the future, a bizarre future in which there are no more men. The other novella is “Random Quest,” concerning a man who winds up in an alternate universe for a spell, falls in love with a woman from that universe, then later attempts to find the same woman in his own universe. I happened to catch a modern made-for-TV movie of this novella a couple of years ago, which, for me at least, failed to capture the spirit of the original.

The remaining four stories were, for the most part, weaker than the novellas, with the exception of “A Long Spoon,” in which a man editing a film accidentally evokes a demon. Strips of film just happened to be lying on the cutting-room floor in the vague shape of a pentacle, while a piece of film played backwards at a slower pace caused a “word of power” to be uttered from the speakers. This story trumps all others by simply being a lot more fun.

Overall I was disappointed with this volume. The stories were too domestic, dialogue-heavy and drama-scarce, making them somewhat of a chore at times. And the punchlines often failed to reward the monotonous build-up. John Wyndham has much, much better works in print.

Chocky by John Wyndham

John Wyndham was quite a proflic author, and Chocky is considered to be one of his major works, although it is less well-known than the likes of The Day of the Triffids. I suspect that most people presently seeking out the novel are doing so because of their memories of the ITV children’s television adaptation from the 1980s. My own nostalgia of that six-part drama has been prodding me for many years to read the original novel. Finally I have.

The story is told entirely from the perspective of the father of eleven-year-old Matthew Gore. We begin with Dad overhearing Matthew speaking to what appears to be an imaginary friend. It’s a little worrying that a boy so old should be indulging in such a fantasy, but what’s even more worrying is the bizarre subject matter of the conversation. Matthew is attempting to form answers to questions like “Why are there seven days in a week?” and “Why 31 days in a month?” Later, Matthew learns to count in binary, using the symbols Y and N for positive and negative. If he had read it in a book he would certainly be using 1 and 0. This imaginary friend also seems to have no concept of the time of day, insisting on quizzing Matthew at various hours of the day and night. When confronted by his parents, Matthew tells them about Chocky. Matthew’s father is uncertain about dismissing Matthew’s fantasy, so he calls in the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Landis. As a reader, I have a pet hate for the kind of stories where a child has something fantastic happen to him, and all the adults refuse to believe him, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. To my delight, Chocky does not go down this road. The adults realise that Chocky is objectively real. But who is this entity and what is his/her/its purpose? Is it friend or foe? The real threat, however, comes not from an alien presence, but from ordinary men willing to exploit a young boy in the pursuit of knowledge.

The book is very male-centred, which makes it a product of its time (the 1960s), but story also contains an environmental message so relevant to today’s ever-growing awareness that it makes you think the book was written in the present. It’s to John Wyndham’s credit that way back then he was so clued into how much we’re polluting the planet. Chocky is actually the very last book that Wyndham ever published, just one year before his death in 1969 (although the Wyndham Estate later published Web posthumously). I can think of no finer way to finish a life of writing than with the theme of Chocky.

The television series is also notable. I chased it up after reading the novel. It’s a very faithful adaptation, and according to an interview with series creator Anthony Read, the Wyndham Estate said that out of all the adaptations of Wyndham’s work, Chocky was the only one they were delighted with. The series spawned two sequels, Chocky’s Children and Chocky’s Challenge. I enjoyed the former; it was the perfect sequel in many ways. But by the third series, the story is clearly losing its way, stretched to the point where it contradicts the original ending.

But this is a review of the novel, and it’s excellent. Wyndham on top form.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I first read this novel when I was about fifteen, after being gripped by the brilliant BBC television adaptation of it some years before. And now, in the light of horror author Simon Clark recently writing The Night of the Triffids, I thought I’d give the original another whirl before I tackle the sequel. As a kid, this novel was as an exciting “monster story”; now, through the eyes of an adult, I see it as an ultra-realistic commentary on the collapse of mankind.

You might think “realistic” is the wrong word to use to describe a book about walking plants, but to be honest, the triffids themselves do not really play a very big role. The story concerns Bill Mason, a triffid farmer, who finds himself in hospital with bandages over his eyes as a result of a triffid sting. In his misfortune (or so he thinks) he misses the cosmic event of the century – the night sky is aglow with masses of comet debris, and the whole world is watching it in awe. The next morning, however, ninety-nine percent of the world’s population wake up sightless. This is the new world that Bill and a handful of others are faced with – a world of mass helplessness leading to starvation, to death, and ultimately to the unstoppable rise of the triffids, thriving on the demise of mankind.

If your introduction to the triffids has been that mediocre 60s B-movie, I urge you to forget about it and try this novel. It’s not a trashy sci-fi yarn; it’s a very insightful tale about mankind facing the end of the world – the mistakes we would make and the hopes we would have. Rightly regarded as a classic.