James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post


The Chrysalids

By John Wyndham 

19 May, 2024

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

John Wyndham’s 1955 The Chrysalids is a stand-alone post-apocalyptic coming of age novel. The Chrysalids was also published under the title Re-Birth.

David Strorm lives in Waknuk, a thriving backwoods community in Labrador. The Tribulation that erased the Old People and their semi-mythical civilization left much of the world an uninhabitable desolation. Labrador and nearby Newf are exceptions, but even here the Tribulation left a legacy that has shaped the local culture.

Beware spoilers.

After the Tribulation, plants and animals and humans have begun to produce odd offspring. These Deviations (mutants) are not tolerated. Misshapen crops and animals are disposed of, as are mutant human newborns. At one time it was the custom to burn human mutants whose deformity was not discovered at birth. Now, they are simply sterilized and send off to the barbarous Fringe.

David’s father Joseph is an ostentatiously pious man. Aware of his lofty social status in Waknuk, Joseph is obsessively diligent about uncovering and disposing of mutants. Where others allow themselves to be swayed by convenience and mercy, Joseph unflinchingly applies his exceptionally narrow standards to every unfortunate he encounters, even his own kin.

David is beset by many misfortunes, not least of which are empathy and doubt. Discovering that his young friend Sophie has six toes, David cannot see how this makes Sophie an abomination. David keeps knowledge of Sophie’s mutation to himself. This does not save Sophie from exposure, sterilization, and exile. David is punished for concealing her secret.

Thanks to his travelled uncle Axel, David is aware that many post-Tribulation cultures share Labrador’s hostility to mutants. David is also aware that there is no consensus on what constitutes mutation. For example, black skin would be deemed a Deviation in Labrador, while farther south, white skin is seen as the mutation. Pre-Tribulation records are scant and of no help in this matter.

Doubt and empathy alone would be burdens enough. However, David, his younger sister Petra, and his friends Michael, Rosalind, Sally, Katherine, Mark, Anne, and Rachel all share a secret. Each of them has the same invisible deviation, telepathy. On Axel’s advice, the group has kept their gift secret but with so many telepaths, exposure is only a matter of time.

Despite the young people’s best efforts to keep their secret safe, the authorities suspect there is a nest of mutants in Waknuk. A witch hunt ensues. Flight is the only option.

The Fringe offers temporary safety at the cost of poverty and a short life. However, Petra’s exceptionally powerful telepathy has summoned allies from the far side of the world… but can these Sealanders reach Waknuk before David and his friends are captured or killed?


Wyndham was a best-selling author in his day but I sense ambivalence about publishing him from whoever commissioned the cover of the 1958 Penguin edition.

By the time I encountered Wyndham he was considered positively respectable. The Chrysalids was one of very few science fiction novels that appeared in high school English courses.

Wyndham crams an awful lot of plot into just 200 pages. Perhaps due to lack of space (or because it didn’t matter for his intended resolution) he leaves many questions for the reader to answer for themself. Perhaps the most glaring is the name of the murderer who silences Anne’s husband Alan before he can alert the authorities to the mutants. The telepaths all deny having killed Alan, but the timing is suggestive. Whoops, no: this is answered, I just missed it, which I suspect is related to pages 117 to 120 having fallen out of my 50-year-old copy.

There are two elements of this competently executed novel that stand out for me. The one I noticed on this reading involves parallels with Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books. Although the pious rustics do not think of their activities in these terms, just as the Steerswoman’s culture does, they are slowly transforming hostile regions where humans cannot live into regions where they can live with great difficulty, and then into comparatively hospitable lands1.

The aspect that leaped out at me when I listened to a radio-play adaptation is the sudden swerve the novel takes at the end. For most of the book, the impression given is that mutants are people too and their persecution is wrong. The Sealanders offer a different perspective: they believe mutants (or at least the telepathic variety) are superior and that old-style humans, having produced their successors, should have the grace to go extinct. As baseline humans do not appear to be inclined to do this, the Sealanders off-handedly mass-murder non-telepaths, both those pursuing the kids and any unfortunates trying to help the kids.

Wyndham goes out of his way to ensure that readers understand that this isn’t a mishap. The Sealander woman who rescues (most) of the kids delivers lengthy exposition about how the telepaths are the new model destined to replace the old-style humans, that sympathy for the Old People is misplaced.

There have been lords of life before, you know. Did you ever hear of the great lizards? When the time came for them to be superseded, they had to pass away.
In loyalty to their kind (old-style humans] cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction. 

While there can be no doubt that the Sealanders believe they are destined to exterminate the rest of humanity, it’s not clear if Wyndham bought into this. After all, Wyndham made room in a very short novel for Axel to establish that every culture believes they are the one true race of humanity… and that none of them may be correct.

I’m telling you that nobody, nobody really knows what is the true image. They all think they know — just as we think we know, but for all we can prove, the Old People themselves may not have been the true image. 

Perhaps the Sealanders are the Homo Superior they believe themselves to be. On other hand, maybe they’re just homicidal bigots. The text supports either interpretation.

The Chrysalids is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Chapters-Indigo), and here (Words Worth Books).

1: Changes in the environment that are no doubt facilitated by the slow decline in background radioactivity.