Dark Futures Book 6: The Chrysalids

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week we are  coming of age in the post-apocalyptic world, and if that wasn’t enough of a problem, there are mutants too!

Feeling different is part and parcel of adolescence; its why so many Young Adult works focus on it either directly or via lashings of analogy. So many YA works feature orphans, or outcasts or misfits, it’s a such a rich dramatic vein that is heavily mined, and a Post-Apocalyptic setting allows for dark and mysterious worlds that need exploring on top of that. So John Wyndhams The Chrysalids, narrated by a growing up adolescent in an edge-of-civilisation post-nuclear community, seems ripe territory.

There is a lot to like about The Chrysalids, actually. Mostly it’s the setting – a sort of faux puritan western ranch town on the borders between reclaimed land and the untamed, mutant-heavy wildlands. There’s a really good story in the first part of the book which showcases a pretty well thought out setting where mutation is burnt out of the local crops and livestock with religious zeal, to keep the breeds “pure” due to the high levels of fallout still causing lots of mutation. The book gradually reveals how this applies to humans, which children needing to be “certified” when born, else abandoned, and in places the stark cost on society that this is causing. Our narrators early run in, and befriending, of a girl with a secret sixth toe pushes all the right buttons, and oddly reminded me very much of To Kill a Mockingbird; making many of the same points under the guise of a novel about mutants in the future.

There is also a lot of lovely world building; the tensions between an increasingly civic government and a frontier town used to doing things its own way, and the tensions inside that community over religious dogma and practical considerations. There are wonderfully evocative passages about tales from sailors venturing down the coasts, to wilder mutant lands and finally black, twisted wastelands of former cities. The sense of how much has been lost, and how much of a struggle this harsh, bitter life is, combined with a sense that gradually, the world is recovering, maybe not for this generation but for future ones.

So why does the actual plot have to ruin at all?

See, I quite like the main thrust of the plot, that actually amongst the community there is a common mutation that has made many of the local kids psychic, but outwardly normal. It works for me, it plays on the whole “different” thing and gives them a secret to hide and challenges to the grown ups authority that all good YA stuff needs. But it also throws too many good ideas away – the girl with the six toes (and her parents) are thrown out of the story far too quickly and easily (they run off, get caught off camera and dealt with far away) and her return at the end is deeply unsatisfying and offhandedly tragic, lost in the bigger stuff going on around her.

But where the story really falls down is the Magic New Zealand People flying the rescue. I mean, really. For a start they zip around the world in their magic rocketcopter, kill about a hundred people in a posse pursuing our narrator with a casual “well they’re not proper next-gen-humans so screw ‘em” sort of way and then chirpily abandon some of the kids to their fate because apparently their magic rocketcopter wasn’t magic enough to fly the extra 10 minutes to get them. What a bunch of assholes. Actually the story has lost it a bit by then anyway – with the secrets revealed in a slightly clumsy way the whole town suddenly becomes underwritten, offhandedly evil and witch-trially, and it’s such a shame.

I mean, keeping the drama in the village, keeping within the setting may have robbed the story of a “happy” ending, as realistically I can’t see, given the set up, a way the kids would be somehow left to live their lives. But you know what? Maybe that would have been fine. Trials, drama and divisions would have made good drama, better than a hurried and fairly clichéd “we run away into the hills” story, better than the sudden loss of complexity and characterisation the marks the first two-thirds of the novel. A bit of well written tragedy would have better served the point he’s so clearly trying to make than the clunky deux ex machina that we have.

Oh well.

Next time: Post Nuclear traumas in Neil Shute’s On the Beach. Dear God, the Traumas.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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