The Chrysalids and Chaos Walking – Andy explores the Wyndham-Ness

January 29, 2010

The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham. Chaos Walking, by Patrick Ness. Exploring the Wyndham-Ness, geddit? Wilderness, yeah? No? Oh fuck off then.

Welcome to ANRC10 and an innovation suggested by Netty and promptly dumped on me to kick off. In the next 12 months, in addition to the 12 Challenge books we’ll be reading, Netty and I alternate month by month reading and blogging about favourite books we’ve read before – six books each. So here’s Andy kicking off with a book I first read nearly 30 years ago, a scifi classic that is as powerful and as entertaining today as it was back then when I picked up a copy of it with this cover in a secondhand bookshop in Maffra for a dollar sixty (not 2.40, as the silly person who uploaded this image apparently paid). I think I liked the cover – possibly the most ridiculous cover in the history of publishing. Has nothing – NOTHING – to do with the story. Although I’m told the first US edition of Lord of the Rings had emus on it. Smacks of urban legend to me but if that’s true I guess it trumps this.

The Chrysalids is generally regarded as being a bit of an odd-man-out for Wyndham. His “cosy catastrophes”, as they were sneeringly labelled by another scifi author, were usually set in contemporary England and explored the consequences of humanity fooling with nature and science. The Chrysalids is set in Canada, far in the future, where the impact of nuclear devastation is still being felt and where religious extremism and intolerance (sorry, I suspect that’s a tautology) dominate social relations. In a future world reduced to something like early Victorian conditions, in which physical deviation is regarded as God’s curse and abomination, a group of children slowly come to realise that their talent for telepathy might not be such a blessing after all.

I probably didn’t know I was gay when I first read this but I reckon there must’ve been some unwelcome awareness of otherness banging around at the back of my head. Also at the time I was reading it my mother was involved with a bunch of profoundly evil Christian fascists (and I do mean evil, although I didn’t realise quite how evil until many years later). So the novel’s themes of difference and feared rejection and religious bigotry chimed perfectly (if perhaps subconsciously) with my state of mind at the time and presumably explains why I remember the book so well and have read it so many times – certainly many more times than Wyndham’s other books. I’ve read most of them, Triffids and Chocky a few times, the others only once. But The Chrysalids… I’ve lost count.

Incidentally my mum has nothing to do with Christian fascists these days. Hates the fuckers she does.

Thirty years later (I’m surprised my copy hasn’t fallen apart) The Chrysalids stands up. It’s still a cracking read and it’s still got plenty to say. It’s not perfect, though. There’s been much criticism of the conclusion and while I don’t agree with all of it there are elements of the last couple of chapters that are clunky and contrived. David’s romantic involvement with his cousin (ick) Rosalind comes across as an afterthought when it’s first introduced (Shit, thinks Wyndham when he gets to chapter 10, those two are supposed to be shagging. Bugger. Forgot about that). And his reliance on ellipses…. I don’t know…. but somehow that sort of…. shits me. And given that the book on one level can be read as a plea for tolerance, references to non-telepathic types as cripples whose lives are not worth as much as those who are telepathic sit rather uncomfortably.

That said – Damn it’s a good book. It’s not remotely surprising that Penguin chose it as one of their cheapy orange re-releases last year, and I hope plenty of people either rediscovered it or have read it for the first time. Wyndham was dismissed by scifi critics for many years as a lightweight, a writer whose novels were of no consequence. Bollocks. Triffids may be his masterpiece but The Chrysalids is one of my favourite books ever,  and I’m very happy to have chosen it as the first book to revisit this year.

OK, you’re saying. The Chrysalids. Lovely. What’s this about Chaos Walking and Loch Ness and the rest? What’s he on about?

Chaos Walking is the overall title given to a trilogy of alleged “children’s novels” written by Patrick Ness. The third volume is released in the first half of this year, March I think. I’ve read the first two over the past couple of months. They are astonishing. Astonishingly adult, for a start – Wyndham ostensibly at least wrote for adults but if you asked me whether I’d rather see a 12-year-old reading Wyndham or Ness it’d the Wyndham all the way. Because my god Ness is a dark, dark writer.

The two have a lot in common – telepathy, religious extremism, post-apocalyptic settings (although post-apocalyptic is pushing things ever so slightly for Ness’s books), communities reduced to agrarianism, an adolescent male narrator. I’m reasonably certain Ness has read Wyndham although as far as I know he doesn’t acknowledge it. He’s actually an American living in England so I suppose it’s possible he doesn’t even know who Wyndham is.

Ness has his weaknesses – his reliance on r0cky-stream-of-consciousness first-person narration works brilliantly a lot of the time but occasionally that rocky stream gets a bit too white water for me. And sometimes he seems to be taking his readers to dark, horrible places for no important narrative reason.  But the first two books – The Knife of Never Letting Go, and The Ask and the Answer – make the cliche “compulsively readable” worth using again, and I can’t wait for the third installment, Monsters of Men – although the title doesn’t give me hope of a gloriously happy ending.

So there tis. In a week or so (hopefully) Netty and I will be blogging on Carver. And then Netty will be revisiting… Actually now that I think about it I’m not sure.

To the person who keeps telling us we write too much: Oops. Soz.



  1. I think ‘early Victorian’ Britain would be far preferrable to Waknuk, also far in advance technologically, and more tolerant.
    I don’t see why the ending has to be morally upstanding, like all Wyndham books there is moral-ambiguity, and he never patronises and the reader is left ot make up his or her own mind about whether the victory is justifiable. The cover here is utterly absurd and fits in with the stereotype of Wyndham being a lightweight sci-fi writer. He was a Logical Fantasy author and not many people can say that! For a robust defence against the tired old criticism that Wyndham wrote ‘cosy catastrophes may I recommened the article ‘cosy cliches’ at http://www.wyndhamweb.com/

  2. My experience with this book had much in common with yours. I went through a Wyndham phase in my mid teens, back in the 1960s, and read most of his books. But The Chrysalids was the one that one that moved me the most. I have no doubt that the reason was that I was gay and aware of being “different” from the other kids. (Of course, I was not “out” at the time – that had to wait until I was 20 – and didn’t know any other gay people. Either of those things would probably have modified my response to the book considerably.)

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