by Glen Herbert
Sixty years ago this year, John Wyndham published a post-apocalyptic thriller about, well, you know, kids with telepathy. Which sounds funny, because as much as that’s true, the book has resonated with readers ever since not because of the telepathy, or the apocalypse — in the book it’s called the tribulation — or for being a thriller. It resonated because it said something about us. And we thought we knew what it was.
In the 80s, our minds were on nuclear war, and the Chrysalids took a place on the shelf next to Neville Shute’s On the Beach and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Life after global war was, by all accounts, very bleak. On TV was The Day After. Sting had a hit with “If the Russians Love their Children Too.” Really bleak. Yet it’s hard to listen to that Sting song these days and see it for what we thought it was. Context has a lot to do with these things, apparently.
That’s also true for The Chrysalids. It’s about the world after nuclear war. We got that part. But it’s also about the dangers fundamentalism, and difference as enforced by belief. The book illustrated the great strength that comes from realizing that you’re not alone. David finds Uncle Axel, though he also finds the Chrysalids. The voices that he had been hearing in his head weren’t just voices, they are real. (That word, “Chrysalids,” doesn’t actually appear in the text of the book. The characters have no name for themselves as a group. Wyndham changed the title at the last minute, from “Time for a Change,” though it’s telling that he didn’t work that word into the text. In the context of the story, they are just people, after all; A common identity was precisely the thing the were reacting against.) He finds that there are lots and lots of people who share his way of thinking, and by the end of the book he learns that it’s a much larger, more varied world than they ever could have imagined. Which is the reason that, by the end of the book, he finds that there is a place for himself in the world, too.
“But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks. Change is its very nature.”
Of course the one thing that the book wasn’t emblematic of then — nor is it something Wyndham could have fathomed — is how well it provides an analogue for the internet. In Wyndam’s day, people were people. You knew your neighbours, or you didn’t, and otherwise, there were a bunch of strangers out there. Not in your head, or in your iPhone. They were out there.
But with the internet just as with the Chrysalids, there aren’t just strangers out there, there are friends out there. And they’re not just out there, they are in what has become our collective consciousness: cyberspace. Just like the Chrysalids, we may not know their names, or where the live, or even their gender. They’re the people we play Words with Friends with. Or chat with. They are the people who show up writing about our favourite cheese, or who reviewed the last Norman Blake album. One of them is a guy who didn’t like a piece I wrote, and who for the last month or so has sent me, every few days, hundreds of new words of text telling me what a jerk he thinks I am. This despite the fact that he doesn’t know me, or I him. We don’t know where each of us lives, even our real names. We’ve never heard each others voices.
And, indeed, that’s where the Chrysalids might really have something to say to us. People look different, or speak different languages, or live vastly different experiences, but in our heads, were we to access their thoughts directly, we wouldn’t find the differences to be as important as the things we share. The voices, the people, would be part of us, and we’d first see them as friends, just as the Chrysalids do. Friendship, a shared humanity, would be the default position. How nice would that be? And, should we find ourselves in trouble in the Fringes, they’ll come all the way from Sealand to help us. Again, pretty nice, isn’t it?
In the 80s I thought that, metaphorically, I was like the Chrysalids. I knew there were kindred spirits out there, people who would get what I was saying and vice versa, it was just the finding them that was the problem. Indeed, today, we — all of us — truly are the Chrysalids. In the web, we as people have become dissociated from the Scrabble part of us, or the angry part of us, or our sexual selves. Parts of our personas argue with parts of other peoples personas, or play chess with parts of other people’s personas. They have names like Zyngawf_182. But, unlike the Chrysalids, we lack some basic insights, such as the need to be kind, or the understanding that nobody ever has an easy go of it. Which is too bad, actually. Because, instead of looking out for the kindred spirits, we become more like David’s father: we’re ever on the lookout for the mutants. And, just like David’s father, we seem to be spectacularly good at finding them everywhere we look.