By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
John Wyndham has often been seen as a highly accessible science fiction writer who comes up with unique and compelling catastrophic scenarios. In the end, he deals with them in a safe way, alleviating the reader’s concerns about a particular cultural, social, or technological anxiety without really presenting the kind of complex ethical conundrum that’s often posed by more literary sci-fi.
Fear of Insidious and Outsider Others
In 1955, there was a particularly potent constellation of cultural forces at work. Although many people feel that McCarthy was totally out of bounds, his views still have resonance, and people fear two kinds of others. First, there’s the Other that’s a clear outsider: the Other in the Soviet Union who could detonate a series of atomic bombs, leaving nothing but a devastated landscape and a small group of horribly mutated people and animals.
Second, there’s the more insidious Other, the one who could be a neighbor, a sister, or a friend. The Other who looks just like everybody else; but who might be terrifying. This hidden Other might be gay, or he might harbor communist views that tie him to Threat One—nuclear devastation.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Day of the Triffids
A lot of people haven’t heard of John Wyndham even though he was one of the best-selling science fiction writers in Britain throughout his lifetime, 1903–1969. The Day of the Triffids, his 1951 novel, has been made into one movie, three BBC radio series, and two television series. It’s an outlandish but compelling story.
A triffid is a 10-foot-tall high-calorie plant developed through genetic engineering to deal with the food shortage on an increasingly overpopulated Earth. The day of the triffids is the fateful day that plants that happen to be carnivorous, start to slowly shuffle around using their long stingers to first blind humans and then slowly devour them. It sounds like the kind of horror that’s way too close to hilarity. Interestingly, neither the novel nor the adaptations are horror spoofs.
Despite the outlandish premise, Wyndham touches here on real anxieties ranging from the use of inadequately tested genetic modifications in agriculture to military advances, including surveillance satellites. Wyndham embodies the notion that people sometimes turn a blind eye to the risks of technologies that appear to solve a major problem or to create new wealth.
Learn more about the future of utopia and dystopia.
John Wyndham and the Danger of Exiling the Other
On the other hand, in The Chrysalids, Wyndham is providing a cautionary tale about not only the dangers of the Cold War, which readers probably can’t do all that much about, but also about the dangers of exiling or dismissing those who are different, a practice where readers can potentially make a difference.
And here is the most challenging part of his message insofar as there’s a didactic dimension to Wyndham’s writing. When the Other is expelled from society, that isn’t just an ethical problem, it may well become a pragmatic problem because that might be rejecting the very individuals who contain the features that will become central to the future of humanity.
It’s a powerful political statement and not an easy or cozy one. And of course, Wyndham isn’t the only writer in the 1950s exploring this idea.
Look for a moment at a 1954 work that also had great cultural resonance, as evidenced by its many adaptations, Richard Matheson’s vampire apocalypse novel, I Am Legend, which has been adapted in three quite different film versions: The Last Man on Earth, 1964, starring Vincent Price; The Omega Man in 1971, starring Charlton Heston; and I Am Legend in 2007, starring Will Smith.
Wyndham’s The Chrysalids: Dystopia or Apocalypse?
In both I Am Legend and The Chrysalids, there is an apocalyptic event. In The Chrysalids, there is also a dystopia, meaning one should take a minute to think about the difference between dystopia and apocalypse. These are often confused in common parlance, but they’re quite different according to four popular dark narratives in this vein.
One, strict dystopia, where a repressive government is part of the bad or worse place—no apocalypse.
Two, strict apocalypse, where a cataclysmic event has thrown the world into chaos—there is no dystopian government.
Three, a dystopian society that appears to be heading toward an apocalypse, and that perhaps even narrates that apocalypse within its pages.
And four, a dystopian society that has developed after an apocalyptic event.
In The Chrysalids, it is option number four, the dystopia that has grown out of the apocalypse. Perhaps unsurprisingly in 1955, the apocalyptic event is nuclear war, and the dystopian government that has developed 1,000 plus years after the war is repressive in the extreme, as it classifies not only human beings but all living things according to their match to the perfect image.
Learn more about Yevgeny Zamyatin and dystopian uniformity.
The Dystopian Society in The Chrysalids
The perfect image of humans is the Old People—those who lived on Earth before the Tribulations, who were created in a perfect likeness of God. The ruling class relies upon Nicholson’s Repentances, a tome produced long after the cataclysm, for the definitions of traits required in all species.
Whether it is a pumpkin that exceeds the standard size and shapes for pumpkins or a child whose limbs are not in the correct proportion to its torso, all mutations are dealt with quickly and firmly.
Non-standard livestock is killed in a sacrificial ritual, whole fields of contaminated produce are destroyed by fire—and this often does lead to people going hungry—and defective humans? Well, humans are a bit more complicated, and Wyndham makes the most of the narrative potential of his story by using young adult conventions that are especially chilling when applied to a dystopian society.
Common Questions about John Wyndham
John Wyndham was a popular science fiction writer in Britain. He became famous with his best-selling book The Day of The Triffids, written in 1951.
Science fiction literature introduces four different dark narratives including strict dystopia, strict apocalypse, dystopian society heading towards an apocalypse, and dystopian society after an apocalypse.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is the story of a dystopian society developed after an apocalypse.