John Wyndham was born in England, on July 10, 1903. When he was growing up, he went to a series of boarding schools because his parents were separated. He then attended an advanced co- educational school until he reached the age of eighteen. After he left school, Wyndham studied farming for awhile, then "crammed" to write the examinations for Oxford University.
Finally, in 1929, Wyndham picked up a copy of an American magazine called Amazing Stories, and became very interested in science fiction. Not long after that a series of stories under the name of John Beynon began to appear in Amazing Stories, and in another publication called Wonder Stories. He wrote English science fiction stories under the names "John Beynon Harris," "John Beynon," and "Lucas Parkes," as well as John Wyndham. By 1937, he was being called the best, living British science fiction writer.
Wyndham's work in science fiction is interesting in its emphasis. He does not generally concentrate on amusing the reader with strange inventions of technology from a bewildering future. The settings he employs for the future are logical, identifiable extensions of the world of today. His consuming interest lies in speculation about human nature and human behaviour. This would account for his attention to customs and moral codes displayed in the different societies in his books. Thus, time and again he points out the hypocrisy, bigotry and ignorance which are so often a part of our social life, and he stresses that changing conditions demand new ways, new customs and new codes of conduct.
Wyndham died in 1969.
Novels include: The Day of the Triffids (1959); The Kraken Wakes (1953); The Chrysalids (1955); and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). Several of these were turned into successful movies.
Science fiction demands a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. For example, light-year speed is explained away by the term "space warp" or "warp speed", and the reader accepts this. (Cowboy stories don't explain how to run a ranch either!) But generally, science fiction has a healthy respect for fact.
The Chrysalids maintains this respect. It is not at all "way-out" science fiction. There are only two assumptions: (1) that a nuclear holocaust took place that destroyed civilization as we know it, and (2) that certain members of Waknuk can communicate through telepathy.
Both these factors are at least scientific possibilities. The threat of Tribulation, although we don't call it that, needs no explanation for today's reader. As far as the group's ability to communicate telepathically is concerned, some major universities are doing research in parapsychology, and although there is no scientific proof that telepathy exists, the possibility remains.
The Chrysalids is a story of the future. Most stories of the future fall into one of three categories:
1. total destruction of a civilization
2. total redemption
3. or a combination of both
This novel looks beyond the pessimistic future shrouded in the "mushroom cloud" into the time of reconstruction after such an event. Following "tribulation" we are shown a world of the frontier. As North America has moved recently from the world of the frontier we look at our past as a quaint heritage, a stage in the development of our civilization which has gone forever, except in Hollywood and made for TV movies. In The Chrysalids the frontier has returned and the people are beginning again. They have emerged from the chaos of an after-the-holocaust world and have reached a stage of organized community life, farmlands, and a strict and stern inflexible morality based on a dark, incomprehensible fear of an unknown past. The people of this frontier do not look towards a new future, but instead have an all consuming passion for stability. Things must not change. The past of the "Old People" must be resurrected and preserved. The scattered communities of Labrador and the Waknuks are unconsciously creating a "fossil world" as the Sealand woman maintains. Paradoxically, then, Waknuk is a society of the future with a setting from the past.
This community's obsession against change can be answered by the scientific realities of the present. Physical mutations can be produced by intense doses of radiation and the people of Waknuk have a basis for their fear that physical conformity could break down. The winds which from time to time blow in from the "badlands" to the south west are winds of change in grim physical reality. Out of their fear of physical change, a severe conformity to the "true image" has developed, a set of beliefs which stifles the human mind and much worse, the human spirit. The beliefs of the people in Waknuk are anti-intellectual and try to eliminate both logic and imagination. All this is done in the name of God who, in this case, is used as an excuse, a shield to hide behind for purposes of persecution.
Humans have not survived because they are physically superior to other creatures but because of their minds. If the mind stagnates so will the human race. This is the message of the novel. Why the author felt it necessary to make this statement is clear. If the human race acts with indiscretion, its fate, or the fate of the few possible survivors, might be a life in "the fringes" or Sealand. We cannot, however, be sure that there will be a choice.
Once the author has made the two fictional assumptions, he never moves beyond the limits established. The society of Waknuk is perfectly plausible, as are the characters in it.
At the end of the story Wyndham doesn't neatly tie everything together, but leaves us with a number of unanswered possibilities.
The word "chrysalid" is a scientific term meaning the state into which the larvae of most insects pass before becoming adults. In general usage, the word can mean a sheltered state or a stage of growth. Thus, as with all good titles, the reader of The Chrysalids is left to extend this definition so as to apply it in an appropriate way to the novel itself.