John Wyndham and the importance of tolerance in a binary world
The Chrysalids teaches us that tolerance is a requirement for survival, and something we should all be striving for.
I was probably about 11 when I first read The Chrysalids, John Wyndham’s fantasy novel for young adults. I read it to my own children when they were about the same age and picked it up again over the New Year period. During this third (or was it fourth?) reading, a whole new side of the book revealed itself to me.
The Chrysalids are a strange generation of children growing up in a world that fears them, to such an extent that their very existence is threatened. It is set in an unspecified time in the future when the planet has been all but destroyed by the actions of the Old People, whose sinful and careless behavior incurred the wrath of God. To punish them, God sent ‘Tribulation’, assumed to be some kind of nuclear disaster, and earth, which has been reduced to a state of 19thcentury technology, is still in recovery mode.
But the environment has been so damaged that genetic mutations – of crops, animals and even humans – are common and, when discovered, are either destroyed or, in the case of people, banished to the Fringes to fend for themselves. There are no lengths the intolerant will not go through to keep themselves pure, even if this means sending family members who do not conform to the ‘Norm’ to take their chances with the other Fringes people.
Unbeknown to the power figures in the book, a small but growing group of children born into this strange new world are telepaths; they can communicate or “think-together”. So, there is a whole secret community, some members of which have never met, living in the midst of a society which urges its members to be constantly on guard against ‘mutants’, whose very existence depends on them being able to hide in plain sight.
Many readers of this book will do as I did during earlier readings and just sink blissfully into the pleasures of its pages. It transports its readers to another world, one of page-turning adventures in which the group of telepathic children are forced to use their intelligence, courage and “thinking together” skills to outwit the adults who would destroy them (a powerful metaphor for the benefits of team work). Their eventual escape also includes giant ‘mutant’ horses and silver airships, but I wouldn’t want to give too much of the plot away.
It was the allegorical nature of the book that hit home with me this time. When The Chrysalids was first published in 1955, the internet hadn’t been invented; but many members of the generation of post-war children were the first in their families to benefit from a University education. And by the end of it they had more in common with their peer group than with the families they had literally and figuratively left behind. And today we have a whole generation of ‘digital natives’, similarly distanced from their elders by their understanding of the technology they have grown up with.
This isn’t the only thing that separates the generations today and, this New Year, The Chrysalids made me think about the importance of tolerance in a world that is experiencing ever more binary divisions.
A lack of tolerance is undeniably stressful, and a more tolerant “thinking together” society makes for one that is less conflicted; in which there is less hate, fewer disputes and arguments, and in which the emergence of new ideas and creativity is welcomed. So, this New Year, I invite you to consider what you personally can do to be more tolerant. How would you benefit? How would others around you benefit? And what can you do, today, to be more tolerant?
The biggest lesson from this little book (it is less than 200 pages) must be that tolerance is a requirement for survival, and something we should all be striving for.