I’m one of those people who has lots of books. One of my most significant costs when I moved from Arkansas to Canada was that of moving those tomes. Many remain packed still, but I know where they are. A few have special places on my shelves, even if I don’t remember them very well. This summer, as I reconnected with many aspects of my past, I was intent on rediscovering a few of those. One was John Wyndam’s “The Chrysalids”.
First published in 1955, my copy is fairly battered and might even be the one I read in grade 13. But even after 60 years, the book is hauntingly applicable today. In many ways I found it spoke more to me now than when I first read it in high school. It is an early post-apocalyptic novel, suited for the culture of the 60s before we had become bored by the prospect of nuclear war. The story follows several young people through the difficulties of living in a world where generic mutations are rooted out and generational “purity” is maintained at any cost.
This was my first re-reading since I came out at the end of the last century; and I was struck by how often I’ve heard the same kinds of arguments about “purity” in debates against being gay. There were several times I was taken aback by how much I could relate to the characters: how I know the feeling of being different, and feeling threatened because of it. Living when he did, I don’t think Wyndam had any idea that being gay would forge a connection so strongly with the book: but I don’t think he would be surprised, either. One of the biggest points for the novel is the necessity that human culture must grow: to change, to evolve and adapt. Even if the direction of that adaptation is unexpected.
In many ways our culture is at a cross-roads, and we need to explore and redefine our institutions. We’ve known this for decades, yet we keep hurtling forward because we’re too afraid to be honest with ourselves, too narcissistic to care for and support one another. The result is that we’re increasingly separated and isolated. We value diversity, yet we’re scared to embrace it. The result might not be a nuclear war of the extent Wyndam theorized in the book, but it will keep us from discovering what lies ahead. Unless we make those fundamental changes, we will get trapped in a future that is simply an extension of today, rather than the bright world we dream of.