Saturday, 7 December 2013

Week Forty-Six - Jeanette

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)
Recommended by Sharron

The Cuckoo Sister, The Secret Garden, Moondial, The Children Of Green Knowe, the decidedly patchy Dramarama… I loved the one-off and short-run children’s TV dramas of the 1980s. Even the ‘school programmes’, the ones ruined by puppets teaching you what a consonant was (How We Used To Live, Dark Towers, The Boy From Space) – all amazing.

Many of these shows had a spooky sci-fi element to them, so it’s no surprise that John Wyndham had a foothold in this market. While The Day Of The Triffids was a big(gish) budget thing on the BBC at 9pm that I wasn’t allowed to watch (‘Muuuuuuum… how scary can it be?’ ‘You won’t like it. You’re scared of the Smash advert aliens’), Chocky, and its sequels, Chocky’s Children and Chocky’s Challenge, were on at squash-and-Club-biscuit time. I watched all three.

It’s surprising that The Chrysalids never got made into a kids’ TV drama, too. It has all the golden elements of that era – psychic power, a future dystopia, social comment about tolerance – and a very believable boy hero. I can picture the title sequence; a neon green BBC Micro font over a Lidl Delia Derbyshire soundtrack.

The Chrysalids is set generations after the world has suffered Tribulation (a Nausicaรค-style environmental crisis). Much of the earth is now uninhabitable; the Badlands are barren, while the Fringes are full of semi-feral beings. In the supposedly civilised areas, society is strongly theocratic. People believe (or at least are told) that the Tribulation was dealt directly by God.

This God is a vengeful God, and nothing apparently riles Him more than irregular flora and fauna. Genetic deviations occur far more frequently now than they did before Tribulation, and this brave new world is anti-evolutionary and eugenic. If any animal, plant, or person, is deemed physically nonstandard then it is immediately culled. The reasons for this are never explicitly stated, but it seems partly as a method of societal control, partly out of a pragmatic but misplaced concern that allowing different takes on humanity will weaken it, and partly out of a genuine religious impulse.

There is a Definition of Man that every citizen is expected to know off-by-heart.

‘…and each leg shall be jointed twice and have one foot, and each foot five toes, and each toe shall end with a flat nail…’

I was reminded of H.G. Wells’s The Island Of Dr. Moreau. In that, sad vivisected animals have it drummed into them that they are human. In The Chrysalids, recognisable humans have it drummed into them that, because of something as minor as a hairless head, they are not. In both of these books, humanity is fluid. It is in itself a man-made concept, defined according to the requirements of society. What we may think of as fundamentally natural – our very status as people – can be successfully cast aside by ideological regimes.

As with real-life fascism, the most powerful tools of government are not its soldiers. It’s the everyday zealots and the quiet majority. Joseph Strorm, father to the book’s sensitive boy narrator Davie, is all Piper-Laurie-in-Carrie: a God squadder who skirts over the be-kind-to-the-unfortunates aspect of religion and uses his faith to dominate his family. In one memorable scene, Davie is struggling with a task, and shouts in frustration.

                             ‘I could have managed it all right by myself if I’d had another hand.’
My voice must have carried, for silence fell on the whole room like a clap.
I was aware that the rest had stopped gaping at me, and were now looking apprehensively at my father. His expression was grim.
‘You – my own son – were calling upon the Devil to give you another hand!’

Joseph Strorm soon has bigger problems on his (two) hands. Genetic mutations are not only physical, it seems. Davie and his baby sister Petra have extraordinary mind powers.

                              ‘You hear the words inside your head?’ he asked.
‘Well, not exactly “hear”, and not exactly “see”,’ I told him. ‘There are – well, sort of shapes.’

Those with this mental variation are able to communicate with each other, undetected by others. The second half of The Chrysalids concentrates on the relationships within this group of psychics, and of the increasing danger of discovery.

I liked the second half less than the first. I wonder why.

It’s nearly as well-written, however there do seem to be a few more portentous speeches, and some tiresome dashing around the Fringes, which didn’t hold my interest. But I think it’s more to do with the way the telepathy itself is brought out.

I’ve discussed the unexplained a little with Sharron, who goodness me is only Sharron Kraus, one of the country’s finest and most consistently evolving folk artists.

When I first met her, it was in an Oxford graveyard. I interviewed her there for Seasons They Change. As we discussed the influence of cinema and literature on her music, she talked about magic in everyday life. This wasn’t in a Harry Potter­-esque childish fantasy way, or couched in spaced-out hippy lingo, both of which are easy to dismiss. Rather, she has both an academic philosophy background, and a reflective nature which is happy with ambiguity. She is interested in the way that the dark mysteries of thought processes, of the natural world, of emotional connections, manifest themselves. Some things, she said to me, they just may make the most sense as a magical phenomenon. This is an influence on her, and funnily enough I hear it most in her wordless songs.

I remember the next time I saw her, which was just after submitting the Seasons manuscript. I went to Wales to stay for a wonderful few days. Our natters really rambled free. For instance, we discussed Lady Gaga at length. Her manipulation of image – did it mean anything? Did its very hollowness mean anything? Was the sexual element really that confrontational, when Gaga has a very conventional celebrity body type? After eighteen months of using my brain almost exclusively for psychedelic folk, this conversation was the mental equivalent of a weekend away in Paris. And that it was with someone else who dealt in psychedelic folk made it even sweeter.

Sharron lives in Sheffield, now! I get to be both her friend and her fan. We talk and drink red wine and listen to music lots, plus I get to see her perform live regularly. The picture below was taken a couple of months back: as part of the Sensoria festival, Sharron sang with the lovely Nancy Wallace, and Sharron and I were on a panel discussing folk music. The event took place in a disused department store! We saw a mummified bat, arsed around pretending to be mannequins, and then I kicked a hole in a wall.

Anyway. Away from spooky abandoned shops and back to spooky dystopias. The Chrysalids depicts people with real telepathic ability, and the other characters accept this power unquestioningly (they are either afraid or in awe of it), even though, for the most part, they don’t see it. In some ways, this fits squarely with a monotheist religious society: any competing mythical concerns are rooted out as viciously as a potential earthly rival. However, I think the odd skeptical voice would have worked well with Wyndham’s realistic depiction of human behaviour. You try telling a neighbour you’re telepathic; chances are you’ll not be deemed a deity or a devil, but get a derisive snort and a cup or tea to sort yourself out.

I also think it was a bit of a missed opportunity, given how Wyndham explores evolution and human mutation, to explore why this ability has developed in this society. Let me tell you something, and promise me you won’t respond with a derisive snort.

I have – only once – had an ‘out of body experience’. I felt myself lifting from my flesh, whirring away to somewhere else, seeing that somewhere else as if I was actually there, then bumping back into my bones. Now, I don’t think anything supernatural actually happened – for instance, I don’t think that my soul left my body and travelled, or that what I saw in the ‘travelled-to’ place was really occurring – but I do know that I experienced this at a unique time in my life. It was at a point when I literally wanted to be in two places. My mind was split like never before, and therefore it powerfully hallucinated, making me momentarily feel that my body was split, too.

And that’s I suppose what I’m interested in in terms of psychic phenomena, and what I would have liked to have had more of in The Chrysalids: Wyndham exploring telepathic ability as a potent reaction of the mind to a situation, rather than as a randomly bestowed paranormal gift. Davie and his cohorts live in an oppressive society, and it would be fascinating to consider whether this ability evolved as a result of that tyranny. Perhaps it’s there implicitly – Davie and Petra have it, and they are particularly subjugated by their father – but developing this strand more would have been very satisfying. As it is, the telepathic component of The Chrysalids seems similar to a number of other works that deal with the subject.

Having said that, this is a very brief book that tries to do a lot, and the amount it does squish in is impressive. It’s almost Orwellian in its success as both a powerful critique of conformity, and as a great read. It is unafraid to comment on destructive regimes and powerful vested interests.

‘They have become history without being aware of it. They are determined still that there is a final form to defend: soon they will attain the stability they strive for, in the only form it is granted – a place among the fossils…’

Dystopian books. We need to pay attention to them, for they are never about the future.