The Favourites: Wendy Murphy on The Chrysalids

Words by Wendy Murphy

Published on November 22, 2011

Whether it’s Triffid-killing seawater, or the common cold cure for invading Martians, the ‘god from the machine’ ending has always been for me part of the guilty pleasure and nostalgic delight of classic science fiction novels.

As a child and adolescent I adored sci fi, but not the space travel and laser gun kind. I loved (and still love) what John Wyndham called “logical fantasy”. Ordinary people, ordinary places – often somewhere in English cities countryside – where one extraordinary thing happens to disrupt the world. These days we’d call it spec fic –speculative fiction – science fiction’s more respectable, sometimes even literary, cousin. Who would dare call Margaret Atwood a sci fi writer?

I started reading John Wyndham when I was eleven. I had just started High School and the world was a terrifying place. Brisbane in the late seventies was no utopia. I will be eternally grateful to the bespectacled Wynnum librarian who, seeing me lost and bored in the YA section, suggested I may enjoy The Day of the Triffids. I did. And within weeks I had devoured every Wyndham novel the library owned. I mourned the day I discovered – remember this was pre-world wide web – that the writer had died almost a decade earlier and there would be no new Wyndhams.

By far my favourite, though, was The Chrysalids. What was it that I identified with in the story of a handful of extraordinary teenagers fighting backward governmental and narrow-minded religious authority in lo-tech post-apocalyptic bigoted Waknuk? Perhaps only Gen X-ers from Brisbane would understand. And when I re-read it now, as I do every few years, I feel again that same oxymoronic fusion associated with my generation of “pessimistic idealism”, to borrow Bret Easton Ellis’s self description. There’s just something about spec fic that gives it the ability to instill deliciously bleak nihilism and inspire hope simultaneously.

The novel that gave us the noun “fringe-dwellers” – later borrowed by another Brisbanite, Oodgeroo Noonuccal – felt like an analogy for my adolescence. Is it overdramatic to compare the Sealanders’ silvery and sticky, just-in-the-nick-of-time, paralysing threads with the Fitzgerald Enquiry that finally exposed and dethroned our own overlords? Probably. But it felt great at eleven to think there was somewhere out there more evolved and civilised than Waknuk.