Short Book Reviews: John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (variant title: Re-Birth) (1955), John A. Williams’ Captain Blackman (1972), and Gina Berriault’s The Descent (1960)

Note: My read but “waiting to be reviewed pile” is growing. Short rumination/tangents are a way to get through the stack before my memory and will fades. Stay tuned for more detailed and analytical reviews.

1. The Chrysalids (variant title: Re-Birth), John Wyndham (1955)

3/5 (Average)

John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955), my first exposure to his science fiction, transpires in a standard post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophe scenario with a deeply emotional core. The narrative follows David’s childhood in the backwater territories of Labrador, Canada hundreds of years after a nuclear war. The Church, inspired by Nicholson’s Repentances—which along with the Bible are only surviving books–imposes a draconian theology that “only God produces perfection” (51). Mutations, a visual sign of diabolical influence, must be destroyed. David, the son of the local strongman and preacher, discovers a young girl with a terrifying secret–she has six toes. David starts to accumulate secrets including his own mysterious telepathic abilities and recurrent dreams of a city in a world without cities. He shares them with his sympathetic Uncle Axel, who attempts to protect him from the forces narrowing in.

There are some nice touches throughout. Uncle Axel recounts his travels and knowledge of the world as a seaman and the effects is that of a medieval map, filled with pseudo-legendary beings, historical fragments, and “real” flora and fauna that, at first glance, seems too fantastic to exist (54-57).

I found the telepathy elements uninteresting and a bit off-putting as the accidental mutation creates a subset of people that are naturally superior to others (is the new world better than the old? Is that Wyndham’s point?). And the end, let’s not talk about the end. This is standard rural (primitive) vs. urban (civilized) fare that, despite the solid storytelling, did not resonate with me.*

Ultimately, I felt the overall Leigh Brackett’s message in the far more ambivalent The Long Tomorrow (1955) appeals to my sensibilities.

2. Captain Blackman, John A. Williams (1972)

4/5 (Good)

John A. Williams spins a fever dream of an injured black Vietnam War soldier hurled via hallucinatory time-travel into all of America’s conflicts. While hospitalized, Abraham Blackman, who teaches a military seminar to his troops, plays the archetypal role of black soldier from the Revolutionary War to a near-future Cold War conflict. In each conflict, white men preach the promise of freedom. And when black soldiers join up, they are subjected to racism, violence, and the promises are forgotten in the battlefields—from skirmishes in the Buffalo War to The Battle of the Crater–along with their countless shattered bodies.

Like our main character, Captain Blackman is deeply immersed in American history. As a historian myself, the historical details in which Abraham interacts forms a rich tapestry, The most intriguing moments include Williams’ take on the black WWII deserters in the forest of Tombolo, Italy and the executed victims of the Houston Riot in WWI. An intensely circumscribed cyclicality dominates the pages. The disturbing experiences, sacrifices, lost dreams, and broken promises replay and replay. But what will happen in the next conflict when the pattern breaks?

John A. Williams’ Captain Blackman (1972) might be worth reading in conjunction with Octavia E. Butler’s fellow time-travel story that explores African American history– Kindred (1979). In Butler’s novel, her protagonist is “shunted in time” between her contemporary world of 1976 and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. While Butler’s Kindred is the superior novel, I recommend Captain Blackman for fans of mainstream takes on time travel, race in SF, and experimental fiction.

3. The Descent, Gina Berriault (1960)

3.75/5 (Good)

The year is 1964. The Cold War rages. In a world terrified by massive retaliation, the American populace finds solace in dreams of the descent into the fallout shelter and nebulous concepts of rebirth. Written just before JFK’s push (1961) for personal family fallout shelters, Berriault envisages vast communal warrens. The president appoints Arnold T. Elkins, a history professor at DeVelbiss College Iowa, to the newly created Secretary for Humanity position. Supposedly the position will “assure humanity that the first missile may never be fired, that the bombs may never fall” and the benefits of a Nuclear Age will be reaped by all (6-7).

A satire unfolds centered around the ironic phrase: “the peace is preserved within the Defense Department” (19). Elkins, despite his grandiose vision, finds himself a political pawn of the President’s re-election campaign and the machinations of his boss, the Secretary of Defense. And the second he isn’t lock step with the administration–for example, after a cringeworthy sequence where he must give a speech in Japan to the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing—forces narrow in on him. The status quo and America’ nuclear supremacy must be maintained. Everything else is just empty rhetoric.

I found the most effective sequence explore trauma in children subjected to the rhetoric of the Cold War. Elkins; child “she saw a movie about an H-bomb war by accident and she’s been worried ever since” (12). The Defense Secretary Jim Eversledge’s children know all the details of the missiles in America’s arsenal: “an Atlas, a Jupiter, an Honest John” (12). In addition, Berriault lays bare the hilarious pop culture around the fallout shelter and nuclear panic. In one sequence, Miss Massive Retaliation sings a song conflating sexual conquest with nuclear domination:

Blow my heart to little bits,

Never, never call it quits

Mister, send your missile my way

Conflagrate me, oh please do,

The man on top’s got to be you.

Mister, send your missile my way.

That mushroomy cloud is me,

It’s only me in ecstasy.

Mister, send your missile my way! (59-60)

Berriault positions Cold War terror as self-generating and self-perpetuating. Disarmament cannot be an option when the nuclear bomb as necessity has infiltrated all elements of our existence. And of course, the fallout shelters proliferating like boils, become symbolic of America’s destructive tendencies and perverse desire to press the button.


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36 thoughts on “Short Book Reviews: John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (variant title: Re-Birth) (1955), John A. Williams’ Captain Blackman (1972), and Gina Berriault’s The Descent (1960)

  1. I’ve long felt that The Chrysalids is Wyndham’s best, in terms of making his readers think. And thank you for reminding me about the Leigh Brackett, which I’ve not yet read but been meaning to for ages, and keep coming across references to…

    • Thanks for stopping by. I’d love to know why you enjoyed Wyndham, perhaps I am missing something. That said, I relentlessly struggle with novels about telepathy and simplistic rural vs. urban conceptions of civilization. Brackett’s take, especially the ending, is far more complex. As I mention in The Long Tomorrow review, Brackett’s take does not consider fallout (so post–Hydrogen bomb in 1952) while Wyndham’s does despite their identical publication years. An intriguing historical aside…

      • I must confess, I couldn’t stop thinking about A. E. van Vogt’s Slan (1940) (one of my least favorite SF novels) while reading this…. Wyndham is the far better writer for sure!

        • For me, at least, THE CHRYSALIDS was simplistic and reductive. It’s not an adventure tale like DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS or folk horror like THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS…it’s just the bog-standard adolescent-exceptionalist coming of age story that I do not care if I never read again.

          I’d forgotten the Berriault! I’ll have to root around in The Bin to see if I still have one. Although it’s not encouraging that I recall damn near nothing about it….

          • I know that we talked about the Berriault before as I read it months ago but never got around to reviewing it. An effective Cold War satire with a focus on pop culture and the beckoning maw of the fallout shelter… Lovely stuff!

            The lyrics I quoted reminded me of all the great Cold War songs I play for my students. Here’s one from the same year her book was published — Sheldon Allman’s hilarious “Crawl Out Through The Fallout” (1960)

            “Crawl out through the fallout, baby
            When they drop that bomb
            Crawl out through the fallout
            With the greatest of aplomb
            When your white count’s getting higher
            Hurry, don’t delay
            I’ll hold you close and kiss those
            Radiation burns away
            Crawl out through the fallout, baby
            To my loving arms
            Through the rain of Strontium 90
            Think about your hero
            When you’re at Ground Zero
            And crawl out through the fallout back to me
            Crawl out through the fallout, baby
            You know what I mean
            Crawl out through the fallout
            ‘Cause they said this bomb was clean
            If you cannot find the way
            Just listen for my song
            I’ll love you all your life
            Although that may not be too long
            Crawl out through the fallout, baby
            To my loving arms
            While those ICBM’s keep us free
            When you hear me call out
            Baby, kick the wall out
            And crawl out through the fallout back to me
            ‘Cause you’ll be the only girl in the world
            Why don’t you crawl out through the fallout back to me
            Why don’t you crawl out through the fallout back to me
            Why don’t you crawl out through the fallout back to me”

            • Wow! That’s quite a song. The lyrics you excerpted from the book in your review seem a little more lighthearted to me, even if the topic is similar. And your comment in your review, “perverse desire to drop the button” reminds me of Randy Newman’s “Let’s Drop the Big One and See What Happens”.
              Al Yankovic’s “Christmas at Ground Zero” has a jolly feel, more after-it-happens than urging it on.

          • Re-The Chrysalids. I’m with you there. The novel reads like an influential template for later novels. I can completely understand how historically important it was for later authors. I prefer the Leigh Brackett take (even if her vision is sans-fallout) on the subject.

            • THAT’s why the Berriault floated back to my mind at all! And now you say that, I realize I don’t have the darn thing. Hm.
              I’ll read Leigh Brackett in preference to almost all other mid-50s practitioners of SF. There are exceptions like Tenn but her touch with a story is usually excellent and always high-quality stuff.
              …there must be a dud…can’t come up with one, though…

            • I couldn’t finish quite a few Brackett tales that I attempted. Anything on the pulpier side of things isn’t my cup of tea… As I point out in my The Long Tomorrow review, I found The Big Jump (1955) average at best (reviewed on the site) and I couldn’t finish The Starmen (variant title: The Starmen of Llyrdis) (1952)

              The Long Tomorrow is the only Brackett I have enjoyed. And it’s a near masterpiece!

              If you missed the review:

            • Unlike you, I’m able to consume the Eric John Stark series without mental distress.
              I remember reading the review, particularly the, um, deepish dive you took into the competing brands of Mennonitry, but apparently never said “well done indeed!” there.
              Well done indeed! (insert there)

  2. I read The Chrysalids as a child, ax eleven years old; I really loved it! (Swedish translation 1958 as Den stora hemsökelsen). When You grew up in the cold war, this kind of postapocalytpic scenario was something positive; Could it be a life even after the nuclear war? I should read it again!

    • Hello Mats! I suspect I would have enjoyed it as a child. While I understand how the post-apocalyptical scenario could be something positive, a society entirely based around those who have lucked out genetically comes off as rather ridiculous (is that positive? Perhaps it is for David…).

      But yes, I think I enjoy the more ambivalent/negative takes on Cold War nuclear fears (like The Descent in this series of reviews) that identify the idiocrasy of getting into the scenario in the first place and/or show how miserable life really would be post-nuclear war.

  3. I loved The Chrysalids when I first read it as a child. The second time, I found the ending to be deeply sinister to the point I wondered whether it has to be intentional. If not, it’s quite fascinating (in a morbid way) to see how different, older mindsets worked.

    I have no idea how Wyndham got the tag “cosy apocalypse” or whatever it is.

    I still think that “Blessed is the Norm. Watch thou for the Mutant” is one of the great literary phrases, and really needs to be on a t-shirt!

    • Hello James,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Do you mean that there’s a chance that not all the mutants in David’s group might make it to Sealand?

      As for cozy catastrophe, why is it a bad tag?

      • Thanks for posting these blogs!

        On second rading as an adult, I thought it was clear that the Sealand mutants are just as fascist as the mutant hunters. They take no account of non-mutant lives, and actually think slowly crushing/suffocating people to death is a mercy!

        I expect all the rescued mutants will get to Sealand, but what happens if they become dissidents won’t be funny.

        Like his other books, I don’t think it’s cosy at all! They’re as grim as anything if thought about.

      • “Cozy Catastrophe” is a term invented by Brian Aldiss specifically in response to Wyndham’s DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, and Aldiss meant it as a criticism of the way Wyndham, in that novel at least, allowed his small band of heroes to find themselves in strikingly comfortable circumstances while the rest of the world is wracked by destruction. But it’s ended up being used to describe novels in which the protagonists aren’t in cozy circumstances at all — including some Wyndham novels, and John Christopher’s novels, and J. G. Ballard’s early novels. So this wider meaning seems less pejorative.

        I’ve not actually read as much Wyndham as I probably should have. I remember my parents, who had no idea about SF, buying me THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS as a present once, which was fine I guess but not at all what I was really looking forward to reading at the time!

        and Joachim, as for Brackett’s more pulpy work — which I frankly adore — have you read THE SWORD OF RHIANNON? I think it’s the best of her pulpy stuff, leaning into pulp conventions, sure, but written beautifully and achingly romantic and bittersweet. But maybe that sort of thing isn’t for you. Here late short stories for Venture magazine, “The Queer Ones” and “All the Colors of the Rainbow” may by more to your taste though.

        (I agree that THE BIG JUMP is average at best.)

        • Thank you for the background in case anyone didn’t know the origin of the word. You are correct that I mean it in its non-pejorative way (UK post-nuclear war worlds tend to get lumped in under the umbrella term vs. Aldiss’ original criticism)

          I think another example of a term that might come off as negative but is more descriptive at this point is the subgenre in SF of Big Dumb Object novels (which can be great!). Like White’s All Judgment Fled, Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, etc.

          As of now, pulp ain’t in my veins. I probably won’t be dabbling more in her pulp SF anytime soon but I’ll keep them in my memory palace.

          • Fair enough re: Pulp. Just to make clear, the two short stories I mentioned, “The Queer Ones” and “All the Colors of the Rainbow”, definitely are not “pulp”.

            • Sorry for the confusion — I meant The Sword of Rhiannon (which I might have tried to read at some point…)

              But yes, thank you for the stories you listed.

  4. I enjoyed “The Chrysalids,” I’d read it directly after reading “Kraken Wakes,” which I loved. The Chrysalids was the inspiration for the Jefferson Airplane song “Crown of Creation.” I found the ending “too” conveniently created, if I’m recalling it correctly. I like a hero to save him or herself ultimately. Again, many are saved by intervention and that’s if I’m remembering it right? I’d never considered the primitive/advanced thing as problematic before, I find that aspect of life and existence interesting but if I read you correctly you’re speaking to matters of equality and respect. I’m glad I read your review because you’ve reminded me to consider that aspect of a story and I might have missed that in my own story work. It’s an elevated way of seeing things and good to consider.

    • Thanks for stopping by. Did you see the previous commenter’s observation regarding the end? The Chrysalids is probably more ambivalent than I made out in my review.

      But yes, I find the “secret society exists” ending often ridiculous vs. main character creates is own community that is tolerant of both. But returning to a possible ambivalent ending perhaps Wyndham wants to suggest that a secret society of telepaths is no more tolerant than the old. This is definitely a blurb review and not meant to be a serious interrogation of the novel. I did not intrigue me enough (in either good or bad ways) for me to write a full-length review.

  5. I’ve read all but one (Troble with Lichen) of Wyndham’s novels and all of his most anthologized short stories, and I think the first half of The Chrysalid was the best he ever wrote.
    Too bad he kind of ruined the story with telepathy and such, which was really getting old at this stage.

    Compared to The Long Tomorrow I found The Chrysalid more engaging and better written (less juvenile style), but at least Brackett avoided the telepathy stuff.

    And if you like “Cozy Catastrophes”, which I saw mentioned in the comments, check out Pat Frank’s “Alas, Babylon”, which is even more cozy than Wyndham’s stories.

  6. One thing about The Chrysalids, it’s fondly remembered by a mass of US fans of a particular age because of its lead-off position in this anthology which was the loss-leader “Get this book for a penny!” intro volume for the Science Fiction Book Club for over half a decade :-). (And seriously, look at that ToC, along with Volume Two!)

    Aside from my 13-year-old book-crush on it, I think it’s significant because it’s basically the template for an entire current genre that’s eaten YA fiction (the fusion of post-apocalyptic religious dictatorship dystopia with teen coming-of-age, targeted at a YA audience).

    I’d be kind of afraid to re-read it now. Better to let those first impressions stay where they belong.

    • Jim F: I remember that anthology very well in principle, but I’m not sure I ever read it! By the time I got into the SFBC the Hugo Winners was the choice instead of the Treasury. But I remember seeing it in the library all the time. I think I skipped it because I had already read a number of the stories.

      For some reason — probably early exposure to the Tripods — John Christopher was the UK writer of catastrophe stories who I read — I’ve read very little Wyndham.

      The selection that intrigues me is “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff”, which I didn’t actually read (or remember reading) until I was in my 40s and bought the issues of F&SF in which it first appeared. And my reaction was that for the first half it was utterly great — bidding fair to be Sturgeon’s best story ever — but that it just couldn’t stick the landing. I wonder what others think of it. And I have no idea what 13 year old me would have thought.

  7. I loved “The Chrysalids” when I first read it – grade 11, I believe. I think it might be one of the first SF books I read. I suppose, for that reason, it now pales in comparison to Ballard, Sturgeon, Le Guin, the Strugatskys, and others.

    I have to agree with Jim F: “Better to let those first impressions stay where they belong.” 😉

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