"We are the New People--your kind of people. The people who can think-together."
|1955 US paperback|
This is one of those post-apocalyptic stories, in which our technological society collapsed ages ago and people are living at a more primitive level, and have developed a goofy religion. (Remember Meg of 3485 A.D.?) It is also one of those stories about oppressed minorities with special powers, like Van Vogt's Slan, Clifford Simak's Time is the Simplest Thing, and Marvel's X-Men, among numerous examples. There is an endless supply of these stories--they must appeal to many readers and writers, which perhaps indicates something about members of the SF community, and our culture and society at large.
Re-Birth takes place a thousand or more years in the future, in Eastern Canada. Because of a nuclear war, much of the world is dangerously radioactive, with vast blackened deserts and creepy mutant jungles covering most of North America. The environment is relatively stable in the Labrador and Newfoundland area, where people live what I will call an 18th-century lifestyle in villages and towns; they have organized agriculture, a central government, black powder muskets, and a few steam engines, but no electricity or internal combustion engines.
It seems that the only book to survive the catastrophe of centuries ago was the Bible. The post-apocalyptic version of Christianity has had appended to it a deep concern over mutants; mutations are quite common, and everybody is vigilant in spotting mutant plants and animals, and the law demands that such aberrations be destroyed. Human beings are not exempt from these strictures, and human mutants are exiled or disposed of tout suite.
The first three-fifths or so of the novel describes David's world and relates numerous incidents of his life as he approaches adulthood, incidents which demonstrate how intolerant everybody is of mutants. David is in telepathic contact with a handful of fellow mutants about his age, and over the years they develop strong bonds of friendship. When they are discovered in the second half of the novel they flee into "the Fringes," where mutant monsters and people who sporadically raid civilization lead a parlous existence. While being pursued by the "Norms," they begin to receive telepathic messages from New Zealand, where lies an advanced technological civilization of telepaths who have contempt for people who lack telepathy. The nuclear war, they say, was the result of 20th-century people's inability to think collectively: "They were only ingenious half-humans, little better than savages; all living shut off from one another, with only clumsy words to link them." (It was New Zealand that David was "dreaming" of.)
The New Zealanders arrive in their giant helicopter, use a super weapon to massacre the Norms and Fringe people who were chasing David and his mutant buddies, and carry our heroes off to their utopia. The leader of the New Zealanders is explicitly compared to an angel: "Against the thrown-back white hood, her beautiful head looked as though it were framed by a halo." Deus ex machina, indeed.
|Behold the Kiwi angel and her super weapon|
It is typical for books to romanticize words, literacy, the power of language, and all that. Re-Birth evinces an hostility to words and text. There's the New Zealand quote above, pointing out how words stink when compared to telepathy. Also, we are repeatedly told how religious people have anti-mutant phrases (e.g., "WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT") printed on the interior walls of their houses. Reminded of the kitchen of a mutant sympathizer's home, David recalls it as, "The clean, bright room that had seemed so friendly because it had no texts on the walls."
So, what is this novel "about?" A main theme is that we shouldn't fear and oppress those who are different than us, and the novel is full hints to that effect as well as a few in-your-face speeches. We should also embrace change, not try to maintain the status quo. Wyndham suggests that the mutations are nothing to worry about; the mutant crops, animals, and people are all better than what has come before. Efforts to limit mutations and preserve species are just irrational superstition and selfish evil. (Passages that sound like pleas for tolerance lose some of their ability to persuade when followed by passages in which we are told it is inevitable that the new exterminate the old; what incentive do you have to tolerate the species that is going to eradicate your own?)
|The giant mutant horse appears|
in the novel; Archaeopteryx
and Diatryma do not
Other likely inspirations for the novel include witch trials and Red Scares; Arthur Miller's play The Crucible appeared to great acclaim only two years before The Chrysalids was published. Should we see David and his comrades as the vanguard of the revolution, and utopian New Zealand, with its thriving economy and culture of collectivism, as a stand-in for (an idealized) Soviet Union? The novel does seem to argue that the Christian and individualistic society which built the atomic bomb should be swept away and replaced with some kind of collectivist society, and the cold and detached way the New Zealander talks about how the telepaths will inevitably replace the non-telepaths, and then be replaced in their turn by the next superior evolution of humankind, does recall Marxist beliefs about the inevitability of bourgeois and then proletarian revolution. The ruthlessness with which the mutants contemplate killing those who stand in their way, including fellow mutants, also recalls revolutionary thinking.
So, is Re-Birth entertaining? Wyndham's style is alright--Re-Birth has nothing of the sensationalistic or exploitative pulp adventure about it, but reads like a sober and mature mainstream novel--but to me the book feels quite flat. It moves slowly and quietly, and does not generate any tension or urgency. Wyndham does little to bring the characters to life--they are just names, so when they get tortured or commit suicide or whatever, it doesn't pull the old heart strings. Oddly, in the last 30 pages of the novel he suddenly gives us a description of David's love interest, and constructs interesting relationships between various characters, including a love triangle and a brother versus brother blood feud. Why didn't this interesting stuff appear earlier in the book? It's like Wyndham realized he had left out the human drama and tried to cram it all in at the last minute.
|I don't recall any green crab men|
I'm going to have to give this one the dreaded "acceptable" rating. I can't point to anything actually obnoxiously bad in it, but Re-Birth is a thin gruel that offers little to excite or intrigue the reader. (This thing has been reprinted approximately a billion times in a dozen languages, so I should probably say there was little to excite or intrigue this reader; I'm afraid I'm really swimming against the tide on this one.)