Friday, November 18, 2011

God's image

I'm not really a fan of science-fiction but I found an old paperback that I read when I was a teenager (the book was originally written in 1935). It's called The Secret People by John Beynon Harris and the cover shows a group of pale underground pygmies advancing out from under giant mushrooms towards an ordinary couple. The man is holding a gun in one hand and has the other protectively around the waist of a very pretty (and curvy) woman. Yes, I know – it's not an image that begs to be taken as serious literature. But as I recall, the story was mildly interesting – enough that I finished it – and for some reason I've hung onto it for 25 or 30 years.

But about a year ago I read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, which is sci-fi from the 1950s and I actually rather enjoyed it. Well, it turns out that John Wyndham and John Beynon Harris were the same person. His full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris and he apparently wrote quite a few books under a variety of names. And it seems many are post-apocalyptic, or – as I like to call them – "end of the world books." But not knowing that connection, and having enjoyed the Triffids, I recently listened to the audio version of The Chrysalids.

Thousands of years after worldwide devastation by atomic weapons, civilization has tried to reestablish itself in various places around the world. In Labrador (northeastern Canada) small communities resembling Amish communities or American farming towns in the 1800s have legends of the "Tribulation" sent by God that caused the destruction. Their religious beliefs specify that anything that doesn't conform to a strict description of normal must be destroyed. This applies to crops and animals as well as humans – who were created in God's image – and there's an "Inspector" to make judgments. Young David Strorm finds out how dangerous this can be when he befriends a girl and finds out that she has 6 toes. When she is later discovered she and her family are cast out and she is sterilized so she cannot perpetuate her deformity. David realizes the danger to himself, however, because he and several other young people in the community have their own abnormality – the ability to communicate telepathically – which could be a very serious threat to the established order.

Wyndham creates an interesting world that still reeks of frequent radiation-caused deformities. Outside the small and insular community lies the "Fringes," an area teeming with plant and animal mutations as well as those who've been cast out. Beyond the Fringes very little is known except what David learns from his Uncle Axel who was once a sailor and saw firsthand the weirdness in the world. But Axel also provides a quiet voice of borderline heresy in David's fundamentalist upbringing, questioning what really is normal and if the real "image of God" is what's being preserved.

I find the religious aspect of the story particularly interesting. I wouldn't go so far as to say the book is anti-religion, but it raises the question of whether anyone could claim to know ultimate truth or God's intentions. And while it's easy enough to read this book and see the ridiculousness of judging a person living in a radioactive world with an extra toe as an abomination, what about deviations from the norm in our own society? We certainly have those whose choices and lifestyles are less accepted than others, some benign and some uncertain. I'm not questioning religious prerogatives for calling any disagreeable behavior "sinful," but does that justify mistreatment of such people? In an interesting twist, the book's end kind of explains such pruning of deviant characteristics as natural for self-preservation, but equates it to a type of evolution and natural selection. At any rate, the ending wasn't as strong as the beginning (for several reasons), but it raises some interesting philosophical thoughts.

And I DO like a book that makes me think.

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