It seemed a very small toe to cause such a degree of anxiety.
I first became aware of the X-Men when I watched the 1999 movie on TBS one night with my dad. I was ten or eleven years old, and that was back in the days when we did things like watch movies on a television at a network-scheduled time that was published in the newspaper. Although I’ve never been much of a comic book reader, the story of these mutants trying to find their place in the world—whether through the peaceful integration with humans championed by Professor X or the war between homo sapiens and homo superior that Magneto’s Mutant Brotherhood seek to spark—immediately captured my attention.
Over the past fifteen years I’ve watched the X-Men films religiously as they grew into one of the most successful franchises in movie history. Now, with my trusty literature BA by my side, I’ve become even more impressed by the ways in which this popular blockbuster series manages to incorporate scathing social commentary about the Civil Rights movement, queer liberation, and the different strategies of resistance minority groups can deploy from within an oppressive culture.
It would be a very bold statement (requiring much more research than I am willing to do for this little blog post) to insist that without John Wyndham’s 1955 YA novel The Chrysalids there would be no 1963 comic book series called X-Men. But the parallels between the two texts are as unmistakable as Wyndham’s foreshadowing of hugely popular YA dystopian sci-fi series like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner.
Set in rural Labrador some three hundred years after a nuclear holocaust that destroyed the major cities, The Chrysalids tells a story of mutants struggling to survive among Christian fundamentalist humans obsessed with the “true image” of man as God’s earthly mirror. Their community has held onto the dogma of a dead civilization and modified it to serve their own purposes. You’ll find no mention of “nuclear fallout” or “radiation poisoning” or “DNA degradation” or “eugenics.” The community doesn’t understand the science behind its actions; it can only protect itself from the risks it faces by demanding rigid, unquestioning conformity to its interpretation of the Bible, which insists that every “deviation” must be purged. Livestock and crops are slaughtered and burned as “offences.” Human deviations are immediately labelled as non-human, forcibly sterilized, and then cast out into the wastelands beyond the border to scratch out a miserable existence in the ruins of the old world.
This paranoid restrictive theocracy is the setting into which David Strorm, son of the local preacher, is born. Unlike many other mutants, he passes inspection upon birth and is thus declared fully human rather than left to die of exposure. He grows up as a happy and healthy boy, uncritical of his society until he meets Sophie, a girl with a terrible secret. From there on, David begins to realize the injustice of his world and to discover his own mutation—an ability to communicate telepathically with his cousin Rosalind and eight other children around their district.
The Chrysalids has a slow-boil plot, spending a lot of time with its world building and minor plot incidents before launching into an all-out race to the finish three-quarters of the way through. That’s not to say that the book is boring, though—the ever-present fear of discovery creates a recognizable tension throughout. Indeed, The Chrysalids is as rich a text for a queer reading as the X-Men comics; the community has developed a way for completely eradicating deviance from visible minorities, but when it is discovered that there are invisible minorities that could be lurking among them at any moment, everyone freaks the geek out.
I can’t guarantee that every fan of the X-Men comics and The Hunger Games will love The Chrysalids. But I think it’s always fun to trace the narrative influences on our favourite texts backwards through history—to find the genetic precursors to our favourite stories, and to see what they were like before time and exposure to other ideas mutated them into their current shapes.