Of all the things a person can analyse about a work of fiction, one of the main points of focus is theme. The ‘theme’ of a story, essentially just meaning ‘the main thing the story is about.’
Of all the themes a story can explore, one of the most common I seem to find is that of prejudice and discrimination. Why is it such a common theme in fiction? And, especially, within the realm of speculative fiction.
There are a number of possible reasons for this, but before we delve into those, let’s discuss one book in particular and the way that it discusses this theme. In my opinion, the clearest example of a book I can use to analyse how books discuss discrimination, is John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids.’
[While I won’t be talking about any specific scenes from the story, I will be delving into ideas and moments that transpire throughout the plot. I don’t think there are any major spoilers in this essay, but if you want to experience the book blind and then come back to this essay, that might be wise.]
Unlike other books that explore discrimination to supplement some greater narrative or set of themes, such as the masterful ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘The Chrysalids’ uses every single aspect of its word count towards exploring this one theme.
This is made clear in the first chapter – not straight away though, at least, we don’t think so at that point. It actually begins with the main character, David, describing a recurring dream he had as a child, in which he sees a strange city filled with flying, fish-shaped vehicles and lights like strings of glow-worms by night.
We are then introduced to a more prominent aspect of the story – that this is a world where strange and unusual things are not to be spoken of.
They are blasphemies against God.
Of course, at this point, differences have little to do with people. We are talking about a city, a dream, not a person. That is, until our main character meets Sophie, an ordinary little girl… except she has six toes on each foot.
David recognises this as a difference, of course. And he’s smart enough to agree when Sophie makes clear that her difference must be kept secret. He just doesn’t understand why such a little thing should matter. (Nor do we, yet.) Because while children do understand differences, they don’t get discrimination. It’s as alien to them as the differences themselves.
Then the chapter ends with a sledgehammer – this Christianity is different, even more prejudiced than the usual, real world version we’re familiar with. Any creature who looks human but isn’t… is hateful in the eyes of God.
But to the child? “The ways of the world were very puzzling.”
Because the weight of teachings drilled into children from an early age seem incomprehensible, sure. But they don’t realise how powerful, impactful and damaging they really are at this point. It’s just another confusing adultism, another strange norm for the children to accept without fully understanding.
At this point of the book, although it is more disturbing to us readers than the character in the middle of it all, it is still very puzzling. We also do not fully understand.
Luckily then, the next chapter makes things more clear, puts this teaching in its wider context, and reveals to us just how broad an effect such philosophies have in this world. It does this primarily by providing a more vivid and broad depiction of the Christian beliefs of this world, and most affecting, their extreme prejudice and rigidity.
‘The Norm,’ and its importance, are subscribed to without exception. Farm animals, and even crops, will be burned en masse, people singing hymns all the while. This will be done for all deviations, regardless of how small they are.
In fact, so rigid are their subscription to these beliefs, that not even harmless turns of phrase will stand if they appear to “blaspheme” the image of God. Harmless phrases such as ‘If I only had three hands’ that are common and innocent to us, are vile to the village of Waknuk, and the wider country of Labrador.
It’s through these minor offences being treated with such extreme prejudice that we are also presented with ‘Blasphemies,’ the name for deviations among humans. Since the people here are not totally devoid of morals, or at least don’t want to seem that way, human deviations will not be burned. They will, however, be exiled to a place on the outskirts known as the Fringes, a place about which the children of Labrador are told horror stories, all centring on the Blasphemies who live there. And the book delves into some moral discussions about whether or not ‘humane’ treatments of the oppressed are even all that much more humane to begin with.
Horrific as all this is, what matters here is the young protagonist, as their understanding of these beliefs and customs is crucial to the impact of a story like this. No matter how cruel and vile a fictional setting is, readers still need to see how it affects the characters who live in it.
And to begin with, it is a mostly innocent and childish experience, as is to be expected. David feels mostly fear and confusion towards these teachings, knowing that himself and two of his friends are not exactly normal. They have only the smallest of differences, and that really shouldn’t matter. But he knows that to his father, they would matter a great deal.
Discrimination is absurd. I don’t just mean that in terms of how obviously wrong such teachings are. I also mean in a literary sense. Stories are told about the Blasphemies in the Fringes. Exaggerated stories about ‘Old Maggie’ and ‘Hairy Jack,’ caricature-ish boogey man figures invented to frighten children so they grow up hating and fearing deviations as the monsters they so obviously are… aren’t they?
Well, the language of the Other cements such deviations in the children’s minds as being inhuman and unnatural and nightmarish. And this language is so common, so intrinsic to their upbringing that it bleeds naturally into their own conversations, their preconceptions, their very sense of self.
Despite all that, when a child finally observes a deviation, a deviation called Sophie perhaps, who only has one tiny little difference… he is struck by just how ordinary a Blasphemy really looks.
And there’s one other big factor that determines David’s break from his religious upbringing. He is not the true image either. Not as far as his family would describe it.
Of course, a story about discrimination must involve the POV character eventually. Which is why there is more to David’s deviation than just a couple of weird dreams. Here then is where the telepathy is introduced, David’s ability to communicate with his cousin Rosalind, as well as a group of other children around Labrador, without needing to be nearby to them. And the idea behind this element of the story, to me at least, seems to be that the Othered are not worse, but better – stronger – smarter – more empathetic.
Importantly, this deviation brings the main protagonist group together as a group, a community. Not only narratively speaking but socially as well. Their shared deviation gives them something in common. Not to mention their shared fears of being discovered, being alienated, the inevitability of being found. Just like Sophie being forced to leave with her parents, itself leading to the protagonist group’s shared confusion and doubt towards their teaching and upbringing.
All of these elements pull the group together, a group which consequently acts as a powerful allegory for real communities of discriminated against groups, who similarly band together from afar – though, admittedly, not through telepathy.
There is a similar element of community for their oppressors. A sort of spectrum of bigotry.
Some characters are merely bigoted, holding prejudiced ideas and views towards deviations that they’ve been laboured with since childhood. Other characters act as enablers, holding positions of power that cause these prejudices to become actually dangerous to the subjects in question. And yet other characters have gone all the way off the deep end, not only hating deviations but actually taking it upon themselves to destroy “Offences” when, to their mind, the actual authorities are not going far enough.
The really tragic part of this last category is that it includes David’s father.
Once again this is a powerful allegory for real world experiences of discrimination and prejudice, with disabled people being historically ‘concealed’ by their families, and LGBT+ people’s fear of being open with their families. David’s father plays a similar, monstrous version of this type of role within ‘The Chrysalids.’ He is in fact the figurehead of all these teachings in David’s, and thus our, eyes, with every interaction with deviations being inevitably compared to whatever David’s father would have thought.
Another important element the story explores is the fact that fascists and their teachings don’t just affect the oppressed, they actually make things worse for everyone.
One personal example of this for David is that, even before knowing he is different, his parents are neglectful at best, physically abusive at worst. That David wants to go with Sophie and her parents when they leave, rather than stay with his own family, speaks volumes even if we’d never seen how horrible his family is. The reality is that hate and violence are an ingrained part of Labrador even if ‘the true image’ was never taught, since there are even intra and inter family rivalries within the community, leading to further conflicts all their own.
But it isn’t just David who is affected – it’s the whole species. Bigotry becoming so wide spread and inherent in the community that they purposefully hold back knowledge. Is it a coincidence that the only book that survived from the ‘Old People’ is the Bible? I think not. It’s worth considering how little the people of Waknuk actually know of the world – their bigoted assumptions and naivety are all they really have. And once again this is something that happens as a result of discrimination and bigotry in our world as well. For example, medieval churches banning scientific endeavours. And even today you have education boards removing important works of fiction like ‘Maus’ from the curriculum.
And the holding back of knowledge is not the only example of the effect prejudice has on the non-oppressed. There’s also the existence of the Fringes to which deviations and their allies are exiled, and with which frequent battles take place, not to mention the wasteful burning of crops which produces a food shortage, and there’s also the way mothers are blamed for the ‘deviations’ they have produced.
Understandably then, the children in Labrador, specifically those with this telepathic ability, frequently wrestle with the idea of deviations and everything they have been told about them. Are Blasphemies really evil? They must believe that they are because of all the brainwashing, and yet… there are so many reasons to doubt.
Of course, it isn’t purely a case of discriminated against vs discriminators. Not only is there a sense of community among the deviations, they do also have some non-deviant allies who are not prejudiced against them, such as Uncle Axel.
By combining the fact that our telepathic main characters can communicate with each other from a distance just like the Old People could, with Uncle Axel’s explanation that every nation has a different idea of the true image, the book reinforces the idea that bigotry is inane and totally devoid of sense and logic. It even argues that, perhaps, the discriminated against are closer to the true image than the discriminators because of their telepathy. And yet, they will be persecuted just the same, because ultimately, ‘the true image’ is just another lie, another excuse to prosecute and demonise.
When the group are chased from their homes, we get a more visceral, intense depiction of the anxiety and alarm they all had that this day would come eventually. The horror of this scene is multidimensional as we are confronted not only with the realisation and inevitability of the alienation and exile we had so far merely feared, but also with the specificity and much greater horror of children being forced to flee their homes and families, their own flesh and blood turning on them for such inane reasons, falling to such cruel and violent treatments.
Powerfully, this doesn’t break the group. And there is a remaining sense of community between them. A fortitude. A wish for vengeance. An anger and a despondency. But it can also have darker effects, like making people hide who they really are behind a harder, more logical façade, and the real them coming out too seldom.
There is another clever element to the worldbuilding when our main protagonists arrive in the Fringes. Physically there is not such a horror to the deviants as has been expected from the constant brainwashing the protagonists have experienced. This reinforces the lies and absurdity that the ideals of the Labrador zealots are based on. What’s really clever, is the way this is enforced with the return of Sophie, now a young woman. This previously encountered character is a strong, emotional way of enforcing just how normal Fringes people are.
They’re not monsters. They’re defeated.
That said, there is an edge, a darkness to the Fringes people. A predisposition to violence, just in case. They have been “reverted to barbarism” to use the people of Labrador’s language. Plus, the main characters’ deviation is unfathomable and unseen even to these other deviants, implying that once you are beaten and thrown away, it can be difficult to be supportive and empathetic, because hate and prejudice are all you’ve known. This isn’t a certainty, as we’ve seen the opposite come to pass so often both in our own world, and the world of ‘The Chrysalids,’ but it is a possibility.
It is upsetting to read. This tension, conflict and prejudice passing between the two groups is not something I wanted to see happen in the book. But equally, all this makes sense since they have been so mistreated. Paranoia is to be expected. And it adds depth to the story. A natural affinity and compassion between them would have been unnatural because of the history and brainwashing that runs deep in this world. There’s no real malice from either of them, not like there is from their shared enemy, but there is distrust, hostility. And that’s tragic, as much as it is hurtful, to read.
Interestingly, their main source of misery is that they cannot have children. Of all, this is what upsets them most. I suppose when violent fascists force you not to do something, it is that thing you want the most. The presence of such eugenics in the story is scary for sure, but it’s equally contemporary as it is historical, and no story of discrimination is really complete without this sort of heavy realism.
The final thing that needs discussing here, is that first question I had in the beginning. Just why is discrimination such a common theme in fiction, and especially in speculative fiction? Well, I think there are three main reasons:
Reading about prejudice, and hate more generally, is inherently powerful, and instantly causes a point of affection for the characters experiencing it, especially for any reader who can more deeply relate to the experience of prejudice.
The theme of discrimination brings a heavy dose of realism to otherwise unreal settings and characters. It provides a real world relevance – discrimination is something there has always been, so many readers have a deep understanding of it even if they haven't experienced it firsthand.
With this sci fi novel in particular, including the theme of prejudice allows for a strong social element tied to the telepathy, allowing the author to depict the oppressed as superior to their oppressors in a much more unique way, more figurative way, than actually rising above them and taking them down in a war or political engagement.
Furthermore, it’s possible that discrimination, prejudice, bigotry, is such a common theme because it’s the biggest ‘dragon’ affecting us as a species. It’s a seemingly unkillable monster deeply ingrained in human nature. It’s a recurring horror throughout human history, and so it’s an ever-recurring theme in our stories as well. Not always as the primary focal point, like with ‘The Chrysalids,’ but always having a part to play at least once in the story.
I don’t know that I’ll necessarily read another speculative fiction story as deeply focused on this theme as ‘The Chrysalids,’ but I can safely guess it’s a theme that will show up again in many works of speculative fiction, both those already written, that I haven’t discovered yet, and in those still to be written.
That’s tragic, in a way. To think that we may never be free of hatred and bigotry. In other ways, though, it’s powerful. We may never be free of hatred and bigotry – but we will always have something there to help us confront it.