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Literature / The Chrysalids

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"And any creature that shall seem to be human, but is not formed thus is not human. It is neither man nor woman. It is blasphemy against the true Image of God, and hateful in the sight of God."

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

The Chrysalids is a Science Fiction novel written by John Wyndham, first published in 1955 and considered by many to be his masterpiece.

Many centuries after a global nuclear apocalypse, northern Labrador and "Newf" are among the few places hospitable to human habitation, albeit very pre-industrial. Our story centers around the small farming community of Waknuk, ruled with an iron fist by fanatical Sinister Minister Joseph Strorm.

The only document that has survived from the time of the "Old People" is the Bible, from which the current generation infer that "Tribulation" must have been a final, devastating judgement on human arrogance, a la the fall of Jerusalem. Taking this together with a later book called Repentances, this new society develops what they believe to be the immutable Definition of Man, and aims to rebuild the world accordingly in the True Image of God.

In this theology born of ignorance and fear, any radiation-bred mutant (or "Deviation") — no matter how slightly abnormal — is interpreted as either an Offence (plants, lower animals) or, more horribly still, a Blasphemy: a human-shaped but soulless mockery of God's perfection sent by Satan to lure Man off the faint and narrow path to righteousness. They all must be ruthlessly rooted out and destroyed lest they contaminate the purity of Godly society. In the case of Blasphemies, there is just enough mercy that they are merely sterilized and banished (usually at birth) to the wild country known as the Fringes, to survive or not as they can.

Against this backdrop our narrator, Joseph's son David, discovers along with several other children that they have a mutation that is not visible to the naked eye: they are able to communicate with each other by means of telepathy, or "thought-shapes". The story centers first on their efforts to conceal this ability, then their struggle to define it against what they and others understand as the Norm...

...and then, finally, on their efforts merely to defend themselves at all costs. Because as much as their society loathes the deviants they can see and thus control, the notion of ones they can't terrifies them into all-out racial war — a war which may only ultimately be winnable by a civilization still more ruthlessly determined to survive.

The story was adapted for radio by the BBC in 1982, and for the stage in 1999.

The Chrysalids provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Sophie kills one of her fellow exiles to free Rosalind and Petra, and joins the fight against the attacking norms.
  • Abusive Parents: Joseph frequently beats David, and after he discovers his son was concealing Sophie from him, to the point that he has to spend the whole of the next day in bed to recover. And that's after the inspector refused to let his whip be used for this purpose.
  • Affably Evil:
    • The inspector. He's shown as an amiable, basically humane bureaucrat who strongly objects to Joseph Strorm's harsh inflexibility, and his treatment of David particularly. He lets David off with a warning for failing to report Sophie because Joseph has already punished his son with a severe whipping. However he's also an unimaginative man who never questions his mission; it's indicated that this is why he takes part in the relentless interrogation of the captured telepaths, leading to their possible deaths.
    • Gordon Strorm also comes across as this, right up until he deliberately announces his intent to rape his nephew's fiancée (and, it's strongly hinted, is at least interested in his pre-adolescent niece).
  • After the End: Several centuries at least; long enough for the extremities of the inhabited earth to be reclaimed from nuclear catastrophe.
  • And Man Grew Proud: Thought to be the reason behind Tribulation. Ironically — as David's uncle and Secret-Keeper Axel points out — even if this is basically correct, the new society has drawn exactly the wrong lessons from it.
  • Anyone Can Die: Well, anyone in the supporting cast at least. There are ten telepaths at the story's outset and only the five with major roles — David, Rosalind, Petra, Rachel and Michael — survive to the end. Likewise several others close to David are killed or otherwise disappear.
  • Archnemesis Dad: Joseph Strorm is a terrible father who physically and psychologically abuses David on a regular basis, and ultimately seeks to hunt him to the death upon discovering that he is a telepath. David works hard to protect his loved ones (Sophie and her parents, Rosalind, Petra and the other telepaths) from Joseph with varying degrees of success.
  • Artistic Licence Ė Physics: The Sealanders' helicopter is stated to consume fuel, which is why they can't afford to rescue the other telepaths. However, it's not possible to build a chemical-fuelled helicopter that could travel from New Zealand to Labrador and back on one tank.note 
  • Asshole Victim: Alan Erwin is specifically called out as this. Nobody's much upset when Joseph Strorm dies either, not even his children.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Not only the Bible, but also the Repentances, which together have given rise to "The Definition of Man", the immutable truth on which the new society rests.
  • Author Tract: Several pages are given over to philosophic discourses on the nature of man and God as they relate to evolutionary change and growth.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: David, although since he's usually up against much tougher opponents, not very effectually.
  • Berserk Button: The mere mention of deviation is enough to inspire real fear and horror, as per the scene in which David innocently suggests he could've used a third hand to accomplish a task and is beaten for it. The inspector enjoys pressing Joseph's buttons specifically.
  • Big Bad: Joseph Strorm is the story's main villain, though he is a representation of the superstitious hatred and prejudice that is rife in Waknuk and would remain even in his absence.
  • Bittersweet Ending: David, Rosalind and Petra are rescued by the Sealanders and taken to their shining city, where they will enjoy a safer, happier life in a much more advanced society. However, the as-yet-undiscovered Michael chooses to stay behind in Labrador to save his Love Interest Rachel, we discover that Sophia suffered a wretched life in the Fringes before she is shot in the final battle, Sally and Katherine are caught and tortured, Mark, another telepath, disappears, with his fate unknown and the casual indifference and clear sense of superiority the Sealanders display towards the non-telepaths suggest that, in some ways, they aren't that much better than the people of Labrador.
  • Bizarre Baby Boom: Something of the sort from the viewpoint of the children as their telepathic powers emerge.
  • Black Sheep: Aunt Harriet, after her ill-fated attempt to enlist the Strorms' help to save her mutant baby by switching her temporarily with perfect-seeming Petra. Although given the evil nature of Davidís parents (especially Joseph), she might actually be closer to a White Sheep.
    David: [narrating] It was as though she had been erased from everyone's memories save mine.
  • Blessed with Suck: What all the telepaths struggle with for years after they become aware of their deviance. Articulated outright at one point thusly:
    David: We had a gift, a sense which, Michael complained bitterly, should have been a blessing, but was little better than a curse. The stupidest norm was happier; he could feel that he belonged.
  • Book Ends: The novel begins with David dreaming about a futuristic city and ends with he, Rosalind and Petra actually arriving there.
  • Broken Bird: Sophie. Forced sterilization, followed by "degradation to a savage", will do that to anyone.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Joseph gets this from the inspector on a number of occasions. Notably, the use of 'great-horses', which have been approved by the Government as the result of controlled breeding, but which Joseph insists are Deviations due to their unusual height:
    Joseph: It is your moral duty to issue an order against these so-called horses.
    Inspector: It's part of my official duty to protect them from harm by fools and bigots.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Sophie has, for obvious reasons, been told never to let anyone apart from her parents see her feet. But, shortly after meeting David, she takes her shoe off. Admittedly, she was justified in doing so on that occasion as her foot had become stuck in a crack and there was no other way she could get free. However, she later removes her shoes to go paddling in a stream, leaves an incriminating footprint and is reported as a Blasphemy. Following an unsuccessful attempt to escape with her parents, she is forcibly sterilised and cast out into the Fringes.
  • Character Development: David and the other telepaths are forced to this over the course of the novel. Rosalind goes so far as to deliberately construct a tough, cynical exterior to hide her fears.
  • Cheerful Child: Petra, whom even Joseph cannot resist spoiling, 'with an endearing lack of success'. Also Sophie, the six-toed little girl David befriends, before she and her family are captured and exiled — making the hard, bitter woman we meet in the Fringes later that much more heartbreaking.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • Both David and Petra serve as this. David, because his strange childhood dreams allow him to confirm Petra's second-hand description of 'Sealand' (actually, as per its description, New Zealand); Petra, because her strong "thought-shapes" allow the Sealand woman to home in on her and thus know where to find the protagonists later.
    • The minor character Jerome Skinner, certainly. He's only seen in person for one brief scene, but he's the one who outs the protagonists to the authorities.
  • The Chosen One: Petra is basically this to the Sealand community, with such an extraordinarily strong telepathic power that they're willing to cross the world to retrieve her.
  • Churchgoing Villain: Joseph Strorm is a religious fundamentalist and the Big Bad of the story. His father Elias Strorm also qualifies, with psycholigically abusing his wife into her grave being enough to peg him as a villain.
  • Church Militant: Many of the preachers described in the story, but Joseph Strorm and his father (in flashback) are the prime examples.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Of Sally and Katherine, in order to learn more about the telepaths. Just in case the reader has missed the wider implications to that point, we now learn that this is a society with no qualms about applying red-hot irons to an adolescent girl's feet.
  • Covers Always Lie: Over the decades, this book has attracted way more than its share of this trope:
    • Some older Penguin editions feature a bizarre-looking mutant on the cover with green skin, no mouth and lobster claws for hands. None of the mutants in the book look anything close to this.
    • Another features the faces of three of the children superimposed over a futuristic city that looks like it is straight out of Blade Runner. While there is the futuristic city Sealand, it only appears at the very end and the story ends before they even get there; going off of this cover it's actually easy to get a ways into the book before you realize it takes place After the End in a small farming community with no technology whatsoever.
    • One paperback edition depicts the main characters fleeing into the Fringes fairly accurately.. but tosses in a few small bird-dinosaur hybrids.
    • Another went with showing the Sealander rescue-ship flying over the deadlands.. except it's a flying saucer instead of a fish-shaped helicopter.
    • One gorily displays Petra's pony being killed by a wildcat, which actually happens, but is about as far from the main thrust of the novel as you can get.
    • More than one edition features six-fingered hands, when only one pair of feet with extra digits appears in the book.
  • Crapsack World: If you're a 'deviant', this is the kindest possible description of the new Labrador.
  • Creepily Long Arms: The character David refers to as the "spider-man" (whose real name is Gordon) has arms and legs which are eighteen inches longer than they should be in proportion to his body. David is somewhat creeped out by him when they first meet and tries to stay out of range of his long arms; at their next encounter (which takes place several years later) Gordon appears no less freakish. And the fact that he has a somewhat squicky interest in teenaged girls like Sophie and Rosalind just adds to his overall creepiness.
  • Cultural Posturing: The Sealanders are especially prone to disparaging any non-telepathic societies as "savage".
  • Cursed with Awesome: Petra's telepathic ability is much stronger than that of the other main characters, especially for her age, and she's able to communicate with other telepaths over a distance of several thousand miles. Unfortunately, it first manifests when she's panicked and urgently compels the others to rush to her aid, and leads to the group's discovery the second time it happens. Even once she's trained and aware enough to control herself better, when she gets excited any nearby telepaths are stunned and "blinded" (the last scene is of her thus stunning the entire Sealand city).
  • Days of Future Past: Future Labrador is essentially a post-apocalyptic twist on the rural villages Wyndham and his initial readers would've grown up remembering, complete with Eternal English, distinctively British given names and Caucasian Monochrome Casting.
  • Death by Irony: Joseph Strorm is killed by his own mutated brother Gordon.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Rosalind. She has developed a tough persona to survive and endure, but David sometimes senses the more sensitive "under-Rosalind" peeking through.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: Implied. In Chapter Three, David incurs Joseph's wrath by innocently remarking that he could have bandaged his own hand if he'd had more than two. Joseph interprets this as a blasphemous wish to be a mutant and has the entire household, who were about to sit down to their evening meal, pray for forgiveness. Afterwards, he sends David straight to his room to pray and to await a beating; there is no mention of anyone bringing food to David.
  • Deus ex Machina: The arrival of the Sealand rescue party could be interpreted as literally this, given the descent of their shiny helicopter-esque transport at the height of the pre-industrial peoples' climactic battle. It's been foreshadowed throughout the latter part of the book, but they still actually show up at an awfully convenient moment.
  • Double Standard: As per the generally primitive attitude to biology, any woman who gives birth to three deformed or mutated children in a row may be 'sent away' by her husband... but apparently the husbands don't suffer any repercussions at all, instead being allowed to seek new wives.
  • Driven to Suicide: Aunt Harriet — her body is found in a river after Emily refuses to let her "borrow" the newborn Petra so her mutant baby, her third child, can be issued a normalcy certificate. And Anne, after Davidís Uncle Axel murdered Alan to prevent him from exposing the other telepaths, including David.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: And how... at least for David, Petra and Rosalind. The other telepaths, not so much, unfortunately.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The futility of the current society trying so fiercely to regain what was ultimately destroyed is discussed at several points.
  • Eternal English: Despite having only the vaguest idea of the Old Ones' civilization, and no documents from it save the Bible (and that probably, from the internal evidence, the King James Version), human society of many centuries hence still sounds remarkably like 1950s Britain, with perhaps a bit of similarly-vintage American dime novel thrown in. The Sealanders have a noticeably odd pronunciation — presumably the descendant of the original New Zealand accent — but can otherwise make themselves understood to David and co. with no trouble.
  • Evil vs. Evil: Brothers Joseph and Gordon Strorm are mortal enemies and both are evil: one of them is an abusive and sadistic religious tyrant, and the other is a would-be rapist.
  • Evilutionary Biologist: An ironic step-sibling of this trope forms the basis of the novel. The primitive, theocratic society seeks to exterminate all mutants, whether plant, animal or human. While not Social Darwinists or scientists, the members of this culture are nevertheless striving to "restore" the purity of life on Earth, in an effort to get back into God's good graces.
  • Extra Digits: Sophie has six toes on both her feet, which in the theology of the Sinister Minister Joseph Strorm, marks her as an inhuman Blasphemy created by Satan.
  • Fantastic Racism: Taken up to eleven and going both ways for the Norms and the Blasphemies.
  • Fate Worse than Death: In-story, being banished to the Fringes is considered this, as not only are Blasphemies officially not human (being considered instead the soulless spawn of Satan), they're forcibly sterilized and tossed into wild, savage country to survive or die as chance wills.
  • Feuding Families: On top of everything else they have to deal with, David and Rosalind's. Their fathers make a point of spying on each other's farms in order to publicly point out deviations in the crops or livestock.
  • Foreshadowing: David has a mysterious dream in the very first chapter, about — as he describes them — "carts driving without horses to pull them", fish-shaped machines flying, and shining cities with lots of lights; and he wonders if any such place really exists. When he asks his older sister, she suggests that it may be a description of what the world used to look like before Tribulation, then warns him not to tell anyone else about it. Of course, it later turns out it's not a dream...
  • Friendly Enemy: The inspector sees himself as this to David. At least heís more friendly than Davidís own father.
  • Freudian Excuse: We learn early in the novel that Joseph Strorm is very much like his father Elias, who was even more harsh and unyielding. Joseph may also have been influenced by the banishment of his older brother Gordon, who was originally thought to be normal but developed unusually long limbs as he grew up.
  • The Fundamentalist: Strorm family retainer Old Jacob, deliberately introduced to represent this POV within the story. He considers one year's high rate of Deviations a judgement on the more progressive elements of his society for, among other things, no longer simply burning human mutants to death.
  • Gunship Rescue: The Sealanders swoop into the battle between the Waknuk and Fringes people in their helicopter to recover the telepaths, killing all of the combatants with what is essentially a giant web-shooter.
  • Hair Memento: The book is set in a post-apocalyptic society where any congenital anomaly is seen as the devil's mark and the affected person is cast out. When Sophie, a young girl with an extra toe on each foot, is forced to flee with her parents after her secret is discovered, she gives a lock of her hair to her friend David (the story's narrator) for him to remember her by. However, this becomes a Tragic Keepsake, as David's father forces him to betray her, and she and her parents are subsequently captured, though David is assured that this happened by chance.
  • He Knows Too Much: A heroic version. Uncle Axel deduces that Anne has told Alan about the group of telepaths, so he kills Alan in order to save the group from a very nasty situation that could result in all their deaths.
  • Heroic BSoD: Rosalind has one after being forced to shoot a man who was tracking her, David and Petra following the trio's flight from Waknuk.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: The Sealanders may be more advanced and enlightened than Labrador society in many ways, but — as more than one critic has pointed out — the two peoples share a very similar willingness to ruthlessly destroy any threat to their established 'norm'. Lampshaded to some extent by the Sealand woman, who views the Waknuk posse riding after the telepaths as fighting against their own inevitable extinction in the face of a superior human variant, and muses that they, the 'think-together people', will have to do the same one day.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: One of the classic examples; Sealand, strongly suggested to be mankind's only viable remaining civilization by story's end, is entirely composed of telepaths.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Both Uncle Axel and Rosalind kill to protect the group's secret, and both defend themselves this way.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Anne, after falling in love with a Norm. David also specifically prays this at one point, out of fear for himself arising from what he's witnessed happening to mutated crops and animals.
  • Irony: A recurring theme in the book. That Joseph Strorm, the most extreme of the mutant-hating population of Waknuk, has fathered four children that are mutants is just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Jerkass: Alan. So much so, in fact, that following his death, it's discovered that he's made a number of enemies. Joseph Strorm is this trope taken to horrifying levels.
  • Kick the Dog: When David's little friend Sophie and her parents are captured, Joseph announces it triumphantly to the inspector with David still in the room — and then openly sneers when his ten-year-old son begins to cry.
  • Kill It with Fire: If crops are discovered to be Offences, the whole field will be ritually burned on a clear day. Old Jacob fondly remembers the days when aberrant humans were dealt with this way as well.
  • Kissing Cousins: David and Rosalind. Well, they're half-cousins, anyway.
  • Knight Templar: Joseph. As noted, he harshly punishes David when the latter makes an innocent remark about needing a third arm to tie a difficult knot, because he interprets it as David wishing to be a mutant.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Joseph Strorm has been instrumental in getting numerous mutants banished to the Fringes. During the climactic final battle his mutant brother Gordon, likewise banished as a child, singles out Joseph in the crowd and shoots him dead. One could also argue that the fact that Joseph has four mutant children could be a form of karma since heís such an extreme mutant-hater.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Uncle Axel cites this as the reason why Anne's relationship with a 'normal' man poses an overwhelming threat to the safety of the group as a whole; whether out of guilt or self-abasement or some other passion, eventually she will feel the need to confess all. This proves to be even more accurate when you consider that the man Anne plans to marry, Alan, reported Sophieís mutation when he was a child and will undoubtedly betray Anne as well, which is why Axel eventually murders Alan. Unfortunately, this causes Anne to become really crazy and she hangs herself.
  • Masquerade: David and the other telepaths, being physically unremarkable, are able to hide these powers from the 'normal' populace for a very long time.
  • Mature Work, Child Protagonists: The main characters are all young children at the start of the story, and still only teenagers by the end - however, the novel involves a lot of extended philosophical ruminations regarding the true nature of humanity.
  • Mercy Kill: Given that they've just "overheard" the brutal torture of their fellow female telepaths, this is what Michael and David agree will happen to Petra and Rosalind at David's hand, if the trio are about to be caught by the same authorities.
  • Mis-blamed: An In-Universe example. After Anneís husband, Alan, is found murdered Anne thinks that one of the other telepaths killed him since they were all opposed to her relationship with Alan, who was ďnormalĒ (and the one who exposed Sophie as a mutant). This is probably why she tries to expose the other telepaths when she kills herself. It was actually Davidís uncle Axel who killed Alan.
  • The Mole: Michael, the best-educated of the telepaths and one of the few whose ability remains undiscovered, joins one of the groups hunting David and company in order to give them play-by-play information.
  • Monochrome Casting: Rather oddly given the location, there's no indication of Inuit or other ethnic diversity in Waknuk. Black skin is called out as a particularly strange deviation found only among more southerly (probably remnants of the Caribbean) peoples... which raises some uncomfortable possibilities re: what might've happened to any previous minorities of color in the Labrador area, at the hands of the majority Caucasian population.
  • Moral Luck: At the end of the book, our heroes are trapped in a cave when The Cavalry show up, killing everyone else in the area. The bad news is, one of them is the protagonist's childhood friend Sophie, who is currently protecting him and his fellow fugitives. The good news is, the Sealanders' weapon doesn't kill her — David explicitly sees her shot in battle just moments before they arrive. One wonders how the Sealand woman's speech about how 'necessary' their actions were would've gone over with David and co. had it involved Sophie's death in particular.note 
  • Mutants: These are a common occurrence on post-apocalyptic Earth, and are called "deviants". However, seeing as it's a Crapsack World, they're immediately exiled or killed on discovery.
  • Mutual Kill: Essentially what happens with Joseph and Gordon Storm.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: David gets this on two occasions, when he tries to defend Sophie from Alan and Rosalind from his uncle Gordon.
  • Not So Stoic: Emily eventually shows herself to be this after Aunt Harriet's visit. And Rosalind's cool exterior is revealed to be a deliberate 'armour' for her real sensitive, vulnerable self.
  • Offing the Offspring: Joseph Strorm joins one of the hunter bands seeking out David and Petra basically in order to do this.
  • Only Sane Man: Initially at least, the Inspector, who clearly isn't as fanatical as the community he's posted to.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Joseph Strorm once slew a neighbor's tailless cat as a Deviation, without waiting for the outcome of an appeal to the authorities. Then comes confirmation that there is in fact a recognized species of tailless catnote  with a well-documented history. The inspector is fond of citing this embarrassing blot on Mr. Strorm's Knight Templar reputation.
  • One-Word Title: The usual title is The Chrysalids, but it has also been called "Re-Birth" or "Rebirth" in other editions.
  • Our Ancestors Are Superheroes: Played with, given that current Labrador society has only the vaguest idea of technology (they do keep a basic steam engine around just as a sort of museum curiosity, being apparently totally uninterested in how it could be used). It's suggested the 'Old People' had superhuman intelligence, the power to move mountains at a whim, and could even fly. A companion rumor, first mentioned by Uncle Axel, holds that they could also communicate with each other over long distances — just like David & company.
  • Pet the Dog: The Inspector reassuring David that his forced confession did not contribute to Sophie and her parents being caught.
  • Projectile Webbing: The Sealanders' helicopter is equipped with a device that entraps enemies in web-like, sticky strands. However, unlike most examples of this trope, the webbing chokes those trapped in it to death- slowly.
  • Properly Paranoid: Sophie and her parents at the start of the novel. As they grow more aware of their difference from the norm, the telepathic group as well.
  • Psychic Children: David and company in the early part of the book, and Petra later on.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Downplayed with the Inspector. He's Affably Evil and clearly much more devoted to keeping his job than appeasing the fanatical Joseph Strorm, but it's implied he participated in the torture of Sally and Katherine later in the story.
  • Radiation-Induced Superpowers: Nuclear fallout can apparently give you Psychic Powers. To be fair, most of the other mutations that show up in the book are pretty realistic and many, like Sophie's extra toes are things that can occur naturally. In fact, it's entirely possible that so much time has passed since modern times that many "deviations" are a result of evolution simply taking its natural course.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Rosalind's reaction when she's threatened with it is handled like this, with the normally entirely self-contained girl breaking down in hysterics at the thought of being violated by what she sees as a literal monster.
  • The Resenter: All the telepaths toward their powers, at some point.
    • Anne goes so far as to try to 'stop' herself in order to marry a norm.
    • Sophie becomes this toward Rosalind when the two meet later in the novel; not so much because she sees her as a rival for David and/or Gordon, but that Rosalind's untouched beauty — and presumed fertility — throw Sophie's sense of her own futile existence into sharp relief.
    • Gordon is this toward his younger brother Joseph Strorm as well. He was banished to the Fringes as a child for having spider-like limbs, losing his rightful inheritance as the oldest son to Joseph.
  • Run for the Border: David, Rosalind and Petra are forced to do this after being officially branded as outlaws from 'normal' human society.
  • Secret-Keeper: Sophie's parents and David's Uncle Axel hide knowledge about people with mutations, to the point Axel murders Alan to preserve it. To an extent, Aunt Harriet and Rosalind's mother (whose sad but unsurprised reaction showed that she knew why Rosalind was leaving even if she and Rosalind never discussed Rosalind's telepathy openly) leading David to wonder just how many other mothers might be out there willing to take chances for their slightly-abnormal offspring...
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: The inspector's early exchanges with Joseph have some humorous but deep set antagonism.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: David starts the novel on the idealistic side, but eventually winds up toward the cynical. Rosalind is deliberately on the cynical side for the majority of the novel, but the very end of the story, she's allowing her idealistic side to show. Michael is unabashedly on the cynical side from the outset, as is the woman from Sealand. Near the end, pretty much everyone is flat-out cynical about their situation, little Petra being the only exception.
  • Spell My Name With An S: The main characters debate about whether Sealand's name should in fact start with an "S" or a "Z." The get confirmation that it's 'Z', but refer to 'Sealand' anyway as it makes more sense to them.
  • The Stoic: David's mother Emily, based on her interactions with him. Rosalind is largely this way as well, even toward David her Love Interest at times.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Uncle Axel murders Alan in order to save David, Rosalind, and the other telepaths from discovery and almost certain death.
  • Tap on the Head: David gets knocked unconscious a couple of times and recovers without ill effects.
  • Telepathy: What sets David & company apart from the surrounding Norms of Waknuk, and by contrast is the driving force behind the Sealand society; it's called "thought-shapes" or 'thinking-together' by those who have it. They can communicate only with each other, and only receive what's sent (although Petra is beginning to evince an uncomfortable ability to detect 'behind-thinks'). They share this with the Sealand woman and the majority of the members of her society, with "normal" humans being the exception for them. It's hinted that Sophie's mother may have limited telepathic ability as well, but it's not something she's aware of. David actually tests her but cannot make contact.
  • Training from Hell: Inverted when the True Companions seek to teach Petra how to control her abilities, after said abilities first emerge. Petra's willing and eager to learn under David's tutelage, but it turns out to be torturous for the trainers because Petra is Cursed with Awesome.
  • True Companions: The eponymous group, out of necessity. Made explicit when David tries to explain to Uncle Axel why killing one member would be unthinkable for the others, even if it meant the their own lives.
  • Vigilante Militia: There are unofficial militias in the protagonists' hometown who remain ready to defend their land and people by fighting off invaders from the Fringes, who kidnap people and steal crops ready to defend their land and people. Of course, the residents of the Fringes were cruelly exiled to the limits of the known habitable world by the community as a whole, and often by their own families) just for having birth defects, so the people who make up the militias donít exactly have the moral high ground.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Very much averted with David, who makes only the most token efforts at appeasing his father's beliefs and mostly stays out of sight whenever he can to avoid being assigned chores. He comments towards the end of the novel that he never really expected to inherit the family farm, even before being forced to flee into the Fringes (and given the fact that his fatherís an absolute monster, David might not want to inherit the farm either.)
  • World Half Full: Despite living a world nearly irrevocably destroyed, David and his friends still end their journey on a note of hope for their future, and that of civilized humanity.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Most Blasphemies are discovered and hence banished to the Fringes as newborn babies by the people of Labrador, and any discovered as older children suffer the same fate. The Waknuk authorities searching for the telepaths also have no problem torturing Sally and Katherine in an attempt to find their location.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never do find out just what happened to Sophie's parents after they left Waknuk and were captured (although we can guess, concealing a mutant being a serious crime). We also don't find out what happened to Uncle Axel, or for that matter the rest of David and Rosalind's family. The fate of Sally and Mark, the telepaths who abruptly stop transmitting, is also left vague; the others assume they're dead, and we know Sally is at least deeply traumatized, but the concrete details are never given the reader.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: One of the most famous extended meditations on the theme.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: The main characters will never be able to return to Labrador after their rescue by the Sealanders — not that they'd want to, though.