May 30, 2007
John Wyndham: Chocky
John Wyndham, who was so posh he had six names (John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris: he permed two from six almost at random to create pseudonyms for his work: Lucas Parkes, John Beynon), has been derided by other science fiction writers such as Brian Aldiss, for his ‘cosy catastrophes.’ But they missed the point. Wyndham wasn’t really a science fiction writer at all, and was much less interested in future technologies and alien life forms than he was in how people deal with one another, be it through the mob and the media (in The Kraken Wakes), at the ends of our tethers (The Day of the Triffids), or with prejudice and fundmentalism (in his masterpiece The Chrysalids).
But the cosy thing really comes from Wyndham’s impeccably middle-class setting, and this is present in Chocky in full flood. It was published in 1968, a year before his death and a long silent gap after his four great novels of the 1950s, but the writing often has a quaint and dated feel (“An agitated counsel resulted in the sending of an urgent telegram”). This is also brought out in the lack of empathy in and with female characters (“I don’t understand women. Nobody does. Least of all themselves”), which is surprising in an author whose work otherwise is positively socially progressive. But get past these quibbles and the ideas are there, at least in part strength, to remind us of Wyndham’s best work.
The Gore family have a visitor: adopted son Matthew has an imaginary friend called Chocky, with whom he has long conversations. At first David and Mary Gore don’t worry, as their daughter Polly had one too. But Chocky seems to instill all sorts of ideas in Matthew and urges him to ask questions that a young boy couldn’t come up with by himself, about the limits of intelligence, and the need for two sexes, and where exactly is this planet you call Earth…
The story proceeds in a not entirely surprising way, and in a sense is a bit of a long tease like The Kraken Wakes, but there is a clear (perhaps too clear) conclusion and turning the page after what you think is the last line brings out something surprisingly moving. In between Wyndham manages some surprisingly prescient stuff about one of our current obsessions:
[Your fuels] are your capital. When they are spent you will be back where you were before you found them. This is not progress, it is profligacy. … It is true you have an elementary form of atomic power which you will no doubt improve. But that is almost your only investment for your future. Most of your power is being used to build machines to consume power faster and faster, while your sources of power remain finite. There can only be one end to that.
Chocky, despite its ongoing renown among thirtysomethings who remember the three TV series which sprang from it in the 1980s, is destined to remain listed as ‘other work’ in the Wyndham canon. But that’s no faint praise, when the best of it is so good.