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.
Dear John Self
I have never “derided” John Wyndham in the way you describe. Your research is incomplete or inaccurate. You are indulging yourself in loose generalizations. I don’t care if you want to spread your lazy journalism through your blog, but don’t bring me into it. What I think of John Wyndham’s work is a matter of record, and what I have to say about Brian Aldiss’s coinage “cosy catastrophe” is also documented. I also disagree with you that he was “posh.”
Go and check what I really said, then publish a retraction and apology, please.
Thanks for dropping by. I’ve removed your name from the post. I took my lead from this Guardian article, which I accept I must have misinterpreted, although it certainly seems to seek to place you (evidently inaccurately) among Wyndham’s critics.
Christopher Priest might not have ever derided John Wyndham, but one fact beyond question is that he is a pompous, arrogant twerp.
Goodness me! Was that really Christopher Priest? I can’t tell you how much that comment puts me off his work (I have several of his novels, although I haven’t yet read them). Even if you attributed an opinion to him by mistake, that is no excuse for behaving with such disgraceful rudeness in a public forum. Kudos for your polite and generous response.
Thank you Victoria. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I discovered today that my copy of The Midwich Cuckoos has an introduction by Priest (it was in storage boxes … that’s my excuse anyway), which makes clear his admiration for Wyndham’s work. So I did commit a significant howler. However others have expressed, in private, the same sentiment as you.
Just be careful, John, if you decide to review a book by Anna Kavan and want to say Priest is a critic of her work. My recently purchased copy of Ice (2006 edition) has an introduction by him too.
Those of us who are a teensy bit older read John Wyndham a bit subversively I seem to remember, he was frowned upon for some reason in a girl’s school in the 1960’s. That didn’t stop us of course so just reading about the books again brings it all back.
Re C.P. how reassuring to know all these people have google alerts set up on themselves and can step in and sort out our blunders, and hats off to your very gentlemanly response John.I’m now feeling mildly averse to reading his books in the light of that rather arrogant and public put-down which probably won’t bother him in the least, but I don’t think I could face the stress of his response to anything I might write about them.
Oh dear and I’m just about the read Ice by Anna Kavan too, thanks for the heads up there.
John – just catching up on your blog – I agree with the other comments about Christopher Priest. There’s a way to take issue with someone and that wasn’t it. Your reviews are fantastic and I expect they have enhanced more people’s lives than his books have.
Hello, I have just discovered your blog via Scott Pack’s Bookseller column, and have been enjoying some of your reviews.
Like Dovegreyreader, I read all John Wyndham’s books when a girl in the distant past, and enjoyed most of them very much (enough to read several times and buy several for my own daughters). I would have to say that I don’t think Chocky his best by any means: in fact, I recall (though don’t set CP on me, as this is from memory) that it was sold as a children’s book, whereas the earlier ones were aimed at the adult market.
Be that as it may, I didn’t enjoy it that much, I think it was rather derivative of The Midwich Cuckoos. Naturally, I adored that as well as The Day of The Triffids (of which the film 28 Days Later was a weak rip-off I would say), The Kraken Wakes and The Chrysalids. I remember how gripping and scary these books seemed when I first read them, and how they seeded the imagination.
My own view of JW is that he’s a very under-rated author who was a founder of a genre. I am sure there are many writers in generations after him who have had their imaginations seeded by his books, as well as mere readers like myself.
Neville Shute is another author of that (sort of) era who is unjustly neglected and unappreciated today.
Thanks for dropping by maxine, and for sharing your thoughts. I’ve seen Chocky published in Puffin editions, which would certainly support your idea that it was sold as a children’s book.
Funny you should mention Nevil Shute; he’s been on my mind of late. I’ve never read anything by him, but was recently loaned a copy of A Town Like Alice, which I should get around to reading soon. Ish.
“Ice” is a wonderful book. I was tipped off to it by Brian W. Aldiss in “Trillion Year Spree” in the late 1980s. The book is clearly a big influence on CP, especially “The Affirmation”, which I think is his best novel (“The Glamour” and “The Prestige” are also very good as are the later short stories – and don’t forget to search out “The Lost Deadloss Visions”).
Thanks for dropping by, Paul. In fact after the above intervention brought him to my attention, I picked up Priest’s The Glamour (I stood for about half an hour in the bookshop dithering among Glamour, Prestige, Affirmation, and another The title which escapes me). I hope to get around to it soon. And some Anna Kavan too…