Chocky by John Wyndham [book review] #1968club
Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a child? Apparently I did for a few months when I was about four years old. My friend sat next to me at meals, came out with us in the family car on trips to relatives and the seaside and shared playtimes with my toys. What she never did was ask me difficult questions about physics or tell me my dad’s car was ugly and inefficient. Nor did she help me create astonishing paintings or give me the instant ability to swim. But then my imaginary friend never came from a distant planet unlike Chocky, an invisible presence that disrupts the Gove family in John Wyndham’s novel.
David and Mary Gore are not unduly concerned initially when their 12-year-old son Matthew, begins having conversations with himself. They think it’s just a phase and will blow itself out eventually — after all that’s what happened with his younger sister Polly who once had an imaginary friend named Piff.
But soon they come to realise, Matthew’s new friendship is anything but ordinary. Instead of enjoying his conversations with his invisible pal, they seem to make him visibly distressed. Then his teachers report he is asking questions in class that are way beyond his knowledge level. And then Matthew becomes fixated on topics like the number of days in a week, the physics of vehicles and numbering systems.
He eventually comes clean to his dad; someone called Chocky is living inside his head and keeps asking him questions. Why, Chocky demands to know, are there twenty-four hours in a day? Why are there two sexes? Why can’t Matthew solve his math homework using a logical system like binary code? In the opinion of a psychologist brought in to examine Matthew, Chocky is not a figment of the boy’s imagination but another consciousness who has found a way to communicate with Matthew. It’s a concept David accepts more than his wife Mary can, particularly when she discovers some strange paintings of string-like figures hidden in Matthew’s bedroom. Things take a turn for the worse when the boy saves his sister from drowning during a family day out, a tremendous feat given that he hadn’t been able to manage even as much as a paddle earlier that day. The explanation Matthews gives for his prowess is so mysterious it brings him to the attention of the media and the government. Then he disappears for a week.
Chocky reveals to Matthew’s dad that she/he is as an alien consciousness sent on a mission to locate planets that can be colonised or nurtured to a higher level of intelligence and humanity. But in helping Matthew to be a hero she broke a rule of her mission never to intervene or seek to change what happens on another planet. By doing so, she has alerted the government of Earth to her planet’s existence, presenting a potential threat to its future stability. So she must depart. Her planet’s work on earth will continue, but will be conducted more covertly in future.
A hint here, a hint there, an idea for one man, a moment of inspiration for another, more and more little pieces, innocuous in themselves until one day they will suddenly come together . The puzzle will be solved —the secret out, and unsuppressible.
Wyndham’s novels were famously dismissed by Brian Aldiss, as “cosy catastrophes”. Jaw-dropping catastrophic events are in fact noticeably absent from Chocky; the world does not come to an end nor do whole cities collapse as a result of this visitation from another planet. But it is doing Wyndham a disservice to label as ‘cosy’ a novel that is stuffed to the brim with ideas, from child-rearing and learning to artistic inspiration and the difficulties of communication.
Wyndham suggests that, should there be another form of life on another planet, our ability to connect with them will necessarily be limited. Chocky cannot fully transfer all her knowledge and thus nudge the planet to a more enlighted existence because Matthew’s vocabulary and his experience is limited. It is, as Chocky explains to Matthew’s father, like:
… trying to teach a steam-engineer with no knowledge of electricity, how to build a radio transmitter — without names for any of the parts or words for their functions. Difficult, but with time, patience and intelligence, not impossible.
What was the knowledge that Chocky wants to share? She calls it cosmic power — a infinite source of energy that once developed can help earth reduce its dependency on non sustainable fuel sources. Long before the concept of global warming became mainstream, in Chocky Wyndham is dealing with the issue of man’s impact on the environment and its danger if allowed to continue unabated.
[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.
The ending, which contains an impassioned plea for better human stewardship of the earth, is one of the surprises of this book. Another is that it turns on its head the idea that an alien encounter will necessarily be threatening and scary. The month Matthew spends in Chocky’s presence is a strange experience, but ultimately it has a positive and hopeful experience because it introduces Matthew to new ways of thinking and seeing that enable him to mature and gain confidence.
On one level therefore Chocky is a charming tale about friendship and the rites of passage through childhood but look more closely and it’s evident that this is a book which asks some profound questions about our future.
About this Book: Chocky was first published as a novella in the March 1963 issue of the American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and later developed into a novel published in 1968. It was the last novel by John Wyndham published one year before his death.
About the author: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (clearly his parents couldn’t make up their minds about a name for their son) was the son of a barrister. After trying a number of careers, including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, he started writing short stories in 1925. After serving in the Civil Service and the Army during the war, he went back to writing. Adopting the name John Wyndham, he started writing a form of science fiction that he called ‘logical fantasy’. His best known works include The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), the latter filmed twice as Village of the Damned.
Why I read this book: I chose this as part of the 1968club reading hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings.
23 thoughts on “Chocky by John Wyndham [book review] #1968club”
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This sounds like a charming sci-fi novel, and I love novellas. Besides, it can’t be too cozy when people were on board with Douglas Adams’s dolphins from space in the Hitchhikers Guide!
I’ve never read the Douglas Adams, maybe the only person in the universe who hasnt 🙂
My husband made me.
Ah husbands have a lot to answer for
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Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
Check out this review of the book, Chocky, by John Wyndham, as featured on the Booker Talk blog.
Thanks for doing this Don
Oh my, I am looking forward to reading this one!
I was surprised how much I enjoyed it
I only read this a few years ago along with ‘Midwich Cuckoos’ and ‘The Trouble with Lichen’; I liked them all.
Im not familiar with The Trouble with Lichen but all the other Wyndham’s I’ve read were good
Gosh, this sounds quite creepy and unusual! Not sure it’s my cup of tea.. but I am intrigued nevertheless.
unusual yes but not particularly creepy
One of my favourite Wyndhams – but then I could say that about each one I’ve read. Cosy catastrophes is harsh and unfair – I always find them thought-provoking. He uses his ‘sci-fi’ elements to look at humanity, and for me that’s when sci-fi is at its best.
Im not familiar with sci fiction as a whole but the little I’ve read this year has definitely been thought-provoking
Like you, I read a lot of Wyndham back in the day but I’m not sure if I read this one. Obviously another author due for a revisit!
yes I’m beginning to think a re-read is on the cards
This book does sound interesting. I never had an imaginary friend, but I sometimes inhabited the characters from favorite books. Thanks for sharing.
I remember Chocky being published. I was already an avid reader of Wyndham and I had this on order from the library as soon as it came out. I don’t think it’s one of his best, but I agree it has come to be seen as prescient. And as for Wyndham being cosy, what nonsense! There is nothing cosy about my favourite, The Crysalids. That terrified me as a teenager just because I could see the psychological realism of people’s reactions.
I read a lot of his work when I was younger but this one escaped my attention. None of them struck me as cosy and anyone who thinks that after reading either the Crysalids or Midwitch Cuckoos is seriously in need of a reality check