Chocky: Wyndham goes out on a high note

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Chocky by John Wyndham science fiction book reviewsChocky by John Wyndham science fiction book reviewsChocky by John Wyndham

Following the publication of 1960’s Trouble With Lichen, fans of the hugely popular English sci-fi writer John Wyndham would have to wait a good solid eight years for his next novel to be released. During that time, the author limited himself to the shorter form, coming out with 10 stories. One of those short stories was “Chocky,” which initially appeared in the March ’63 issue of the legendary American magazine Amazing Stories, which had been started by author and editor Hugo Gernsback back in 1926. Wyndham later expanded “Chocky,” and the result was his final book to be published before his untimely passing. As had so many other of the author’s previous works, the novel initially saw the light of day as a hardcover bearing the imprint of British publishing house Michael Joseph, in 1968; this reader was fortunate enough to acquire the original American edition, a 75-cent Ballantine paperback, also from 1968. The novel was immediately turned into a BBC radio program that same year, and remained popular enough, apparently, to justify its adaptation as a British TV series, in 1984. Some Hollywood director named Steven Spielberg currently holds the film rights, and a recent perusal of Wyndham’s source novel has served to convince me what a terrific big-screen entertainment this might make, if produced with the requisite care and sensitivity; megabucks for special FX would not be necessary here.

As for the Chocky book itself, it is narrated by David Gore, a husband of some 15 years as well as a father to two kids: his 12-year-old adopted son Matthew, and 10-year-old daughter Polly. Polly, earlier on, had given David and his wife, Mary, a hard time with the bothersome antics of her imaginary playmate Piff, and now, it would seem, Matthew is going down a similar path, and with a vengeance. Matthew talks to his invisible companion, who he says is named Chocky, all the time. He tries to explain to Chocky why the calendars on Earth all have seven days in a week; endeavors to give the reason for the necessity of there being two sexes, male and female (Chocky, he tells his father, seems to be indeterminate, but is somewhat more girlish); and essays to explain the limits of animal intelligence.

Things grow even more bewildering when Matthew starts to pester his math teacher about a better way of doing problems (utilizing binary code!), and when he argues with his physics teacher about the fine points of the speed of light. He later becomes very upset when Chocky tells him that the new family car is an inefficient, clunking means of transportation, and begins to speak of a novel way of performing space flight by employing cosmic radiations! Pretty impressive for a 12-year-old … not to mention worrisome, for his befuddled parents! And then things grow even stranger, as Matthew, a nonswimmer, suddenly becomes proficient enough to rescue Polly from drowning, and a good enough painter to have his bizarre compositions win a school prize … when he had been hopeless at art before! A psychiatrist agrees to examine Matthew, and voices the opinion that the reader has reached long before: Matthew does not have an imaginary friend, but is rather in direct, telepathic communication with someone or something from outside! But just who or what might Chocky be?

Astute readers may notice that Wyndham has chosen to give his novel, and that titular outside presence, a rather cutesy and benign name, as opposed to something more harsh and intimidating, like Zarthan or Krag, and this fact itself might be an indicator of the book’s content and target audience. Chocky, it seems to me, would make for perfect Young Adult fare, but more assuredly has a strong appeal for more mature audiences, as well. The book is a very sweet and gentle affair, charmingly written … a pleasant surprise, considering that Trouble With Lichen had been a rather dry, fully adult story. But gentle as the book is, it yet remains increasingly suspenseful, especially when Matthew is kidnapped by persons unknown in the tale’s second half. Our narrator strikes us as being an ideal Dad, compassionate and wise; the perfect balance for Mary’s more emotional reactions. Wyndham withholds his revelations as to Chocky’s nature and origin until the very end, which keeps us guessing all the way through, and most readers will not be disappointed. (Hint: Wyndham was a science fiction writer!) During the book’s finale, in which Chocky speaks to David, through Matthew’s mouth, in the lad’s darkened bedroom — a highly atmospheric culmination — the being gives the nervous father, and we readers, some wonderful words of wisdom regarding life here on Earth (a la Klaatu in the finale of 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still). Thus:Chocky by John Wyndham

…intelligent life is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. It is a holy thing, to be fostered and treasured…

And this:

…You should be employing your resources, while you still have them, to tap and develop the use of a source of power which is not finite…

And this:

…No one can assess the potentialities that are latent in any intelligent form…

It is a terrific segment to close out this wonderful story, capped by a pictogram/illustrated coda of sorts on the very last page that just might leave the reader a tad misty eyed.

Chocky by John WyndhamGood as Wyndham’s book is (and to be clear, I found the book to be almost compulsively readable and … I keep coming back to that word “charming”), it yet presents some minor problems. For one thing, during that final revelation scene just mentioned, Chocky tells Mr. Gore that he/she/it is having trouble communicating while using Matthew’s limited 12-year-old vocabulary. But then it goes on to use the words “adventitious” and “horripilant.” Huh? But I’m willing to let that slide, as this might be an example of Gore’s paraphrasing what Chocky had told him. If I may nitpick further, though, Wyndham at one point references a book by sociologist/historian Lewis Mumford entitled Living in Cities. The only problem is, Mumford never wrote a book with that title. Perhaps he meant The Culture of Cities (1938)? Oh … and one other thing. Roy Landis, the doctor who examines Matthew and is convinced of Chocky’s outside, objective reality, is at first referred to as a “psychologist” and a little later as a “psychiatrist”; there is a difference between the two professions, as we all know. But these are minor matters, of course, and should hardly get in the way of any reader’s good time.

And Chocky will give pretty much any reader — say, from age 14 on — a very good time, indeed. Cosmic and sweet in equal measure, it is a fitting swan song for this most English of sci-fi authors. Wyndham would pass away one year later, in 1969, at the age of 65. But wait: There are two posthumous novels that fans greedy for more might care to seek out. The first was released in 1979, is called Web, and deals, it seems, with a spider attack on a lonely Pacific island. The other, Plan for Chaos, was written by Wyndham in the early ‘50s but not published till 2009. Not to mention Wyndham’s seldom-discussed, multigenerational sci-fi novel of 1959, The Outward Urge. Thus, three more interesting-sounding Wyndham titles for this reader to investigate. Stay tuned…

Published in 1968. In Chocky, pioneering science-fiction master John Wyndham confronts an enigma as strange as anything found in his classic works The Day of the Triffids or The Chrysalids—the mind of a child. It’s not terribly unusual for a boy to have an imaginary friend, but Matthew’s parents have to agree that his—nicknamed Chocky—is anything but ordinary. 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? When the questions Chocky asks become too advanced and, frankly, too odd for teachers to answer, Matthew’s  parents start to wonder if Chocky might be something far stranger than a figment of their son’s imagination. Chocky, the last novel Wyndham published during his life, is a playful investigation of what being human is all about, delving into such matters as child-rearing, marriage, learning, artistic inspiration—and ending with a surprising and impassioned plea for better human stewardship of the earth.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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