Friday, May 25, 2012

This isn't alien possession

How can science fiction be subtle? When it doesn't throw wonky techno junk in your face? Or maybe when it doesn't dwell too much on science fiction themes such as intergalactic warfare or alien invasion? If we answer yes to these questions, then John Wyndham's novel, Chocky, is indeed one subtle SF novel. Its controlled pace and narrative style are something that we seldom encounter in this genre.

Eleven-year-old Matthew Gore appears to have an imaginary friend, often observed having conversations with something unseen. His parents don't pay much attention to it, even though both feel that this is highly unusual for a boy of his age. However, Matthew's conversations become more and more unconventional and intricate as the days progress: why humans have two sexes, why the Earth follows a 7-day week when an 8-week period would make more sense, why humans count to 10 when the binary number system appears to be more practical.

What's more unsettling than these conversations is the entity that Matthew talks to. His parents notice that Matthew constantly switches between the masculine and the feminine person when he's talking to them about this 'friend', which they name Chocky. Matthew's father, David, is the more sympathetic parent, as compared to his mother who's always on the verge of a breakdown every time the subject of Chocky comes up.

Actually, Matthew's father makes up the whole narrative of the novel. And because of this, we see it first from a skeptic's point of view and then finally to one who's accepting of the fact that Chocky is indeed an extraterrestrial being. We soon learn that Chocky is able to talk to Matthew using channels involving the mind, channels which are unhindered by the physical limits of time and space.

It's easy to suspend one's disbelief when reading Chocky. Its subtle feel to it makes it more believable than most novels in this genre. When Chocky explains to Matthew's father that mind communication is efficient because it doesn't factor in the speed of light, you just keep on reading, somehow taking this bit as fact. Who knows, maybe this form of communication is the way to go after all.

Wyndham avoids technical SF jargon in Chocky. This is given a reason though. Apparently, Matthew's 11-year-old brain isn't mature enough to understand all the techno mumbo jumbo that Chocky is willing to impart. Even the binary number system is reduced to the letters Y and N when Matthew explains it to his parents.

Chocky is perfect for readers who are not too keen on reading the SF genre. And even though it was written more than 50 years ago, people will still feel uneasy with its premise. Let's face it, the idea of aliens suddenly talking to you is highly disturbing, no?

Read this book if:

  1. You love all the novels of John Wyndham.
  2. You're not really a fan of SF but willing to try out the genre.
  3. You had an imaginary friend when you were a kid.


Kaz said...

Hi Peter,

One of the things that sets Wyndham's books apart from the bulk of the SF genre is is lack of focus on the technology of the future - and, as you say, all the inter-galactic battles that are so common. His stories are very much about the personal experience. In this case, Earth as a potential destination for colonisation by an alien species is investigated by the means of a scout who is able to use the mind of a child to 'travel' here and try to come to grips with the planet and its existing inhabitants.

Rather than the focus of the story being the potential colonisation, it's the human experience of this intensely personal invasion and its effects on Matthew's immediate world, and Matthew himself.

I think it's one of the things that makes Wyndham's books so timeless despite their, now, vintage quality. We can all imagine ourselves into the positions of the individual characters in his stories - and they are both accessible and sometimes deeply disturbing for that reason. He doesn't pull his punches when it comes to exposing the frailties of human nature!

Are you going to keep going with the others? I can feel a Wyndham re-reading jag coming on in response!! I'll probably start with The Chrysalids, because it's still, by far, my absolute favourite.


Dragonfly Daydreams said...

I thought I had read all of Wyhdham's novels, but now I'm not sure that I've read this one!
I love the creepy, slightly sinister edge he injects into most of his stories.

Visual Velocity said...

The book has an interesting premise. Extraterrestrials having conversations with a kid sounds fresh. I also love the book cover.

Have you read Contact?

Peter S. said...

Hello, Kaz! Yes, I will be reading his other works. I'm still looking for a copy of The Kraken Wakes. I just love reading your thoughts about Wyndham's novels. Thanks for sharing, Kaz!

Hello, Dragonfly Dreams! Yes, exactly! There's always a sinister undertone to his works.

Hello, Visual Velocity! No, I haven't read Contact yet, but I've seen the movie though.

C.B. James said...

I'm already looking for these editions. I've been jealous of the covers since your last post about them. Now I may just go ahead and get this book any way I can. Sounds like an excellent summer read.

Peter S. said...

Hello, C. B. James! It is!