This fall, NYRB has reissued a new edition of John Wyndham’s novel, Chocky,with an Afterword by Margaret Atwood. Wyndham is the author of one of the best SF novels of the twentieth century, The Day of the Triffids.
The publication of Chocky sent me running for my own shabby copy (SF/Fantasy Shelf, Bookcase A). It is a 1968 Ballantine Science Fiction Original with a tacky cover. I paid $3 for it at a used bookstore in Ames.
The Bad Thing about Having the Ballantine: it doesn’t have an Afterword by Margaret Atwood.
The Good Thing: you don’t need an Afterword by Margaret Atwood.
A note about cover art: Why does the pretty pink NYRB cover depict an androgynous child wielding a tape measure? On the tacky cover of my Ballantine, a boy is assembling a model of atoms, and there is a white outer-space-y shape in the background.
The Ballantine cover is appropriate for a science fiction novel about a kind of haunting.
It is told from the perspective of Mark Gore, the father of a very ordinary adopted 12-year-old boy, Matthew. One day he notices Matthew is talking to himself. Actually, he is chatting to an invisible being named Chocky. David is startled, but he and his wife, Mary, have had experience with imaginary friends. When their daughter was much younger, she had an annoying imaginary friend named Piff.
But then Matthew starts asking his parents and teachers questions they can’t answer. Where exactly is Earth located? Why is a cow’s intelligence limited? And the teachers wonder why the Gores are pushing their child.
Of course Chocky is the one asking the questions, and Matthew gets frustrated when he can’t answer. He doesn’t even know Chocky’s gender. Mark asks Matthew why he refers to Chocky both as “he” and “she.”
“But Chocky’s sort of different,” he told me earnestly. “I explained all the differences between hims and hers, but she couldn’t seem to get it, somehow. That’s funny, because he’s really frightfully clever I think, but all he said was that it sounded like a pretty silly arrangement, and wanted to know why it’s like that.”
Much of the novel is written in dialogue. It’s very simple, but effective. Is Chocky benign, or evil? It is clear that he/she is possessing Matthew, who is learning many subjects at a frightening speed. Suddenly he uses binary code to do his math problems He draws and paints pictures with a very sophisticated, if odd, perspective.
And then there is a dramatic incident. I don’t want to give away too much.
This is really a wonderful little novel. Is it a children’s book? No. It’s an all-ages book. Chocky was adapted in the UK in 1984 as a children’s film, but Wyndham wrote it in 1963 as a novelette for the magazine, Amazing Stories. Heraises fascianting questions about intelligence, possession, and communication. Yes, it’s a bit sentimental. I cried at the end.
NYRB reissued Wyndham’s The Chrysalids a few years ago. I’d love to see more of Wyndham’s books in print. Let’s hope they have plans for more.