Margaret Atwood: Chocky, the kindly alien invader in John Wyndham’s last book.

The Forgotten Sci-Fi Classic That Reads Like a Prequel to E.T.

The Forgotten Sci-Fi Classic That Reads Like a Prequel to E.T.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 8 2015 11:39 AM

Chocky, the Kindly Body Snatcher

John Wyndham’s last sci-fi novel, Chocky, is more domestic comedy than allegorical catastrophe. 

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Illustration by Drew Weing

This essay is the introduction to Chocky by John Wyndham. The new edition is out now from NYRB Classics.

I was an avid John Wyndham reader throughout the 1950s, when he published the novels for which he is best known. The Day of the Triffids came out in 1951, when I was 11: just the age to be mesmerized by a story of carnivorous plants, a feature of jungle sagas for kids of the era and thus well known to me. I even had my own Venus’ flytrap, kept in a goldfish bowl and fed on morsels of lean hamburger applied with a toothpick. The fact that the triffids were genetically modified was not lost on me either, as my father was a biologist and genes and their ways were much discussed around our dinner table. It was due to my father that Wyndham’s books were to hand when I should have been doing my homework: My father liked a good yarn of the Boy’s Own Annual adventure-story variety, and if the yarn was fancied up in scientific party dress, so much the better. He went so far as to name an outsize thistle that grew in his vegetable garden “the Triffid.”

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The Kraken Wakes, with its deep-sea extraterrestrials and mechanical but tentacled human-capturing devices, appeared in 1953, when I was in high school and reading other sci-fi thrillers, such as Donovan’s Brain. I was not entirely convinced by the mysterious blobs that had zoomed out of the sky and taken up residence in the depths of the sea with the eventual object of flooding the entire Earth, although the flood motif was to be of interest to me later in life. The aliens set about their flooding plan by melting the polar ice caps, which showed a certain prescience on their part. Luckily they are eradicated, though not before much havoc has been wrought.

The Chrysalids, with its telepaths of the future, came two years later, in 1955, when I was 15 and beginning to read about the marriage of true minds in poetry. I already knew about mind reading, of course: Count Dracula the undead vampire could do that, easy peasy, once he’d shared a blood soda with any given beautiful woman. But he used his telepathic powers for evil, whereas the mutants in The Chrysalids used theirs for good. It was an encouraging change. As for the witch-hunting of anyone the least bit different that goes on among the citizenry in The Chrysalids—five toes good, six toes bad—that was surely a gloss on the McCarthyism of that decade: “Normality” was desirable and anything else was subversive, one way or another.

In my opinion, Wyndham’s chef d’oeuvre is The Midwich Cuckoos; it was published in 1957, just as I was 17 and going off to university, so it was a good time for me to be thinking about the consequences of being impregnated by an alien while unconscious, then giving birth to an alien species that ruins your life. The Midwich Cuckoos was certainly a graphic metaphor for the fear of unwanted pregnancies as experienced by the teenage girls of that pre–birth-control era. I myself had a dream about a highly intelligent nonhuman baby after reading this book, although the infant was green; so Wyndham must have been connecting strongly with the collective unconscious.

Certainly his readers thought so: He sold very well. These books of his have been called “cozy catastrophes,” as the pair-bonded central figures make it through and then set up a fireside-and-slippers new beginning, but one might as well call World War II—of which Wyndham was a veteran—a “cozy” war because not everyone died in it.

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Wyndham’s productivity during this decade was amazing: a book every two years between 1951 and 1957. He published two more books in quick succession—The Outward Urge (1959) and Trouble With Lichen (1960)—but by that time I was up to my ears in the Pre-Raphaelites and T. S. Eliot and whatnot, so I missed out on them, although I had not lost my interest in sci-fi as such. Indeed, I was slinking off to matinees to view various B movies such as The Crawling Eye (1958) and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962), mainly as a way of avoiding my term papers on the Pre-Raphaelites and T. S. Eliot and whatnot.

After Trouble With Lichen, Wyndham the novelist fell silent until 1968, when Chocky appeared. It was his last book: He died in 1969.

Chocky is quite different from the earlier Wyndham novels. It is not an adventure saga, and the human race is not threatened in it. There are no monsters, either animal or vegetable, to be fought or outwitted by the embattled hero and/or heroine. There is an alien that gets inside a human being, which is not a new idea. We sci-fi fans had already seen a lot of those, both in B movies such as Invaders From Mars (1953) and in novels such as The Body Snatchers (1955), both of which were obvious metaphors for the dreaded communist infiltrators that were assumed to be worming their way into the minds of innocent North Americans.

But Chocky is not an evil alien; it is a benevolent one. Its intention is to bring humanity to a higher level—the level reached on its own planet—by revealing scientific knowledge through the medium of its chosen human host, with whom it can communicate via interstellar telepathy. Unfortunately, it can only reach a host mind that is open and malleable. That is how it has come to install itself inside the head of young Matthew, 11 years old and hitherto unremarkable.

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What sort of creature is Chocky? On its world there is only one gender, but Matthew and his father decide that, due to its “older sister snootiness,” it might be more appropriate to call it a her rather than a him. As for her name, did the author mean to suggest a diminutive or nickname—in English nomenclature, the -y ending is typical of both—or perhaps chokkie, nursery slang for a chocolate treat? Readers do tend to picture Chocky as small, or at least this reader did: a tiny Tinker Bell–like nonhuman sprite with a waspish side to her. On the other hand, should the name be pronounced chokey, meaning either one who is chokeable (or given to choking others) or prison, since in the chokey is slang for being in jail? If so, the alien is potentially less benevolent, and perhaps even unpleasantly controlling. Given that Wyndham had an almost Dickensian interest in names, Chocky may carry both sets of meaning, the sweet and the dire.

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The narrator of Chocky is neither Chocky herself nor her hosting human being, Matthew. Instead it is Matthew’s adoptive father, representing the voice of an inquiring reason (as opposed to the emotion-laden reactions of Matthew’s adoptive mother, Mary). The drama begins when both parents observe Matthew talking out loud to an invisible entity. At first they think it may be an “imaginary friend,” like the one their daughter had conversed with in time past. But Chocky appears to be of a different order. She needs to have the things Matthew is looking at, such as cows, explained to her as if she’s never seen them before and finds examples of modern technology, such as cars, both clumsy and silly. With mounting alarm, the parents—and those they consult— eliminate the various possibilities. Matthew is not schizophrenic, nor is he a victim of demonic possession, or what might now be called multiple personality disorder. Could it possibly be that Chocky is what Matthew says she is: a being who lives far away, in another universe, but who can join him at will and look through his eyes?

Things get worse when Chocky shows that she can take over Matthew’s body as well as his mind. She can paint with his fingers, swim using his arms and legs—she uses this capability to save both Matthew and his sister from drowning, thus attracting the attention of the press and starting a “guardian angel” rumor. And, finally, she can talk through his mouth, thus communicating directly with the narrator while Matthew is in a sort of mediumistic trance. She has come to say goodbye, because her presence has attracted undue attention to Matthew, and the powers that be want to get hold of Chocky and her superior scientific knowledge.

Telepathy is a repeated motif in Wyndham’s work; it’s usually children who have this ability. The children of The Chrysalids use their talents to help one another, as do the children of The Midwich Cuckoos—all the alien girls are in touch with one another, as are all the alien boys. Chocky herself is not a child, but Matthew is one, and she helps him. Would it be good, or bad, to be able to know what other people are thinking? That is of course a question about the moral valence of human nature, and Wyndham never quite made up his mind.

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But Chocky herself has something to say about us. We are worth helping and might succeed in time. We are intelligent, and intelligence is “a holy thing, to be fostered and treasured.” Our technology, however, sucks, especially “oil engines,” a “deplorable perversion—dirty, noisy, poisonous.” Her solution—that we should use cosmic radiation as our energy source—will probably not cause many of us to shout “Eureka!” but that’s what it’s often like in earlier sci-fi. There’s usually some cosmic secret or gizmo we are too obtuse to grasp.

Meanwhile, Wyndham keeps the novel’s tone light: Chocky is close to a domestic comedy, much like E.T., a film I’m guessing may have been partly inspired by it. And lo, Steven Spielberg has picked up the film rights to it. If nothing else, we may soon come to learn what Chocky looks like.

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Chocky by John Wyndham. NYRB Classics.

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