25 November 2022

1950s sf written in the 1960s: Chocky, by John Wyndham

ChockyChocky by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back in the 1960s, when I was young, I read quite a lot of science fiction. and in many ways the 1950s and 1960s were vintage decades for science fiction. Later I rather lost my taste for it, or else the genre itself changed, and the newer productions did not appeal to me so much. One of the sf authors I liked most was John Wyndham. I recently re-read a couple of his novels to see how well they had stood the test of time, and found them surprisingly old-fashioned. In hindsight, the writing seemed to have the flavour of the 1940s, very much mired in the time it was written, like the writing of Nevil Shute.

But when I found Chocky in a second-hand bookshop, I was interested because I had not read it before, and it was also published later than most of the others, in 1968, which was the year of student power and student revolution. So I wondered what the atmosphere of the story would be like. And it seemed to be describing British middle-class life in the mid-1950s.

One of my reasons for reading it now is that I am writing a series of children's novels set in the 1960s, and so I am interested in books published in that period, and the kind of language they used. One of the ones I've looked at is The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. In that one, the language has hardly dated at all, and it could have been written in almost any decade since then. Not so the works of John Wyndham.

Another thing that I found interesting from the point of view of a writer is that several of the people who have read my children's books have commented that in the stories the children seem to have a lot of freedom, and are allowed to roam around freely without adult supervision. They have suggested that this makes the stories seem rather unrealistic. So I was interested to see that in Chocky Matthew and his sister Polly are given what is possibly an even more unrealistic degree of freedom, even after being in danger. And this in a book that is not merely written about the period, but in the period itself.

In the story an 11-year-old boy, Matthew Gore, starts talking to an invisible friend. His parents are concerned, because though his younger sister had an invisible friend, it was at a much earlier age, and she had already got over it. Also, as the younger sister Polly informs the family, when she had an invisible friend, she talked to her friend, her friend did not talk back to her. Matthew, however, is heard arguing with his invisible friend as though the friend is talking back to him.

His parents are worried because "hearing voices" could be a sign of mental disorder, and their concern makes Matthew sometimes wonder if he is going mad. Then his teachers at school start complaining about his school work. He starts solving mathematical problems using unorthodoc methods, he argues with his geography teacher about the location of earth, and with his physics teacher about the speed of light.

The end of the story is predictable and slightly disappointing, and the thing I liked most about the story was the attitude and character of Matthew himself.

There is one other respect, however, in which the story seems dated, and especially not fitting its 1968 publication date, and that is the sexist language. I've read many other 1960s authors, and few of them are as sexist as this. Yet another characteristic that adds to the 1950s "feel" of the book.

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