September 2015

Brian Nicholson


Chocky by John Wyndham

"Used to be that my head was haunted," goes a line from a Pixies song I first encountered out of context and have since hung onto as its own phrase, even after eventually hearing the complete song and not remembering the rest of it. The line in isolation speaks to a sense I occasionally get of being estranged from the person I used to be, he who was obsessed with certain ideas I have since moved on from, whether those were traumas or fascinations or just general emotions that dictated greater bits of my being.

The title character in John Wyndham's novel Chocky is a head-haunter, an alien consciousness inhabiting the mind of a child named Matthew, questioning all the assumptions of Earth that have been instilled in him in his eleven years as "the way things are," from base-ten numbers to the necessity of two sexes for animal reproduction. If it weren't for the way the brain works, designed to make sense of the world in such a way whereby we take the world we're given for granted, Chocky could almost be explained away as a figment of a child's imagination. This is what certain characters, such as the Matthew's mother, wish to do, seeking to find a psychologist who will solve the problem and make her child normal again.

This sort of psychological reading can be applied to the situation of the book itself, to process its narrative as a metaphor, wherein what one is really reading is less of a science-fiction novel and more of a coming-of-age story as seen from a father's perspective. Through this lens, the alien, coming from a futuristic society, becomes a manifestation of all the ways the future will outpace us. Its seeing the world we live in now as backward and primitive is the future trying to assert itself, to get the adult world to a point where it is not continually defiling the environment their children will have to make their way through upon reaching their own adulthood. (There is a temptation to say here that worries about the environment, as they could effect our children, are more relevant than ever, but there is no real qualitative distinction to make between the anxieties one generation feels about climate change raising sea levels to a point where coastal cities are uninhabitable and what their parents felt bringing them into the world of the Cold War's threat of nuclear annihilation.)

The family's fear is that all these developments in Matthew's character, although in no way detrimental to him, place him outside the world as it is right now. They fear the mockery he will receive from his classmates if they discover he has an imaginary friend, and the plot's dangers, such as they are, manifest from the threat of the discovery of military and capitalist interests in advanced technology that are largely indifferent to actual human life, or members of the clergy who find notions of guardian angels to be pagan concepts existing outside the official doctrines of contemporary religious belief.

Through the course of the book, fairly short and seeming to only cover the span of a month or two, we see Matthew grow up, becoming more certain of the person that he could one day be, through this encounter with the other. This visitor moves on, leaving Matthew changed for the better, having learned skills he's been instructed in, but nonetheless saddened by the departure of a friend that has come to be a part of him. It is through an encounter with the other that we see the self develop, away from the genetic programming we've inherited. If the reader wishes to view the book on a larger metaphorical level, the conclusion seems to presage Julian Jaynes's 1976 The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, or at least my vague understanding of its thesis: That the very idea of a "self" as a concept within the brain emerged, evolutionarily, following a period where we received instruction within our brain as the voice of Gods, that we then followed.

Here it all is internalized into a story, fast-paced, almost a fable, understandable to a child, and maybe even enjoyable to them as a fantasy of what it would be like to have an alien friend. It's like a Pixar movie, if one were to be pitched primarily to an adult audience, with the idea that children can enjoy it only a secondary concern. Or at least this is how the NYRB Classics reissue reads: The possibility exists that this book's original readership was closer in age to the character of Matthew than to the character of the narrating father. Chocky could even represent the science-fiction genre itself, in its implantation of alien ideas into the minds of youth still coming into their personality, to make them into something stranger. In the hands of a preteen, the story preaches the moral necessity of environmental protection. Read by someone like me, childless but past the age where my parents had me, feeling like the planet is almost certainly doomed, one is nostalgic for a time -- 1968 being the date of the book's original publication -- where encounters with different ideas could have spurred the world in a different direction, away from the world of military-funded rocket science pursued by those who, growing up on science fiction, saw in the idea of the alien other something to fear and prepare to destroy.

Chocky by John Wyndham
NYRB Classics
ISBN 978-1590178522
176 pages