PENGUIN MODERN CLASSICS
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was born in 1903, the son of a barrister. He tried a number of careers, including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, and started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1925. From 1930 to 1939 he wrote stories of various kinds under different names, almost exclusively for American publications, while also writing detective novels. During the war he was in the Civil Service and then the Army. In 1946 he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA and decided to try a modified form of science fiction, a form he called ‘logical fantasy’. As John Wyndham he wrote The Day of the Triffi ds and The Kraken Wakes (both widely translated), The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned), The Seeds of Time, Trouble With Lichen, The Outward Urge (with ‘Lucas Parkes’), Consider Her Ways and Others, Web and Chocky, all of which has been published by Penguin. In 2010 Penguin published his recently-discovered Plan for Chaos.
Poet, playwright, critic, fiction and science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss was born in 1925 in Dereham, Norfolk, and is the author of more than seventy-five books. He lives in Oxford and was awarded an OBE in 2005 for Services to Literature
With an introduction by Brian Aldiss
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Michael Joseph 1968
Published in Penguin Books 1970
Published in Penguin Classics 2010
Copyright © John Wyndham, 1968
Introduction copyright © Brian Aldiss, 2010
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author and the introducer has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Here’s a precious family heirloom, retrieved from the vaults – John Wyndham’s Chocky, no less. It is the story of a middle-class English family whose son, Matthew, has a problem, a hearing problem, of sorts. The story bumbles gently on until, in Chapter Eleven, the final chapter, all is revealed.
And in Chapter Eleven we receive a pretty sharp lecture on our faults and inadequacies, much of which rings true today. Yet the story was written in the early nineteen-sixties; it carries an antique charm. We are introduced first of all to the young teenager who seems to have an imaginary friend, by name Chocky. Nothing too unusual there; my older son had a mysterious friend called Gaux. Only in that final chapter do we find that Wyndham has been writing with a guillotine up his sleeve.
Mary and her unnamed husband, who tells the tale, marry after spending an uncomfortable night in a hotel near Lake Como. Uncomfortable. But no sex – not in the swinging sixties when Wyndham was writing? Possibly the scene is set in the nineteen-thirties. There is reference to ‘the wireless’ but not to TV, and the central character drinks an occasional whisky (without telling us how much he enjoys it) or the odd sherry…
Their lives tick comfortably on, with Mary, the wife, spending most of her time knitting. On one occasion, she ‘stares into the loops of her knitting with a slight squint’. She reproves someone who calls something ‘lousy’. The husband addresses his lad as ‘old man’; the lad, unlike many of today’s teenagers, tolerates this without protest.
So all told this is pretty comfortable stuff, except for the narrator’s veiled dislike of women. At one point he admits ‘I don’t understand women. Nobody does. Least of all themselves. I don’t know, and nor do they, for instance, how far this compulsion that most of them have to produce a baby as soon as possible after marriage…’ and so on. I have a suspicion myself that husbands might have something to do with this situation.
But Matthew, the haunted son, is the centre of our interest. We catch him on the very first page, arguing with his invisible someone about the length of a day. Matthew says that a day lasts for twenty-four hours; why would thirty-two hours be more sensible? This invisible someone, Chocky, continues to question Matthew about many of the perceived absurdities of our terrestrial arrangements. For instance, it is such a waste of energy that our cars have wheels… We are still locked into the love of our discovery of the wheel.
Such comments are the salt of the book. ‘Most of your power is being used to build machines to consume power faster and faster, while your sources of power remain finite.’ Chocky’s comments have a point that remains sharp fifty or more years later.
It is fortunate that no one in Wyndham’s cosy family ever read any science fiction, or they would have guessed the secret of Matthew’s unseen companion by page ten, and then we would have had no book. Nor would we have perceived the lonely pinpoint of reason dwelling in the wastes of space.
There is some mystery about the original date of publication of Chocky. Penguin have 1968 as first publication by the firm of Michael Joseph. Infallible John Clute, in his Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, gives 1963. He must be right. My belief is that it appeared first in Good Housekeeping. I thought that was carrying cosyness too far… Yet even today one can feel the itch of attraction in having a member of an unguessably remote planet in conversation with Earthlings.
In the days when Wyndham himself was an Earthling, I knew him slightly, sometimes drinking coffee with him in company with four other people. He was always modest and courteous. He liked to tell the tale of how he would go to his local pub and drink a sherry on a Sunday. On one occasion, two gardeners were there, chatting about their allotments. One gardner said to the other, ‘I got a great big weed growing behind my shed. I reckon it be a triffid!’ John knew he had given a new word to the English language! Nevertheless, he retained his abstemious habits. When invited to the Film Festival in Rio de Janeiro, he turned it down on the grounds that ‘he might have the company of heavy drinkers like Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss…’
We would have enjoyed his company, even sober. His early stories were published in that pleasant family magazine, Passing Show, in the nineteen-thirties. The Day of the Triffi ds first app
eared in 1951, eventually finding itself on the Penguin list, together with John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. In 1961, I found myself conversing with Allen Lane, founder and chairman of Penguin Books. Lane said that both these books sold as many copies per week as any Agatha Christie detective novel. He asked me, ‘Is there any more of this stuff around?’
Of course there was. I was engaged as editor. I brought many authors on to his list, where we avoided the usual generic signifiers (blonde standing in front of silver needle spaceship), employing such artists as Max Ernst on our covers. I also edited the three anthologies which eventually became the long-lived Science Fiction Omnibus.
So now we have Chocky on the Penguin Modern Classics list, looking fresh and new. Not least for nostalgic reasons, it should be popular. In the words of Chocky his/her self, ‘I was sent here to find out what kind of a planet this is.’
A receptive one, I’d guess.
Brian Aldiss, 2010
It was in the spring of the year that Matthew reached twelve that I first became aware of Chocky. Late April, I think, or possibly early May; anyway I am sure it was the spring because on that Saturday afternoon I was out in the garden shed unenthusiastically oiling the mower for labours to come when I heard Matthew’s voice speaking close outside the window. It surprised me; I had had no idea he was anywhere about until I heard him say, on a note of distinct irritation, and apropos, apparently, of nothing:
‘I don’t know why. It’s just the way things are.’
I assumed that he had brought one of his friends into the garden to play, and that the question which prompted his remark had been asked out of earshot. I listened for the reply, but there was none. Presently, after a pause, Matthew went on, rather more patiently:
‘Well, the time the world takes to turn round is a day, and that’s twenty-four hours, and…’
He broke off, as if at some interruption, though it was quite inaudible to me. Then he repeated:
‘I don’t know why. And I don’t see why thirty-two hours would be more sensible. Anyway, twenty-four hours do make a day, everybody knows that, and seven days make a week…’ Again he appeared to be cut short. Once more he protested. ‘I don’t see why seven is a sillier number than eight…’
Evidently there was another inaudible interruption, then he went on: ‘Well, who wants to divide a week into halves and quarters, anyway? What’d be the point of it? A week just is seven days. And four weeks ought to make a month, only usually it’s thirty days or thirty-one days…’ – ‘No, it’s never thirty-two days. You’ve got a sort of thing about thirty-two…’ – ‘ Yes, I can see that, but we don’t want a week of eight days. Besides, the world goes round the sun in three hundred and sixty-five days, and nobody can do anything that will make that turn into proper halves and quarters.’
At that point the peculiarity of this one-sided conversation aroused my curiosity enough to make me put my head cautiously out of the open window. The garden was sunny, and that side of the shed was sheltered and warm. Matthew was seated on an upturned seed-tray, leaning back against the brick wall of the shed just under the window, so that I was looking down on the top of his fair-haired head. He seemed to be gazing straight across the lawn and into the bushes beyond. There was no sign of a companion, nor of any place one could be hidden.
Matthew, however, went on:
‘There are twelve of these months in a year, so…’ He broke off again, his head a little tilted as though he were listening. I listened, too, but there was not a whisper of any other voice to be heard.
‘It’s not just stupid,’ he objected. ‘It’s like that because no kind of same-sized months would fit into a year properly, even if…’
He broke off once more, but this time the source of the interruption was far from inaudible. Colin, the neighbour’s boy, had shouted from the next garden. Matthew’s air of preoccupation dropped away instantly. He jumped up with a friendly answering whoop, and ran off across the lawn towards the gap in the dividing hedge.
I turned back to my oiling, puzzled, but reassured by the sound of normal boyish noises from next door.
I put the incident out of my mind for the time being, but it recurred to me that evening when the children had both gone upstairs to bed, and I found myself vaguely troubled by it. Not so much by the conversation – for, after all, there is nothing unusual in any child holding muttered exchanges with him, or her, self – as by the form of it: the consistency of its assumption that a second party was involved, and the improbable subject for argument. I was prompted after a time to ask:
‘Darling, have you noticed anything odd – no, I don’t exactly mean odd – anything unusual, about Matthew lately?’
Mary lowered her knitting, and looked at me over it.
‘Oh, so you have, have you? Though I agree “odd” isn’t exactly the word. Was he listening to nothing or talking to himself?’
‘Talking–well, both really,’ I said. ‘How long has this been going on?’
‘The first time I noticed it would be – oh, I suppose about two or three weeks ago.’
I nodded. It did not greatly surprise me that I had not encountered Matthew in the mood before. I saw little of either of the children during the week. She went on:
‘It didn’t seem worth bothering about. Just another of those crazes children get, you know. Like the time when he was being a car, and had to steer himself round corners, and change gear on hills, and put on the brake whenever he stopped. Fortunately, that wore off quite soon. Probably this will, too.’
There was more hope than conviction in her tone.
‘You’re not worried about him?’ I asked.
‘Oh, good gracious, no. He’s perfectly well. What I am more worried about is us.’
‘Well, it begins to look to me rather as if we may have got another Piff, or something like her, in the family.’
I felt, and probably looked, dismayed. I shook my head.
‘Oh, no! Don’t say it. Not another Piff!’ I protested.
Mary and I had met sixteen years before, and had married a year later.
Our meeting had been, according to the view one takes of these things, either entirely fortuitous, or else worked out with an unnecessarily cunning deviousness by destiny. At any rate there had been nothing conventional about it; and as far as either of us could recollect we had never been introduced.
It was the year in which, as a reward for several previous years’ conscientious application to duty, I had risen to the status of junior partner in the firm of Ainslie and Tallboy, Chartered Accountants, of Bedford Square. At this distance of time I am not sure whether it was celebration of the achievement, or the fading effect of the work that had led to it, which determined me to spend my summer holidays as far from my routine concerns as I could get. Probably it was a bit of both. At any rate, the urge to fresh woods and pastures new was strongly upon me.
The world was, in theory, open to me. In practice, however, it was narrowed by considerations of cost, the time available, and the travel allowance then in force, until it appeared not to extend beyond Europe. Still, there is quite a lot of Europe.
At first I toyed with the idea of an Aegean cruise. The prospect of sunlit isles set in a cerulean sea dazzled me, and there were siren songs in my ears. Unfortunately, it seemed upon investigation, all berths on such cruises except those at a prohibitive first-class rate, had been booked since the previous October.
Then I had thoughts of setting out vagabond-wise, wandering through the countryside care-and-fancy-free, but, on reflection, it seemed to me that an unknowledgeable traveller with no more linguistic equipment than indifferent schoolboy French would be unlikely to make the best use of the limited time.
This brought me, as it has brought many thousands of others, to considering the merits of a tour. After all, one would be guided through many interesting places on the way.
I reconsidered Greece, and discovered it would take a long time to get there and back by road, even at hundreds of miles a day. In the end, I reluctantly postponed the glories of Greece for exploration at a future date, and contemplated the grandeurs of Rome, which were, it seemed, much more readily available.
For Mary Bosworth that had been a time of hiatus. She had come down from London University with, she hoped, a degree in history, and was still wondering how best she could employ it – if, indeed, she had it. With her friend, Melissa Campley, she decided that, after the constrictions of exam syllabuses, the gap might be filled by a holiday abroad which would expand their minds. There was some difference of opinion on the location most likely to do this efficiently. Mary had favoured the idea of Yugoslavia which was then cautiously setting its door more ajar to tourists from the West. Melissa had inclined to Rome as the destination, partly because she disapproved of Communism, on principle, but more because she envisaged the journey to Rome as a form of pilgrimage. Mary’s doubts on the validity of a pilgrimage conducted by tourist coach she brushed aside. Such a pilgrimage, with a guide to improve your knowledge of the world as you travelled was, she pointed out, certainly no less valid, and in several ways more commendable, than a pilgrimage by cavalcade enlivened en route with dubious stories. The argument had eventually been settled by the travel agency when it warned Mary of mysterious delays in the granting of Yugoslavian visas just then. So Rome it was to be.
Two days before they were due to leave Melissa went down with mumps. Mary, after ringing up a number of friends and finding none of them willing to take Melissa’s place at such short notice, had eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, presented herself to take her place, unaccompanied, on a tour not of her own choice.
Thus, it was by a series of hitches and second-bests that Mary and I, with twenty-five others, had come to form the complement of a startling pink and orange coach which, with the words GOPLACES TOURS LTD in gleaming golden letters on its sides, trundled us southwards across Europe.