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When David Gore sees his 12-year-old son Matthew having an argument all by himself, he assumes the family is being visited by another “imaginary friend”. His daughter had had a very annoying invisible friend when she was younger, who insisted on having her own seat at table and demanded glasses of water in the middle of the night and so on, so the thought is not a welcome one. Matthew is a little too old for an imaginary friend anyway, David thinks, and hopes the phase will soon pass. But Matthew begins to ask odd questions, like where exactly in the universe is Earth, and why are there two sexes, and why do some forms of life have less capacity to learn than others? And he seems to be developing odd skills – like suddenly being able to draw, even though his pictures are distinctly odd, or understanding binary maths. As David gently questions him, he discovers that Matthew’s friend is called Chocky, and it appears Chocky isn’t so imaginary after all…
For an alien invasion novel, this is remarkably quiet and thoughtful. Chocky may be an alien intelligence and her species may even be considering Earth’s potential as a future colony, but there is no overt threat to humanity. She has contacted Matthew to learn more about life on Earth and also to teach – to try to develop his young mind with skills that will one day enable him to make some of the scientific advances that her species already made long ago.
David is concerned for Matthew, but intrigued too. His wife, Mary, however, sets up an instant mental barrier, refusing to believe that Chocky is anything more than a figment of Matthew’s imagination. She insists on him being seen by a psychiatrist, and David goes along with this. He too would be happier to believe there was an easy explanation, but is already half-convinced that Chocky is both real and benign. As Chocky’s influence over Matthew grows, the wider world begins to get hints that there’s something odd going on – at first, just teachers asking why he seems to be developing so quickly in some areas and learning things they’re not teaching him, but gradually Matthew becomes something of an unwilling celebrity, hounded by newspapers looking for a story, and eventually coming to the attention of people with even less pure motives.
As is the case with most good science fiction, the premise is used as a means to look at our own society from a different angle. Chocky is intrigued by the idea of family – binary sex is not a concept she is familiar with. In fact, she is only a she because David decides it would be easier to assign her a gender than for Matthew to be confused all the time about which pronouns to use when discussing her. (Nothing is new under the sun, and the wokerati would love this aspect! They could get all outraged at David pigeon-holing her as a single gender for the sake of grammatical ease!) The human reaction to Chocky is another theme – is it easier to dismiss what we don’t understand as a symptom of a mental disorder than to consider that there may be more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our current philosophy, to misquote the Bard? Then there’s the question of blood – Matthew is adopted, and for Mary’s family that makes him somehow less than their own self-produced children. As David puts it, “Some babies confer a little more equality than other babies.” Even Mary, though she loves Matthew as much as she loves her natural daughter, wonders if his strangeness is a sign of a kind of taint in his biological inheritance. And there’s also an ongoing theme of communication and how we learn. Often Matthew becomes deeply frustrated to the point of anger because he can’t understand the concepts Chocky is putting into his head, and at the same time she is frustrated by his limited vocabulary and knowledge of how things work, either mechanically or in terms of society, making it hard for him to give her the information she is seeking. Chocky’s species is perfectly willing to share their advanced knowledge, but unless there is a common level of understanding of science, it’s an impossible task. Try explaining nuclear power to a five-year-old. (Or, indeed, to me!)
There is a plot of sorts, but it’s a very minor part of the book, there merely to pull the story along to a conclusion. Mostly it’s a slow meander through the questions raised by Chocky’s visit, and a rather downbeat assessment of humanity’s readiness to accept new ideas that are outwith our experience. As always with Wyndham, it’s well written and thought-provoking, and will linger in the mind well beyond the few hours it takes to read.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Damien Lynch, who does a very good job, bringing every character to life and managing the children’s voices well – not something every narrator can pull off. His unhurried approach suits the tone of the book and allows the listener time to absorb the themes.