by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 27, 2017
What makes for good storytelling? How is a science fiction story different from other kinds of stories? Chocky, John Wyndham’s last novel published in 1968 is a story about a David and Mary Gore and their two children Matthew and Polly, living in England in what appears to be the quainter side of the 1960s. I imagine its time and setting looking somewhat like the Father Brown mysteries on PBS. The story is told by David. It’s rather prosaic, with a light literary touch. David relates how he met Mary. How she came from a big family and the pressure they felt to have a big family too. When they apparently can’t they adopted Matthew. Then, Polly, a girl is born. The story jumps ahead a few years to give the history Polly’s imaginary friend when she was four, and how that problem was resolved. Then the story jumps again to the present when Matthew is twelve, much too old for imaginary friends, and how he acquires one anyway. Most of the novel is about the family difficulties caused by Chocky, Matthew’s mysterious invisible companion.
Wyndham’s novel Chocky could be considered a mainstream literary novel, a nice quiet little story about family life in mid-century England. What makes it science fiction is who we think Chocky might be. The mystery genre has a sub-genre called cozy mysteries. Chocky could be a cozy science fiction novel. But what does that mean? There’s already a sub-genre in science fiction called cozy catastrophes. Many of them are by English writers by the way, and I believe many cozy mysteries are set in England too, but an Anglophile appeal is not a defining attribute of a cozy novel.
I’m sure there is no international standard for cozy novels but for me, the size of the setting, number of characters, and scope of the plot are important factors. So a story about a single alien invader impacting one family makes it a cozy tale. I guess that also makes E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial a cozy, but Chocky is much smaller and quieter than that story. The story loudness knob for science fiction movies is usually cranked to 11. Gattaca and Her being level 3 exceptions. Chocky is about a 1 or 2, and I found that exceedingly pleasant.
I’m not sure if science fiction fans even crave cozy science fiction novels. Science fiction plots are inherently big, thundering, and exciting. Mostly mystery fans who love cozy mysteries love them because they are quiet, with simple murders usually solved by ordinary folks, with tame storytelling for sex, violence, and crude language. Chocky fits that bill nicely. Chocky is currently in print from NYRB Classics, the prestigious paperback line from New York Review of Books. As of today, NYRB Classics only publishes 13 science fiction novels, most of which are on the quiet side, and many from England. Maybe the NYRB editors admire cozy science fiction too.
I doubt Wyndham intended Chocky to have an ambiguous ending, but if you were skeptical and tried hard, the science fiction could be removed the story. I imagine if there were a sub-genre cozy science fiction, that would be one of the defining characteristics, the science fictional element would be painted lightly onto a story of ordinary life. Examples might be The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker or Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, both gentle post-apocalyptic tales that are a far cry from Mad Max rip-roaring tales of civilization’s collapse where it’s kosher to blast away anyone you want with your modified AK-15.
When I was younger I loved loud science fiction. Now I’m drawn to the cozier side of its storytelling. I think loud storytelling, both in books and movies became popular in the 1960s. I love westerns and constantly seek out old ones, and I’ve discovered the kind I like best were made in the late forties into the middle fifties. Westerns are a genre that depends on violence, but starting in the late 1950s they began cranking up the violence too until they became a kind of gun-porn by the 1960s. Special effects, relentless action, and comic book violence have ruined movie science fiction for me. I guess that’s why I enjoyed discovering Chocky so much.
Be sure and read Margaret Atwood’s introduction to the new edition of Chocky, “Chocky, the Kindly Body Snatcher.”