John Wyndham completist

Having read The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos as a teenager, and heard (in the wrong order, due to repeats) Trouble With Lichen on BBC7 I thought I’d exhausted the John Wyndham back catalogue, so I was pleasantly surprised to spot 2 more books in the library the other week. The one I read first was Chocky, which the back cover describes as ‘a sinister tale of manipulation and experimentation from afar’, though I don’t think there’s anything particularly sinister about it. It’s classic British sci-fi, told in the first person by a middle-aged man (David Gore) with wry humour and detachment.

David’s eleven year old son Matthew seems to have an imaginary friend called Chocky, but as Chocky doesn’t cause as much trouble as Matthew’s younger sister’s imaginary friend did, David and his wife aren’t too concerned at first even though he seems a bit old for that sort of thing. Chocky’s influence causes Matthew to ask unusually deep questions for a boy his age, perplexing his parents and exasperating his teachers. Matthew and Chocky argue about the backward nature of Earth, from the illogical calendar to the peculiarities of two genders and the inefficiency of road vehicles. When David eventually introduces Matthew to a psychiatrist friend of his, the evidence seems to point to there being more to it than a young boy’s imagination.

This short novel is strong on character (I particularly liked the portrayal of David’s sisters-in-law and their attitude to Matthew having being adopted rather than born into their family) but I don’t think it fully explores the potential of Chocky’s presence; beyond some temporarily uncomfortable publicity for David’s family there seem to be few consequences. There is a warning of what we’re doing to the planet (and this from a book published in 1968) and a warning about our oil-dependence, but ultimately the message is hope, progress and the potential of science. If you’ve read and enjoyed other John Wyndham novels you’ll probably enjoy Chocky, but it’s certainly not his best.

The other book, apparently only recently uncovered and published (though written back in about 1949) is Plan for Chaos. Imagine The Boys From Brazil written by Raymond Chandler and you start to get the gist. Our intrepid hero Johnny Farthing, photo-journalist for an American magazine, spots a facial similarity between a couple of recent suicides (which could be seen as murders, if you have a suspicious mind) and his cousin Freda, and pesters his editor into letting him investigate with a view to writing an article. When Freda disappears and Johnny is mistaken for someone who was seen near her apartment, the investigation becomes personal, and not even being warned off by the government stops Johnny from getting mixed up in a surreal nightmare he doesn’t want to believe is real.

Apparently one of the reasons Plan for Chaos remained unpublished was Wyndham’s problems with a believable American voice. He gives Johnny such a complicated American-British-Scandinavian background to try and account for it, and has other characters call him Limey or Pommy depending where they’re from, or comment that Johnny sounds almost like he was learning to speak American, and to be honest I quite enjoyed that as a running gag. I had a friend at university who was Canadian with one British parent, she’d spent about five years in the north of England and to us she sounded recognisably North American, whereas apparently in Canada they thought she was British, so I can believe Johnny’s hybrid accent. Possibly it’s just that the ‘American accent’ I read American characters with in my head is so bad that it ties up beautifully with John Wyndham’s attempt. Plan for Chaos is a good book as long as you don’t mind the mangled American, sliding from hard-boiled detective to sci-fi thriller as the novel progresses. The usual Wyndham wry humour is there in abundance and it’s a genuinely gripping read.

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