In 1968 three films were released that showed that Sci-Fi was versatile and capable of reaching a mass audience; 2001: A Space Odyssey proved SF could be truly mind-expanding; Barbarella made the genre sexy; Planet of the Apes proved that high concept craziness could make an awful lot of money.
Also that year came a novel that showed you didn't have to spend megabucks on special effects, have ludicrous costumes or build entire new worlds. Science Fiction could just as easily happen to you, right here, in the suburbs of Britain.
Chocky was the last novel by John Wyndham, a writer who had found a niche in science horror set against a contemporary, often mundane backdrop. His classic, The Midwich Cuckoos had already explored the idea of malevolent, somewhat alien children terrorising our rural eden. These invaders had been of our own making, reflecting fears of the nuclear age, but by the late 60s we'd gone one further and landed on the moon, and it's the possibilities and fears brought by these new frontiers that Wyndham exploits in Chocky.
Chocky is the most subtle alien invasion novel you'll ever read. Eleven year old Matthew initially appears to be either suffering from schizophrenia or in the grips of a demonic possession. But as time goes by, Matthew's conversations with the unseen being living in his head suggest knowledge far beyond his age – or even his species. Most dramatically he suddenly learns how to swim, saving his sister's life. But he also begins to produce amazing work at school, questioning some fundamental scientific principles. This begins when Chocky mocks the new family car, calling it ugly and primitive. She later backs up her scorn with ideas, that for 1968 seem pretty radical. Wyndham appears to have been influenced by the early green movement here, concerns that are echoed by the advanced society we encountered a few weeks ago in Under Plum Lake.
'You should be employing your resources, while you still have them, to tap and develop the use of a source of power which is not finite. Once you have access to an infinite supply of power you will have broken out of the closed circle of your solar economy. You will no longer be isolated and condemned to eventual degeneration upon a wasting asset. You will become a part of the larger creation, for a source if infinite power is a source of infinite possibilities.'
I hesitate to call Chocky a children's novel. Although it features an eleven year old boy as its protagonist, the story is told entirely from the viewpoint of Matthew's father. I suspect this might be slightly off putting for some younger readers, as the story is very much driven by middle aged concerns – how will this alien inhabitation affect his schooling? What will the neighbours say? What's wrong with my new station wagon?
But as a parent it made for very uncomfortable reading – what would it be like to watch your own child retreat within their own head, having angry conversations with an invisible presence? Although Matthew is the one harbouring the potentially dangerous alien, it is his parents who are truly fearful of Chocky through their own ignorance and adherence to the accepted facts of life. It's a brilliantly effective device, and one that keeps you guessing till the end.
A few years later came another suburban invader, Grinny, republished by Hot Key books in time for its 40th and author Nicholas Fisk's 90th birthdays. The book takes the opposite tack to Chocky, making the narrator a child, Timothy who tells his story in diary form. It’s an equally effective device that offers no benefit of hindsight giving the fast unfolding narrative a real sense of urgency. The voice also turns it into a pleasing period piece, with Timothy very much coming across as a child of the seventies with lines like this from Feb. 10th
‘Big family row today, BAM, POWIE, ECHHHH!’
Grinny is an an elderly lady with metal bones and designs on our planet. She arrives at Timothy's house out of the blue one day, passing herself as Great Aunt Emma, using a neat bit of mind control that plays on adults fear of being rude to people. The phrase ‘You remember me?’ is essentially all it takes to initiate the fall of the entire planet.
'You may come in now Timothy.'
There’s one particular scene that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake. Having sighted a UFO hovering above his back garden, Timothy is sent by his father to wake Grinny. He finds the strange old lady stiff as a board in her bed, eyes wide open, her entire body glowing. 'She clamped me with her hand and then looked me straight in the eye. I remember that her eyes still had a trace of the luminous, lit from within look about them. And she was still grinning… Everything seemed to go… furry.
Make no mistake, this book is really quite peculiar in places. Peculiar and also horrific. As the children attempt to foil Grinny they employ a succession of techniques, like the juvenile game 'eyes right', to trick her body into thinking it's malfunctioning. The effect is to make her disoriented and then spout gibberish. It makes the powerful wrinklie appear vulnerable, reminding us of her essential old ladyness. Coming soon after Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange there's something uncomfortable about another bunch of hate filled kids attacking an old person, no matter what her intentions. And let's not even mention the grotesque final two pages…
So that's the last piece for a while about kid's sci-fi. If you have any recommedations I'd love to hear about them. Tygertale will be back soon for another advent marathon. Make sure you remember me?