The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957) 220 p.
The last of Wyndham’s four greatest science fiction novels, The Midwich Cuckoos is the odd one out, in that it’s not apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. I suppose you might argue that it’s about averting an apocalypse. Actually, it occurs to me that most of my reviews on his books have been somewhat spoiler-laden, and that these are classic science fiction novels where it really is best to go in knowing nothing at all. Too late for the last three, but if you want to experience The Midwich Cuckoos to its fullest (and trust me, you do), stop reading now.
The Midwich Cuckoos is probably better known to most people as the 1960 film “Village of the Damned,” which, even if you haven’t seen it, has worked its way into popular culture with the striking image of golden-eyed children exerting their willpower on English villagers. (For my own generation, think of that episode of the Simpsons where the kids break curfew to sneak into a drive-in movie cinema to see “The Bloodening.”)
The story begins with the narrator and his wife returning home to the village of Midwich after a weekend in London, and finding the roads blocked by the military. Retreating to a pub in a neighbouring village, they find an old Army comrade who explains what’s going on. Anybody attempting to enter Midwich collapses unconscious, and the military has managed to map out an almost perfectly circular circumference of this mysterious field. After losing one observation plane from flying too low over the blackout zone, a higher plane reveals photographs showing what looks like a spacecraft resting at the centre of the village.
The effect vanishes the next morning, the spacecraft disappears, and the residents of the village wake up apparently none the worse for wear. The government covers the incident up, and life goes on. A few weeks later, the women of the village discover that nearly all of them are pregnant.
The Midwich Cuckoos may not be a grand tale of apocalyptic destruction, but it’s no less enthralling than any of Wyndham’s other novels, and it contains easily the clearest proposition of the most common theme that ran through his previous three books: that two alien intelligences will be incapable of co-operation, and will bitterly fight each other to the death. Several of the characters are more than aware that the children born in the village will, eventually, present a serious threat, but – like the mother bird that feeds the cuckoo – their survival instincts are hampered by their maternalism and consciences.
It’s not just this common theme that’s more present than ever in The Midwich Cuckoos; it’s also, unfortunately, Wyndham’s dated attitudes. Had this book been written today, even by a male author, there’s no doubt it would be told from a female perspective. Instead we get second-hand observations and impressions from male characters sitting around in parlours smoking and drinking, and there’s a lot said about the shame and the indignity of having children out of wedlock, or being a single mother. Again, though, Wyndham was a product of his time, and to his credit The Midwich Cuckoos does contain his first ever portrayal of the Soviet Union as something other than a stupid, childish empire which frames all kinds of obvious extraterrestrial perils as being a ploy on the part of capitalist imperialists.
The narrator in The Midwich Cuckoos is one of Wyndham’s weakest yet, a passive observer who isn’t even present for much of the novel, instead recounting stories he was told second-hand. The scholar and unofficial mayor of the village, Gordon Zellaby, is a far more important character (apparently the movie cuts the narrator and focuses on Zellaby entirely) and the novel would have worked much better from a third-person point of view.
Rather than criticisms, these are largely observations from an adult perspective, since I first read this novel in early high school. I really find very little to be critical of other than Wyndham stubbornly clinging to his favoured first-person perspective. The Midwich Cuckoos is a product of its time – an engaging, fascinating, brilliantly conceived classic from the golden age of science fiction.