The Midwich Cuckoos: John Wyndham

★★★½

This is one of the books, like The Stepford Wives or Rosemary’s Baby, that has become an icon of popular culture: even if you haven’t read it, or seen the related films, you know the basic premise. I spotted it in the library today and, because I have another of Wyndham’s books lined up waiting to be read (Triffids, no less), I thought this would make an interesting comparison. For some reason I’d always imagined that Midwich would be a horror story, but it’s something far more subtle and sophisticated: a creeping, chilling sci-fi thriller which places its characters in the ultimate moral dilemma.

Nothing ever happens in English country villages; or at least, that’s my own experience of growing up in one. But Midwich, which initially seems the quietest, sleepiest and most mundane village in Winshire, is about to buck the trend. On one otherwise unremarkable September day, just after ten o’clock in the evening, a hemispherical force field falls over the village. All things within it – men, women, cows, dogs, birds – fall unconscious. No one can cross the invisible boundary without passing out, although the emergency services discover that anyone hauled out beyond that dividing line immediately wakes again and experiences no ill effects. For an entire day, the people of Midwich are secluded from the world and then – just as suddenly – the spell is broken. Suddenly the villagers and their animals wake again, and the outside world can rush back in.

But what has happened in those precious lost hours? What is the strange oval object dimly visible on an aerial photograph, which then vanishes leaving only a depression in the ground behind it? How can it be that, some weeks after this peculiar event, every woman of childbearing age in Midwich – be they wife, widow or virgin schoolgirl – finds themselves pregnant? And, when sixty identical babies are born nine months later, all with blonde hair and startling golden eyes, can the mothers regard them as properly their own children, or have their bodies simply been requisitioned as incubators for a host?

Wyndham’s book is most interesting for its philosophical approach to the issue. Those hoping for jumps, shocks and ghoulish horror will be disappointed, but for the rest of us, the novel offers an intelligent picture of a small community struggling to come to terms with a cataclysmic and ‘impossible’ event. But the potential ramifications are far wider, as suggested by the inordinate amount of interest that the Ministry of Intelligence are taking in the subject. Wyndham asks us to imagine a situation in which some alien force has infiltrated humanity in the most insidious and brilliant fashion conceivable: not by sending an army to loom over our cities in killing machines or spaceships, but by quietly inserting itself into existing life patterns. Who could ever want to harm a child, after all? And, by the time the people of Midwich begin to gain an inkling of the sheer power for destruction that resides in their midst, it may already be too late to do anything about it.

Channelling theories about interspecies rivalry and the survival of the fittest, Wyndham goes beyond Darwin to imagine the way that a challenge might arise to our own dominance of the world around us, in the most unlikely of places; and to delve into that grey area of tension between a desire to protect one’s own ‘family’ and the biological need to defend one’s species. It’s a very simple, rather quiet book which now feels cosily dated, as it was published in 1957 when an English village was expected to have a green, a pub, a shop and a ‘big house’. While Wyndham’s writing per se doesn’t make a huge impact, his ideas sparkle as he leads your mind down deceptively gentle paths into warrens of unease. It’s that Englishness, that refined eeriness, that makes the book’s title so much more fitting than the over-sensationalised title of the American film adaptation: The Village of the Damned. Naturally, the 1995 remake of the film transposed the action to America, because everyone knows that aliens don’t care about anything outside the USA.

This was a good introduction to Wyndham, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of his unsettling ideas in The Day of the Triffids very soon.

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2 thoughts on “The Midwich Cuckoos: John Wyndham

  1. Helen says:

    I read this a few years ago and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, especially as I don’t often choose to read science fiction. I still haven’t read anything else by John Wyndham – I’ll be interested to hear what you think of The Day of the Triffids as that will probably be the one I read next when I do get round to trying more of his work.

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