Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Midwich Cuckoos

John Wyndham The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
Our house seemed to be full of John Wyndham novels when I was growing up, so I'm not quite sure why I've only now begun to get around to reading the things. Part of the reason may be a reluctance to buy any edition of a novel other than the one with which I am roughly familiar from childhood, having grown up with the thing even if this didn't actually entail my reading it. The Midwich Cuckoos with any cover other than the classic Harry Willock design, for example, just seems stupid and pointless to me; although given my now living in Texas, I don't suppose it makes much difference seeing as I don't really encounter much second hand Wyndham around our way. Conversely, my recent trip back to the old country included visits to second hand book stores - or shops, I suppose I mean - the shelves of which were positively groaning with Wyndhams; and as I approach fifty it has come to seem increasingly ridiculous that I haven't yet got around to reading some of these.

The story will probably be roughly familiar to most people of a certain vintage as having inspired Village of the Damned, and by association, much of Jon Pertwee's run on the TV show which shall not be named: a rural village experiences a blackout during which time it is entirely isolated from the outside world, something resembling a flying saucer seems to be responsible, and when normal service is resumed it transpires that all the woman of the village are abruptly with child, including the virgins. Sixty-one children are born, all with the same distinctive unearthly appearance - blonde hair and golden eyes - and all telepathically conjoined as a gestalt entity.

For what is a relatively simple story, Wyndham gets a hell of a lot done with this one. On one level it seems to address our shifting view of the world, or at least human civilisation, specifically the view which had recently shifted from a belief in the global conflict of 1914 to 1918 as having been the war to end all wars, to a new understanding of there perhaps being no discrete limit to the horrors which might be visited upon us. Additionally The Midwich Cuckoos explores the notion of the superman or coming race as invoked by both the Nazis and numerous science-fiction writers who probably should have known better, and so here we are rudely presented with the possibility that superman might not want to be our friend, even that the thing which defines him as superman is the very fact of his being our enemy in Darwinian terms. As with the best science-fiction, all of this adds up to an examination of ourselves, and one which must have seemed particularly pertinent during the first decade after the end of the second world war - the question being whether we can afford ethics in opposition to absolute evil, the evil being that which must cause our own extinction in this case.

Oddly, much of this novel reminds me of certain supposedly classic alien abduction cases, and it certainly ticks a lot of the boxes - mysterious energy fields, missing time, extraterrestrial miscegenation and so on; although the earliest archetypal report of its general kind, reputedly occurring to Brazilian farmer Antônio Vilas Boas, wasn't really known until February 1958. This probably isn't significant as the fleeting presence of a saucer in The Midwich Cuckoos suggests that Wyndham at least had one ear sporadically attuned to phenomena of the sort.

The Midwich Cuckoos, for all of its wonderful ideas delivered with the minimum of fuss, nevertheless doesn't score so well as either The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes. The politely middle-class tone of the narrative may have aggravated Brian Aldiss, but there really wouldn't have been much point trying to tell this story as a variation on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The only real problem is that it sags somewhat in the middle, with one chapter after another related in conversation between our narrator and whoever happened to see something or else has some new idea about the children of the village. Still, one passes through the lull and the end wraps itself up with enough strength of character to leave an impression formed by the novel's more memorable passages, of which there are plenty; so jolly good show and everything.

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