Midwich Cuckoos, The by Wyndham, John, 1957

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John Wyndham is, unfortunately, one of those excellent mid-century British writers who gets more and more inaccessible every day. He set his stories for the most part in middle class post-war England, often in very pastoral or out of the way hamlets. The more I read his stories these days, the more convinced I become that his language-styles are fading out of use, and the more stilted his prose becomes stylistically. Fortunately Wyndham always tackled pretty big issues, and even though they were pretty scary, he seems to me to have had a very civilized way of examining them. Ignoring a few important British contributors for the moment, Wyndham is the literary heir to Wells for end-of-the-world pieces, and by my read, probably influenced J.G. Ballard, who is just young enough not to be Wyndham's contemporary. Ballard beefed up dystopic imagery much more than Wyndham, who relied instead on fear-in-the-gut reactions and individual rationalizations to his scenarios, but if you look, there seems to be a common literary thread that runs through the two. This work, filmed twice I believe as Village of the Damned, is a good solid read that scares, and makes one think quite a bit. Four out of five stars.

Like other popular genre books out there, I suspect that most of you know the kernel of this story either from the book or the popular movies that have come from it. Some unseen alien presence visited the tiny village of Midwich and caused everyone in a six square mile block to fall asleep for days. When the villagers awoke every female of child bearing years was pregnant, even the virgins. Nine months later 31boys and 30 girls were born. Though they bore a family resemblance to their parents, they all had blond hair and gold flecked eyes, and as they grew they began to become indistinguishable from one another. They matured mentally and physically extremely quickly, and ultimately it was learned that they were psychically linked by genders, all girls to each other and all boys to each other, so that to teach the children something one only required the presence of one boy and one girl for the entire group to learn the subject. The children also developed the ability to mentally control ordinary humans, and could even compel them to do drastic things such as commit suicide. The children isolated themselves in an abandoned Grange Hall (which actually was a secret British Intelligence research lab) and had to deal with prejudice of the villagers, then ultimately a threat from the British Military Intelligence, which had followed them since conception. Eventually it is revealed that there were isolated villages all over the globe that were going through the same thing, and as humanity began thinking it would be best to eliminate the problem, the children started linking mentally on a global level.

Wyndham's writing style reflects a very reasoned and thoughtful approach to the problems created by the children. The book is comprised of various interactions between the children and their human parents, followed all by a retreat to a lab or a study by the humans for discussion and contemplation of meanings and possible responses to what had just happened. For this reason it is a bit of a talker. Virtually none of the book is told from the kid's point of view. At the risk of abusing a stereotype, it all seemed very proper British, to me. I think Wyndham picked up on this as a possible problem in the telling, as he even wrote a discussion between villagers who spoke about the English reaction to alien babies being born to their women and the American reaction to Orson Wells' War of the Worlds broadcast. To make his point, Wyndham reminds the reader that when Wells broadcast his drama on the radio, it was coast-to-coast panic as every American with a radio thought that the story was real. But the British villagers who had lived through the "Dayout" (the day they spent unconscious) still reacted to every discovery of a new ability of the children with skepticism and disbelief. What a very typical description of the difference between our nation's outlooks!

I think it is probably clear by now what this book is really about. In a one sense the book is about the plasticity of human genetics. But more to the point, its an invasion story where the invaders come in the form of our most important asset: Our children. But before the kid's existence becomes a problem, Wyndham dealt realistically and honestly with the problem of integration of the children into the larger civilization. He examined the social and legal implications of bringing a collective intelligence into our solitary society, and really got deeply into social issues of retribution for wrongs committed upon the individual, and the individual's right to self defense. He posited that allowing physical force that is greater than the threatened force should be a right recognized at law; especially for small populations that are at much greater risk of extinction in situations where conflict escalates. Personally I think that this is the best way for the little guy to go into the dark, quiet night, but I have to say that I also sympathize with the little guy. I can only imagine that sometimes they want to punch back. But it is in this context that Wyndham addresses his bigger sub-themes, the first of which is the way that the children use fear to control the larger group. He also delves into the ways that our societal mores that do not reflect the natural law do a disservice to our biological imperatives. The sub-question then is how do political motivations serve or hamper our primitive biological instincts, as the law is presumed to be an extension of that (though I could go on for pages with arguments both pro and con on that one). This is a question that all nations have had to deal with in the past, as war is generally viewed as an exercise in both attrition and political will. But Wyndham's examination of the same motifs is singularly unique and separate from our collective experience, as the issue in this book is not attrition, but extinction, and in that context, is complicated by the notions of doing violence to our own blood heirs.

Despite the denseness of this review, Wyndham really does a great job dealing with these issues in everyday terms, and goes to pains to make his points understandable. I do think that the language is getting a bit stale, here 50+ years after its writing, but the themes are timeless and the story is important and compelling. Make it point to get this one.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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