The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
Midwich was just another quiet English town until the Dayout — when an invisible dome surrounds Midwich for one day. Afterward, all of the women discover that they are pregnant. Since not all of them are married (or sexually active), it soon becomes clear that these women are being used to bring strange creatures to life on Earth.
When the children are born, it’s obvious that their genes do not come from this world. The children have golden eyes, silver hair, and pale skin. If that’s not proof enough, the children can telepathically communicate with each other (though only with members of the same sex). They can further telepathically create impulses in the minds of the townspeople. The children grow up alarmingly fast and their telepathic powers allow them to learn very quickly. It seems that one of their first lessons is self-preservation, and they use their powers to attack anyone they consider a threat to their survival.
Originally published in 1957, The Midwich Cuckoos strongly recalls many of John Wyndham’s other novels, which often focus on tensions between a majority and a minority that arise during difficult times. In The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham explores the needs that a blind majority of people imposes on a minority of people that can still see when humanity is suddenly attacked by unusual plants. Meanwhile, The Chrysalids explores what it feels like to live in fear of a majority when nuclear fallout has seemingly created a need for genetic consistency and purity. The Midwich Cuckoos turns the minority of children in The Chrysalids, who are the next step in evolution, and turns them into the next step in evolution: a fifth column invasion. Well played.
While reading The Midwich Cuckoos, I found myself wondering whether it was a science fiction novel or if it might be better introduced as horror. Aliens, telepathy, and Wynham’s career as a science fiction novelist all suggest this is indeed a straight up 1950s sci-fi novel — shelve it next to that book with the blasters.
Having said that, I actually began The Midwich Cuckoos expecting a horror novel since the story has twice been adapted for film, mostly recently by John Carpenter in his 1995 film, Village of the Damned. It’s not just John Carpenter. Horror novels often use a society’s values against the audience to create a sense of revulsion. For example, in Dracula, Stoker offers his audience a disturbing fantasy about eternal life (after death). Here, Wyndham takes the bond between the child and the parent and makes it a threat to the community rather than a foundation of it. Further, Wyndham’s suggestion that adolescents with dangerous powers pose a threat to society recalls many of Stephen King’s novels.
Of course, a novel can be both science fiction and horror at the same time, but I found it interesting to note that I usually expect horror novels to include more terror, suspense, and tension than The Midwich Cuckoos. For example, I would expect a horror novelist to introduce a female protagonist who wants to save her child while also being terrified of it and its threat to her community. From her perspective, we might feel the need to protect the child while also being repulsed by that need.* Instead, The Midwich Cuckoos is told from the point of view of calm, polite, and objective men. Their focus seems to emphasize different questions:
- If a new species, particularly one that seems to be extra-terrestrial in origin, is found living among us, and if that new species has powers that strongly suggest it can displace us as the dominant species on the planet, should we defend ourselves?
- The men also seem to invite reading the novel as a social commentary on the Red Scare. Are the children really fifth columnists hidden among us? Might they not be peaceful if not for society’s hostility towards them? What if our fears have created a self-fulfilling prophecy of destruction?
While a horror novel can provide allegorical social commentary, The Midwich Cuckoos took me to thoughts that I, right or wrong, associate with science fiction novels.
Regardless, I found it pretty good, perhaps in part because I listened to CSA Word’s audio production of The Midwich Cuckoos, narrated by Jeremy Clyde. Clyde is an excellent narrator, and a perfect fit for Wyndham’s polite, English protagonists. While I consider The Chrysalids a much stronger and more thematically relevant Wyndham novel, it does seem that the premise underpinning The Midwich Cuckoos has captured our culture’s attention longer. In any event, the novel is short, very readable, and I would certainly recommend it to John Wyndham fans and readers who enjoy science fiction from the 1950s.
*While I was surprised that this novel about children being planted in women’s wombs did not have a female protagonist, I was also not surprised that this John-Wyndham-novel did not have a female protagonist.
I have always loved this evocative title, but I’ve only seen the first movie.
Ha! I don’t like the title and I haven’t seen either movie.
Great review, Ryan! I still haven’t had a chance to read this one yet, even though I’ve seen both film adaptations — but I will say that Carpenter’s version does a great job of involving the mothers as characters.
Great review Ryan. I didn’t get very far with either this book or The Day of the Triffids, mainly because it was such a well-manned British disaster that I felt no tension in the stories to draw me in. Still, he seems to have included a lot of social commentary worth examining. Will give another try someday.