Tuesday, November 3, 2015

John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos

Although John Wyndham had written several novels in the 1930s (such as Stowaway to Mars) it was the publication of The Day of the Triffids in 1951 that established him as a major figure in the world of science fiction. The Day of the Triffids was followed by The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and then in 1957 by what is arguably his masterpiece, The Midwich Cuckoos.

These four novels were all, in their rather different ways, disaster novels. While The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes plunge us into catastrophe very quickly The Midwich Cuckoos was a slight departure in the sense that it was what might be called a slow-burn disaster story. 

The novel begins in a very low-key with an odd and rather puzzling occurrence in the sleepy English village of Midwich. Everyone in the village is mysteriously put to sleep for a couple of days, after which they wake up with no apparent ill-effects. It’s all very puzzling but it’s soon more or less forgotten. Until it becomes obvious that every single woman of childbearing age in Midwich is pregnant. Even including women who could not possibly have become pregnant. And all had fallen pregnant at the same time - the day that the village had been put to sleep.

This is certainly rather disquieting and it leads to a certain amount of speculation. The more thoughtful inhabitants of the village can see that there are some potentially very troubling aspects to this. If women who could not possibly have conceived are pregnant, where exactly did these babies come from? 

At this stage though there does not seem to be any great cause for alarm. All the babies appear to be perfectly normal. Perhaps there is nothing to worry about after all. Slowly however it becomes clear that there is something to worry about. There is reason to be very worried indeed. These children are too perfect, too similar to each other, they seem to think with one mind and they clearly have an agenda. And they are very very powerful. What initially seemed puzzling becomes disturbing, and finally terrifying.

Wyndham tells his story is a deliberately low-key matter-of-fact kind of way. Midwich is a very ordinary village. Nothing bizarre or exciting or frightening has ever happened in Midwich. Surely nothing terrible ever could happen there? Even what it becomes clear that something strange really is going on it all seems unreal - such things just don’t happen in places like Midwich.

This low-key approach has not pleased all readers and there are those who have found the book dull. This approach is however a very deliberate choice on Wyndham’s part. It is essential in order to achieve his purpose. The terror has to build very gradually and the story simply will not work unless the people of Midwich steadfastly cling to their belief that the terror cannot be real, until it reaches the point where it can no longer be denied. By which time of course it may well be too late to avert catastrophe.

Wyndham has chosen his setting carefully. Midwich is not merely a typical sleepy English village. It is a village that has existed since the time of the Norman Conquest and yet there has never been any real reason why such a village should even exist. No-one has ever been able to discern any reason why Midwich should exist. There is something peculiarly English about this. There is nothing utilitarian or modern or efficient about Midwich. It simply exists because it inhabitants happen to like living there. A theme that runs strongly throughout Wyndham’s work is his suspicion of the modernising forces that were slowly but surely destroying the England in which he had grown up. The very existence of a place like Midwich is an act of defiance against a modern world that that seeks to make everything efficient and useful and mass-produced and uniform.

The Midwich Cuckoos can be interpreted as a Cold War anti-communist tale and while I’m sure that was part of Wyndham’s purpose I’m equally sure that his concerns were much broader than this. This is a warning of the dangers of conformity and the loss of individualism and communism is by no means the only source of such threats - consumerism, the mass media and even democracy can be just as dangerous in this sense.

The idea of alien invasion by stealth was not new. The film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (based on a story by Jack Finney) had already dealt with this idea. The Midwich Cuckoos is however both more subtle and more terrifying. The aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers were clearly and unequivocally hostile. They may have been very difficult to fight but there was never any question that they should be fought. It is more difficult to persuade oneself that a group of children represents a deadly threat - there is an incredibly strong emotional resistance to the idea of seeing children as dangerous and implacable enemies. Cuckoos do not survive merely by laying their eggs in other birds’ nest - they survive by taking advantage of the maternal instincts of the unfortunate host birds. The cuckoos of Midwich operate in the same way - the natural human instinct to nurture and protect children is turned against us. The people of Midwich nourish the very invaders who intend to destroy them.

The idea of a hive mind was not entirely new either but Wyndham develops the idea in a rigorous and fascinating manner.

This book’s strength is that it not only explores the practical consequences of invasion by a superior species, but also the moral and ethical dilemmas that the invasion poses. It also explores in considerable detail the cultural obstacles that resistance to such an invasion would have to overcome. This is a gripping and frightening alien invasion story that also manages to be quite cerebral and psychologically and morally complex. Evil can be terrifying, but the children in this book are not evil. They merely pursue their own interests logically and with utter determination. Their interests just happen not to coincide with those of our species. This is much more terrifying than mere evil can ever be. 

In fact The Midwich Cuckoos is a perfect example of the kind of book that really does do all the things that the science fiction genre so often promises but so rarely delivers in quite such an effective manner. This is the thinking person’s alien invasion story. The themes with which Wyndham engages in this novel were certainly very relevant in 1957. They are even more relevant today.

The Midwich Cuckoos is one of the towering masterpieces of the science fiction genre. Very highly recommended.


  1. The British mastered what might be called the cozy disaster novel, one that is often set in rural England and effects ordinary people like this, and John Christopher's NO BLADE OF GRASS or THE RAGGED EDGE. I tend to think of it as the British Gothic Science Fiction School since the Gothic school includes books like Shelley's THE LAST MAN which could be a model for Christopher.

    What Wyndham does here that is so clever is take the most mundane of settings, a quiet little English village, one where you might imagine Miss Marple solving a murder, but not an alien invasion, and make it central to a world wide threat, then rather than show the mobilization of nations to deal with the problem approaches it from the narrow perspective of a man facing both a personal crisis and a species threatening one.

    The book is quiet and deliberate, but the logic of the ending is so savage that I can't imagine most readers not walking away a little stunned.

    Granted many modern readers expect Stephen King levels of violence and gore with perhaps kinky sex and pyrotechnics, none of which this book supplies or needs. The monsters here are all the more frightening because they are so like us and at the same time son alien.

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