The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham is a 1957 science fiction novel about an alien invasion of a different kind. One morning, the unremarkable village of Midwich in Britain inexplicably cannot be entered. Anybody trying to get in is suddenly knocked unconscious by unknown means. Every living thing within this radius of influence, which encompasses Midwich, is in this state. Military Intelligence, in trying to get a handle on the situation, notice through aerial photos the presence of an otherworldly, silver object at the centre of it all in the village.
A day after this begins, however, it is over. The object is gone, and most of the residents of Midwich awaken unharmed. The event becomes known as the “Dayout,” and begins to recede from memory as nothing more than a bad dream. That is, until all the women of childbearing age in Midwich discover they have somehow become pregnant, and that their ordeal is only just beginning. They eventually give birth to pale, golden-eyed children that appear to be human, but are in fact something else altogether.
Though not especially long, the novel is split into two parts. What surprised me during my reading was how Part One, which takes up over half of the overall novel, is primarily concerned with the inexplicable pregnancies. The most we get of the otherworldly Children by the end of this part is their infancy, which is towards its conclusion. I honestly expected this phase of the story to be largely glossed over. It’s a science fiction novel written in the 1950s; I did not expect it to be too concerned with the plight of the women in this situation.
I was delighted to learn that this was far from the case. In fact, the book confronted the issue in a way that felt ahead of its time to me. While male characters do still occupy much of the narrative stage, how the situation is affecting the women and how they are reacting is at the forefront. Some of the women are happy with the prospect of a child, not yet realizing anything is unusual, but many others are understandably distraught. Guilt and shame send one woman into religious mania, others are accused of infidelity, and many more attempt to resolve the problem through self-inflicted “mishaps.” In this last case I found the book most surprisingly tactful, highlighting how distressing such situation would be for a woman rather than passing judgment on their actions.
It’s a story of alien invasion through forced impregnation, and with this Wyndham (who would have come up against strict obscenity laws) manages to rather subtly explore the tensions between men and women on subjects like sex, rape, and abortion. The most poignant moment in the story for me was between two of the main characters: Gordon Zellaby (an older, scholarly resident of Midwich) and his younger wife Angela. Angela had been valiantly rallying the community together in support of the women (including herself) in order to help them cope and keep the pregnancies a secret from the outside public (for the sake of privacy). Alone in their home, however, she glares at her husband and vents to him about how too-easy it is for a man to put on a brave face and support women in a situation like theirs, when men could never be forced to endure something like it.
Part Two of the book is no less fascinating, as it begins to dive into the question of what should be done about the Children. An idea explored about them that I really liked was that despite how many of them there are, the village is technically only dealing with two individuals; a male and a female. The Children are psychically linked, so if one knows something then they all do, but this is divided between the males and females. It seemed to be ultimately left up to speculation, but the notion of two beings inhabiting numerous bodies was a far-out concept I enjoyed.
The Children can assert their will over other people as well and issues come to a head when it becomes apparent that this superiority they possess over human beings makes it difficult, if not impossible, to subject them to human laws. The Children did not seem to have deliberately malicious plans toward humanity, but simply wish to defend themselves and do so in the extreme. They do assert the idea that their innate superiority makes conflict with humanity inevitable, however, as they show no desire to actually follow human law and “why would they?” becomes a fair question to ask.
Things become a question of whether humanity should accept their possible subjugation as the Children are allowed to continue to mature or if they should be dealt with permanently. It’s a morally ambiguous supposition, however, as again they don’t seem intent on deliberate malicious action against humans. They easily could subjugate the entire village completely, but their only violent overreactions were just that: reactions. They’re highly intelligent and mature for their age too, but they are still children forced to deal with a world of terrified adults.
I haven’t discussed the characters much in this review, and that is largely because they work more in service to the plot rather than as fully fleshed out people, which for this book’s purposes I think works just fine. The most developed among them is Zellaby, but even his purpose much of the time is waxing philosophically about their situation, in slightly meandering ways that even other characters seem a little chagrined with at times. I actually found the narrator to be one of the most interesting, though only because of how remarkably dull he is. His account of things can be rather brusque, yet there is much to read between the lines of what he conveys to the reader that made him an effectively unreliable narrator.
The Midwich Cuckoos is a great science fiction novel. Some of the writing is a little dated, but this is something I got over fairly quickly in my reading. It ponders some tough moral questions and does not supply any easy answers. I had honestly expected the Children to be a straightforward evil, but they were no worse than human beings, just capable of more than we are. They may act in an alien manner, but at their core they are still just children. So much of what happens is treated as an extension of nature and competition between species, but I can’t help wondering how differently things could have gone if cooler heads had prevailed.
My Rating: 5 out of 5
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