The Midwich Cuckoos
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I can't recall if this was the first novel by John Wyndham that I read. If so, it probably was after seeing Village of the Damned. If not, it might have been the second, and the first would be another I hope to re-read and review soon. Wyndham is said to have disliked being labeled a science fiction writer (earlier in his career he wrote detective stories), but most of his books and stories published under that name are definitely within the SF realm. Because this one has been adapted to film several times it is likely to be the one for which he is most recognized. It is also hard to remember my initial reaction to this book. This time around I found it a quick and entertaining read but lacking in several particulars. The most obvious one was how the pregnancies of various women were referenced; very proper, very British, with discussions of the mechanics of sex and propagation practically non-existent. Not surprising considering the publication date, but glaringly obvious today.
It is written in first person, yet at times it verges on third person since the narrator (Richard Gayford) resorts to reporting hearsay evidence from several other characters. I had thought Wyndham might have written himself into the story as the narrator, since Gayford is a writer too, but the birthdate given (September 26, which is mine too) doesn't match the author's. Gayford and his wife were spared the tragedy that befell others in Midwich because they had spent the fateful day in London in celebration of his birthday. When they attempt to return to their cottage they are blocked by others, including military personnel, who tell them anyone who crosses a certain invisible barrier surrounding the village loses consciousness. All observations, including from airplanes, tells them that nothing and no one is moving in Midwich. Anyone visible is sprawled on the ground as if asleep or possibly dead. This situation continues for approximately twenty-four hours, whereupon officals observe that test animals sent into the quarantined area do not lose consciousness, followed shortly thereafter by the affected people and animals returning to consciousness. No explanation of the phenomenon satisfies all elements of the situation, but since there is a research facility (The Grange) located within the village, the military suspects an experiment gone awry might be the cause, and thus Midwich becomes the subject of intense scrutiny.
A couple of months pass and things begin happening that convinces everyone the Grange couldn't have been responsible. All women of child-bearing age, including young virgins (who swear it is impossible) and old spinsters (who long ago gave up the thought) become pregnant. One woman's husband had been at sea for nearly a year, so on his return he naturally assumes she had an affair, which she had not. The unexplained pregnancies are just the beginning of the frightful events. Several women who had worked at the Grange had left for their homes elsewhere, but following the births they feel compelled to return to Midwich. Others wishing to leave are somehow unable to get beyond a certain distance from the town center. Various accidents begin to happen, with evidence suggesting the victims had meant to do harm to the Children. Most SF fans are likely to be well familiar with this story, if only from the films, so no further details of the plot are necessary.
As for the book, it is interesting but unfulfilling. A lot of the action, even the climax, is "off-screen" so to speak, only spoken of by various characters or witnessed from a distance. Normally I enjoy stories that leave certain things to the reader's imagination, but in this case I think Wyndham went too far in that direction. Today one would expect this to be just the first book in a series of novels, each one detailing more information about the Children, how they came to be, their purpose and intent. Or if just one novel it would be much longer. Wyndham hints at a few things but doesn't bring anything to a definite conclusion. We don't know if the Children are of alien (or supernatural) origin, or the result of a spontaneous genetic mutation. It's really as much a horror story as it is SF, with man facing an unknown threat to his superiority on the planet. One could finish the book with the thought that the threat has been eliminated, but there aren't any assurances that is the case, and Wyndham never returned to this scenario to let us know for sure. As I said, unfulfilling, and in a style that might not appeal to the average SF reader today. Still a classic, and short, so not a huge investment in time. Anyone who liked either of the film versions should find the source story interesting.
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