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Review © 2004 by Thomas M. Wagner.

John Wyndham was one of the most prominent and influential British SF authors during the genre's formative years in that country. Though mocked — in, I'd like to think, a good natured way — by several authors who came along after him for his old-fashioned and occasionally quaint approach to his stories (J. G. Ballard coined the term "cozy catastrophe story," to refer to Wyndham's end of the world scenarios in which civilization is wiped out but for a handful of middle-class English survivors), he continues to loom large as an important figure in the genre, though admittedly moreso in his homeland than in America. Next to The Day of the Triffids (one of the few SF novels actually to introduce a new word into the English language), The Midwich Cuckoos is one of his best known works, a tale of visceral Cold War fear that could in some ways be viewed as a response to Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, about the corruption of the body politic from within. Filmed twice as Village of the Damned, neither version of which really got the point, the original novel remains a cracking good read despite some obviously dated elements.

For those of you still in the dark as to this novel's plot: it all begins when the sleepy little country hamlet of Midwich, a town the book's narrator goes to great pains to describe as utterly nondescript, experiences a bizarre phenomenon. For a full day, every living thing is rendered unconscious by a mysterious force that forms a perfect circle enveloping the whole town. With a few obvious exceptions (someone killed falling down stairs, etc.), everyone wakes up from the ordeal — which will soon be referred to as the "Dayout" — none the worse for their experience. Until it is revealed that every woman of child-bearing age in Midwich is pregnant.

The children — golden eyed, telepathic, with an accelerated growth rate — are certainly a problem, but how large a problem? How did they get here? And why are they here? Do they represent merely a local aberration? Or are they part of a newly advanced species of humanity, who are destined to wipe us out as part of the natural order of things, the law of the jungle, so to speak? Weighty questions like this are raised in that expository manner so characteristic of 1950's SF, in which one or two sage professorial characters take center stage (here the mildly eccentric Gordon Zellaby) until a solution to the crisis is reached. The Midwich Cuckoos is not much different, structurally.

There are other ways in which the novel dates by today's standards. For one thing, the point of view is almost exclusively male, despite the fact that the tale's inciting incident involves a traumatic experience for the town's women. Written today, a story like this would almost certainly be told from a heroine's point of view, but The Midwich Cuckoos surprisingly features almost no women in prominent roles. The one exception is Zellaby's level-headed wife, and yet even she has to be persuaded by her husband and the town doctor to speak at a town hall meeting about the pregnancy phenomenon. As if a woman would need to be talked into participating in something concerning a women's health crisis. Yes, it's a very patronizing sexism, but par for the course for its day.

Another strange storytelling choice is the book's narrator, a minor character who himself plays such a small role in the plot (indeed he's almost entirely passive) that the novel could as well have been written in third person. And maybe should have been.

So why does the book still deserve fairly high marks in this day and age? Because, for one thing, it's important when reviewing the art of a bygone era to place it in context. Those "racist" Warner Bros. cartoons of the World War II era, in which the Japanese are not exactly depicted in flattering terms, are appreciable when one remembers that, at the time, we were at war with the Japanese, not drooling over their anime. There are other aspects of The Midwich Cuckoos that will irk a modern mind, to be sure. Zellaby makes some profoundly ignorant remarks about human evolution, for instance. But back then, the science probably wasn't quite as solid as it is now; in 1957 you could still get away with being clueless on the subject. (Today's creationists have no excuse.)

It is as a thriller, and a thought-provoker on the matter of humanity's place in the grand scheme of things, that keeps The Midwich Cuckoos a relevant and worthwhile novel today. While the book's first half is fairly talky it's never less than interesting, and, in its second half, with the children grown (at the actual age of eight they physically resemble 16-year-olds) and their adversarial relationship to the town reaching a boiling point, there are some confrontation scenes that are quite exciting. I found the ending entirely satisfying.

Ultimately this is a tale that is both about survival — how, when all is said and done, survival is the number one agenda for any species despite whatever decadence may have set in as the result of civilization — and, as mentioned earlier, another rumination on the Cold War fears of the day. Zellaby at one point even postulates that the Children (yes, the capital letter comes into use) may be some kind of alien "fifth column" come to subvert and conquer us from within, precisely the fears of the anti-communist views of the day.

Though the films might seem more accessible (though I must mention that, while John Carpenter is an idol of mine, his version is utter crap), I still recommend the book. With the appropriate allowances made for the archaic ideas and storytelling methods it invariably contains, it's a taut, entertaining story that showcases John Wyndham's status as a classic purveyor of apocalyptic SF suspense.