Alien invasion is a staple of science fiction and has featured far too many novels and films, but in The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham turns that classic theme into a frighteningly original story that is still disturbing now.
The Midwich Cuckoos begins with Richard Gayford (the novel’s narrator) and his wife Janet returning from an evening in London, celebrating his birthday, to the English village of Midwich, where they have recently moved. Midwich is the stereotype of the quiet, sleepy 1950s English country village where nothing unusual ever happens. Except this day Richard and Janet find they cannot enter Midwich, all roads are blocked. So they set off, on foot, across the fields, only for both of them to collapse, unconscious, in their tracks.
The army, who are trying to keep everyone out because Midwich is incommunicado, rescues them. Everyone in the village is unconscious, as if they collapsed were they stood, the same happening to anyone trying to enter the village. An invisible force is surrounding the village. This lasts for twenty-two hours and then everyone wakes up as if nothing has happened.
Soon it becomes apparent that every woman able to bear children is pregnant—some without the benefit of sexual intercourse. Also, together, the women give birth to beautiful but strange babies, all with blonde hair and golden eyes…
There are no bug-eyed aliens or reptilian creatures fighting humans here, instead there are strange children who look and behave like humans but are not. As they grow up, the children begin to show nonhuman-like behaviour, slowly stretching their power over the villagers.
As an alien invasion this is an original and disturbing approach, to have humans as hosts for the aliens and trick them into raising and protecting these “cuckoos” in their midst. Also, this is an implied alien invasion; no one names it as such.
Wyndham’s novel is a slow burn, slowly and piece by piece giving the reader information, slowly revealing the nature of the children. Yet the characters here are all too real, displaying that all too human trait when faced with the extraordinary of simply accepting it as ordinary. He also taps into one of our fundamental fears, that our children are not our own but have been substituted by changelings.
I first read this novel as a teenager and it frightened me; coming back to it as an adult I find it just as disturbing but for different reasons. This invasion almost mimics the way a virus attacks a body. It is such a simple but very original premise.
The Midwich Cuckoos is set in 1950s England, when it was written, and so reflects the attitudes and prejudices of the time, children born out of wedlock are a source of shame and class rules everyone’s relationships. This only adds to the atmosphere and feel of this novel, the setting so real that it makes the extraordinary events that slowly unfold seem real as well—only adding to the horror.
John Wyndham should be held up there as one of the greats of science fiction, though he seems to have slipped down in people’s memory. If you are new to Wyndham’s works this is an excellent entry into his dark universe. If you read this novel many years ago, give it a new look—it has lost none of its impact and is also now strangely relevant.
Edited by Drew Payne
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