Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

An English village experiences a strange phenomenon in the form of a "Dayout", an entire day in which everyone in Midwich is unconscious. Several weeks later, all the women of childbearing age discover they are pregnant. After birth the Children grow uncommonly quickly and begin to exhibit strange and unsettling powers. The time of humans being the dominant species may be over, for the Children have plans for Earth, and it's not big enough for both them and us.

I read somewhere that Brian Aldiss, a contemporary of John Wyndham's who also wrote sci-fi, referred dismissively to Wyndham's books as "cosy catastrophes". That probably applies more to The Midwich Cuckoos than the other of his books I have read, namely The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids. The Chrysalids is a brilliant book, set far into the future after a nuclear holocaust has transformed most of the Earth into wasteland. Humans exist in tenuous pockets, and mutation is rampant. The Day of the Triffids is highly enjoyable too, even if one or two of the characters and sections did sour it for me.

If there's one certainty it's that Wyndham can invent a brilliant premise. Every woman mysteriously pregnant! How creepy is that? What's going to emerge in nine months' time? How on earth would you cope with such a thing, keep it secret? But secret it does remain, at the behest of the military, naturally. Written during the Cold War, there are lots of whispers that it's some bizarre Russian tactic.

But while the premise is brilliant, the execution is sadly lacking. I found myself wishing that someone like Stephen King had written it and an omniscient or multi-person narrator had been used. The story is told by a character who has very little involvement in the actual story. There are far too many lengthy--and dull, dull, dull--passages of dialogue in places (many places), something I'd noticed in his aforementioned books. But it wasn't such a problem until I read this book. The writing itself is witty enough, and I did enjoy the "cosy" village aspect to the novel. But the way it's put together...I could see how it could have been so much better, and that's rather a disappointing experience for a reader. Some of it was probably due to the book being dated--it was written in 1957--but The Chrysalids was executed almost perfectly, so, Mr Wyndham, I simply can't excuse you on those grounds.

I should really mention the themes Wyndham goes into, as they go someway into redeeming this book. It examines our place as the dominant, sentient beings on this planet, and what might happen if there came to be a more powerful species than us to contend with. One without pity or love; merely a wish to survive and dominate. The interesting thing is the Children act as we do to most other species on the planet. They must survive, no matter what. They will not be reasoned with, as--being the only species capable of such a thing--we won't be reasoned with either.


  1. I definitely agree with you on this one, Rhiannon! Have you seen Village of the Damned (either the 1960 original or the Carpenter remake with Christopher Reeve)? I think those films are part of that oh-so-rare subset of books-turned-movies in which the film is better than the source material. (Just sayin', since you wanted a Stephen King-ish take!)

  2. I saw the 1995 version and really liked it! Definitely a bit of the Stephen King about it, and better than the book too. Need to watch the original.

  3. Definitely watch the original 1960 one. It will be dated in style too (50 years old - goodness), but it fits with the style of the novel very well.

    John Wyndham was my introduction to SF at about age 12 and for that he holds a special place in my heart. Chrysalids is definitely his best, but I love Triffids too (there is a sequel authorised by his estate but I've not read it). I also love his "the Outward Urge" written at the dawn of the space race and so optimistic about our future in space.