Fiction Reviews

The Midwich Cuckoos

(1957 / 2016) John Wyndham, Gollancz, £12.99, hrdbk, 219pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21269-5


This is a classic of mid-20th century science fiction by a grandmaster of British Science Fiction of that time and extremely worthy of inclusion in Gollancz series 'SF Masterworks'. It is also appropriate that I review this in 2017 which is 60 years since the book was first published.

John Wyndham has divided the story into two parts with each part relating to a distinct phenomena.

The first begins with Richard Gayford and his wife, Janet, on the way back to the sleepy village of Midwich having celebrated Richard's birthday in London. As they approach home they are stopped by a policeman who informs them that the road is closed as is the alternate route to Midwich: army manoeuvres is given by way of explanation. However Richard and his wife were not far from home and so away from the road block they left the road and set out on foot across the fields. That was when they were hailed by an army dressed man in the next field by Richard and Janet ignored him and carried on. That was when Janet fell. Richard – thinking she had twisted her ankle – went to help her but he fell unconscious.

Elsewhere in neighbouring villages, people had been going about their business including telephoning friends and business counterparts, including to those in the village of Midwich. But at 17 past 10pm on the 26th of September all the phone lines to Midwich went dead!

A cordon was set around the village for it seemed as if there was some invisible barrier surrounding Midwich and if any mammal crossed it they became unconscious. Remote air reconnaissance revealed nothing unduly out of the ordinary, though there was an odd structure that nobody recognised nestled between the buildings of the old Abby.  Monitoring of birds and animals revealed that this barrier was not just circular but dome-shaped covering the village. There were further investigations but before these could come to much the observers notices that the thing by the Abby had gone. The next thing the unconscious people inside the invisible domed area of Midwich began to wake.

This incident would have remained decidedly curious but people would have got on with their lives largely unchanged were it not for the discovery shortly after that of those rendered unconscious in Midwich all the women were pregnant!

The second part sees the resulting children grow up remarkably quickly and begin school. They all have the same look and it transpires that they have some mysterious abilities. Furthermore, a government representative of some unspecified department seems to have a long-term interest in Midwich affairs…

This edition of the novel comes with an introduction by Stephen Baxter who – along with others who have written introductions to other of Wyndham's SF Masterwork titles – comments on Brian Aldiss' somewhat unfair criticism of Wyndham as a writer of 'cosy catastrophes'.

One thing to note is that this is one of the few hardback SF Masterworks in the Gollancz series and so doubly welcome. However it is a little more expensive that other such hardbacks, presumably because the book is still in copyright hence royalties are owed to the Wyndham estate(?). Nonetheless, this itself does not justify the extra £3 and though most will be able to easily afford that, it is disappointing that the typesetting appears to be a photocopy (slightly blurred so that for example the 'e' are filled in). In this age of home computer scanner optical character recognition why on Earth could not Gollancz go the extra mile and have the text re-set? Are the anticipated sales that low? The setting appears to be one the British publisher Penguin used in its numerous editions from 1960 onward. But, please, do not let this put you off as The Midwich Cuckoos is truly a British, if not global, 20th century SF classic.

Now, this last is not simply some throwaway epithet, The Midwich Cuckoos does not sit easily with other first contact stories of the time or – perhaps with the exception of a few – many since. John Wyndham evidently realised this all too well and suspected that his unconventional (for the time) alien invasion story. John Wyndham sets out his stall quite clearly in chapter 19 (pages 186-7 of this edition and the previous British Penguin ones) when Zellaby (one of the novel's protagonists) notes that most literary portrayals of alien invasions have "almost without exception been unpleasant". (Perhaps this is one of the statements that led to Aldiss referring to Wyndham as a writer of cosy catastrophes?) The novel continues with "Take H. G. Wells' Martians for instance. As the original exponents of the death-ray they were formidable, but their behaviours was quite conventional: they simply conducted a campaign with this weapon which outclassed anything that could be brought against it."  And then, "Naturally in America it is all rather bigger and better. Something descends, something comes out of it. Within ten minutes, owing no doubt to the excellent communications in that country, there is coast-to-coast panic and all the highways out of the cities are crammed in all lanes, by the fleeing populace – except in Washington. There, by contrast, enormous crowds stretching as far as the eye can reach, stand grave and silent, white faced but trusting, with their eyes upon the White House, while somewhere in the Catskills a hitherto ignored professor and his daughter with their rugged young assistant strive like demented midwives to assist in the birth of the dea ex laboritoria which will save the world at the last moment, minus one." He concludes: "Yet, overall, what do we have? Just another war."  Wyndham is being quite clear, his story is one of alien invasion even if it lacks weaponry and battle, the battle such as it is, is of minds. As such it is different to much poplar SF and cinema of the time.

To us in the early 21st century the concept of non-physical invasion is not such a novel notion. For example, the fall of communism in 1990 Eastern Europe and Russia took place without a missile launch: it was largely a victory of ideas and people over an ill-conceived political philosophy. Then later, while Eastern Europe's citizens enjoyed their newfound freedom, in 2006/7 the global banking system wrecked countless livelihoods: again no super weapons were brought to bear. Conflict, Wyndham tells us, can take many forms. This is something he returns to time and again in his novels.

The other thing to perhaps note is that Wyndham wrote this in the midst of the baby boomer birth period. The number of births at that time was clearly unusual (especially with many men not returning from the war) and perhaps, post-WWII, Wyndham was contemplating that this generation would be a little different? In this light, a novel of fast-growing, well-educated children packed with potential is not – with the benefit of hindsight – that unusual?

The Midwich Cuckoos' early editions sold well and the story seemed to gain some traction with the public. Michael Joseph published it in 1957, but it was the Penguin editions, from 1960, that popularised the novel. Penguin met public demand with printings almost every year through to the early 1970s, and three times over this time there were years with two printings!  Indeed, the novel has spawned two films both entitled Village of the Damned in 1960 (a year of two Penguin printings and its trailer here) and 1995 (traler here).  For what it's worth, I prefer the former film as that is more contemporaneous to Wyndham's novel, though I have a certain fondness for the 1995 re-make, despite it coming from Hollywood, as that one stars Christopher Reeve in one of his last films before his paralysing accident.

Neither film includes the alien spacecraft firmly alluded to in the novel and both films make much of the book's ending, whereas the book itself that springs the dénouement on the reader in the novel's last two pages leaving the reader to piece together exactly what has happened. However I leave you to do that for yourself.

This novel is a 'must have' for anyone professing to be something of an SF aficionado and such hardbacks in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series are definitely the editions to seek out.

Jonathan Cowie

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