100 sf

Saturday, September 01, 2007

#24 The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) by John Wyndham

“No other evidence has been produced to suggest that on that Monday, until late in the evening, Midwich was anything but normal.”

“Naturally, in America [alien invasions are] all rather bigger and better. Something descends and something comes out of it. Within ten minutes, owing no doubt to the excellent communications in that country, there is a coast-to-coast panic and all highways out of all cities are crammed 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 the birth of the dea ex laboratoria which will save the world at the last moment, minus one”
--Gordon Zellaby

“If you wish to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does…”
--Gordon Zellaby

I saw my first cuckoo (a Yellow-billed Cuckoo to be exact) at Magee Marsh several years back during a birding trip my wife and I took to northwestern Ohio. It was beautiful, and I have objective proof--the Mennonite family behind me said so. Now cuckoos are normally known for two things: brood parasitism and clocks. The two don’t really have a lot to do with one another, except that the cuckoo sound of a cuckoo clock mimics the voice of a European Cuckoo, and it’s the European Cuckoo that is the notorious parasite that inspired John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos. These common cuckoos of the old world lay their eggs in nests of other birds. Usually, the cuckoo eggs hatch first, the young birds develop quickly, and they kick the other, more proper eggs out of the nest. My beautiful cuckoo of North America isn’t much for parasitism though. Well, okay, it does drop her eggs off in another nest occasionally, but it’s usually just a Black-billed Cuckoo’s nest, and they’re kind of like family, right?

Wyndham’s cuckoo novel begins much like a “cosy catastrophe,” such as his other book on David Pringle’s list of the 100 best science fiction novels, while also being very much a Fortean event. One evening, everyone in the small English town of Midwich just collapses, and anyone or anything that comes within a certain range of the town does the same--an event Midwichers come to refer to as the “Dayout.” In the midst of all this passing out is a large, shiny object that one may confidently assume is an alien spacecraft, though that’s never explicitly said. However, before you know it, the object is gone and everyone wakes up. They’re all okay. Hurrah! What was the big fuss?

Nine months later sixty big fusses arrive. All the women of childbearing age--including singles, widows, and the virginal--mysteriously became pregnant during the Dayout and they all have their children at the same time. Now, as you could probably guess, these children aren’t normal. Thirty boys and thirty girls that are almost identical: golden, piercing eyes; pensive dispositions; and matching kerchiefs. (I made the last one up.) Wyndham knew children were terrors, like a lot of other sf writers from the time did. Ray Bradbury, in particular, wrote some of the best children-as-pure-evil tales I’ve ever read (try “The Veldt” if you don’t believe me). But I digress. So Wyndham’s children possess strange powers that no terrible child I know has. First, they are emergent. All the boys form, from their smaller, individual intelligences, one great intelligence, and the girls the same--like an ant colony or a computer system. Teach any one of the boys something, and they all know it. They also physically age more quickly than normal humans. Nine years after birth, they look like teenagers. Teenagers with golden eyes and matching kerchiefs no less! And they appear to have strong telepathic abilities.

After two suspicious murders happen in the town, the Children (referred to in the capital “C” sense throughout much of the novel) quickly run into trouble. Most of the men in town were secretly emasculated by the whole situation of the Children to begin with. They knew they couldn’t have all gotten the ladies knocked up on the same day, and these kids certainly don’t look anything like them. They’re not stupid enough to think they are the Children’s **real** fathers. Now the kids are murdering…that’s the last straw. But not so fast, says Wyndham. What right is there to wipe out a new species? Well, apparently, a lot. See there were other groups like the Midwich cuckoo bunch. One in Australia, one in Siberia, and one in an Inuit community. They all knew what the Midwichers are only starting to find out: these children represent an evolutionary leap; they signal the end of the species. Or do they? Read the freakin’ book to find out.

There’s a lot going on in the novel. On the one hand, it’s the story of the generation gap--a serious growing pain in the west during the 1950s. But it’s also a cold war story: paranoia about a mass of conformists (communists) corroding individuality and civilization from within. It’s also a novel about evolution and its ill effects. Is it survival of the fittest or survival of the ruthlessly violent

Easy to get used or at a library. The only edition currently in print in the US is an illustrated abridged version for children, however.

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