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If H.G. Wells is regarded as the father of British science fiction writing in Britain, then John Wyndham was surely his heir.
John Wyndham was born in 1903 and after attempting several other careers, eventually settled down to become a writer of science fiction novels and short stories. He achieved considerable success in this field, publishing several bestsellers including The Day of the Triffids, The Trouble with Lichen and, my favourite, The Chrysalids. The Midwich Cuckoos was published in 1957 and was later turned into the film, Village of the Damned. John Wyndham died in 1969.
One strange day in the very unremarkable village of Midwich something very remarkable happened. A mysterious force encircled the village and all the inhabitants lost consciousness for the entire day. It was an even more remarkable day for the women of the village, many of whom discovered some time later that they were pregnant! The children born to the women were all golden eyed, telepathic and had an accelerated growth rate and to their parents and the other residents in the village they were utterly terrifying.
This was one of the first science fiction books I read during my early teens and rereading it before writing this review there were quite few things that stand out now which I never particularly noticed at my first reading.
The Midwich Cuckoos was published in 1957 so the attitudes portrayed in the story are very much of that era. This was a time when abortion was illegal, pre-marital sex was frowned upon and single women would consider it shameful to be pregnant outside the bounds of marriage.
The story is told by Richard Gayford who, along with his wife Janet, was away from the village during 'Dayout' as the event becomes known. He is an impartial observer of all that takes place and isn't really a major player in the story at all.
Perhaps because John Wyndham was male and the book is told from a male perspective it has, to modern eyes, a very dated feel about it. Men in the 1950s were largely unreconstructed and certainly regarded themselves as head of their household and their wives as the little woman. This translates in the book into all of the major decisions being taken by the men of the village, the erudite and professional men that is, such as the squire-ish Gordon Zellaby and the local doctor.
Despite the women being the receptacles for these alien children, they don't feature very much in the book at all, other than Gordon Zellaby's wife. Although she comes across as being extremely sensible and takes a reasoned attitude to her predicament, even she isn't allowed to make her own decisions and she bows to her husband's greater knowledge. (And people wonder why women burned their bras!)
The cuckoos of the title are, of course, the children with their alien eyes and hive-like telepathic behaviour who are really very creepy. At the time the major part of the story takes place, the children are aged eight although their growth rate is such that they appear more like sixteen-year-olds.
John Wyndham created in these children something that is truly frightening. As most parents of teenage children know, they reach a stage where it seems they really are alien beings but we hope they'll grow out of it and in most cases they do. The parents of Midwich slowly realise that their children are evil and must be destroyed; a very hard decision to make about someone, or something, you have given birth to and nurtured.
This isn't a very long book, only 224 pages, so it's a fairly quick read but I can't say, on second reading, that I enjoyed it. Too many decades have passed and modern morals are so different now that the book has not really stood the test of time and has lost much of its original impact.
John Wyndham, as every good writer should, writes about what he knows and coming from a comfortable, middle class background, he created Midwich as a village populated it seems almost entirely by upper middle class professional people. Any passing references to those of more humble origins are patronising and show a complete lack of egalitarianism. But, this book is set in the late 1950s and I suppose that was the attitude taken by most people then. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate was very much the accepted view.
However, whatever social changes have taken place in the intervening years, this book does make you think about the universe of which we're all a part and of which we know so little. Is there some alien race out there pondering whether to colonise Earth by impregnating the women? Who can tell? We only know our todays and can't begin to guess what will happen tomorrow.