It is difficult to approach this novel with a fresh eye, since my perceptions of The Midwich Cuckoos are very much coloured by the George Sanders movie, ‘Village of The Damned’ which, although not a bad piece of work, didn’t really convey Wyndham’s vision, and gifted the children with the additional benefit of being able to read human minds, which was a handy conceit to make the cinematic denouement more dramatic.
A more recent version by John Carpenter was set in modern day California rather than in Wyndham’s Nineteen Fifties England but was not even up to the standard of the original British movie.
The narrator of the novel is one Richard Gayford who, on the fateful night when the novel begins, was out with his wife Janet celebrating his birthday and therefore not at home in the quiet village of Midwich where, at 10.17 pm everyone passes out.
The alarm is raised and it is soon discovered that a hemisphere, centred on the Midwich Church is in place within which any living thing is rendered unconscious.
This disappears the next day and – apart from some unfortunate fatalities due to hypothermia and a house fire, everyone recovers apparently unharmed and things go back to normal.
Some weeks later, an unease falls over Midwich and it becomes gradually apparent that all the women in the village capable of childbearing are inexplicably pregnant.
A friend of Gayford’s , Bernard Westcott, who is in Military Intelligence, becomes involved, since a Research Centre, headed by Gordon Zellaby, is also based at Midwich. It is initially suspected that the Dayout, as it comes to be known, may have been part of an espionage attempt. Westcott manages to arrange a Press blackout so that the village does not get deluged with nosey sightseers.
When the pregnancies finally reach fruition, there is an initial sigh of relief, since the babies seem perfectly normal, apart from their odd golden eyes.
However, as they mature, which they do unnaturally quickly, two things become apparent. The children can easily impose their will on human beings and, as Dr Zellaby discovered, although there are about sixty children, there are in fact only two individuals since the boys and girls comprise of a single gestalt consciousness each, divided across thirty or so bodies.
One must inevitably compare this with American novels of the Fifties, many of which featured the theme of ‘aliens among us’ and reflected the anti-communist paranoia of the government and public of the time, such as ‘The Body Snatchers’ or ‘The Puppet Masters’.
It would be useful to know how aware the author was of these works, and whether there was a conscious decision to create the British ‘aliens-among-us’ novel.
Wyndham takes great pains to set the scene, although the narrative is a little disjointed, told from the perspective of Gayford, who is writing the account in retrospect, having later interviewed others involved.
It must have been slightly shocking in Nineteen Fifty Seven to have an entire village pregnant by unnatural means with half of them unmarried. Wyndham deals with these issues remarkably well and, without proselytising, is very clear as to what reaction women in this position may face along with some of the terrible consequences. I always hoped that someone would make another movie, in black and white, set in the Fifties, since I had always though that Wyndham’s work is as much about British society of the time as it is about anything else. As is the usual case with Wyndham however, the middle-class professionals are the protagonists. The working classes are kept to the background and only brought in near the end as an obligatory ‘mob with torches’.
It’s a shame Wyndham didn’t take the opportunity to expand on some of the male villagers’ reactions to the event during the pregnancies and in the earlier sections since there would surely have been some visible masculine angst at the time. He does suggest that there was a brooding resentment among husbands and fathers but it is not really credible that it would take nine years for this to be expressed.
Structurally, again a typical Wyndham technique, the novel takes us to a point where the babies are raising suspicions of their power to will people to take actions, and then jumps ahead nine years where the children – who have been educated en-masse by Zellaby – look like eighteen year olds. There has been a human fatality, and some are suspicious that the children had something to do with it.
Again, Wyndham is exploring the Darwinian concept that man’s position at the top of the food chain is a precarious one. It is Zellaby’s view, for instance, that civilisation has weakened the species and that it would have been better for us if we had evolved alongside a more competitive species.
Wyndham is clear, however, that there can be no possibility of co-existence or, more to the point, of two species sharing a dominant position. This is his perennial theme and can also be seen in ‘The Day of The Triffids’ and ‘The Chrysalids’. Species survival becomes the overriding factor without any recourse to ethics or morality.
He perhaps missed a trick in not giving the children some redeeming features. We only see the children’s attitude to species other than human in their treatment of a bull who threatened them in their early years. If there had been some suggestion that the children would be better custodians of the Earth than humans it would have introduced an interesting moral ambiguity. As it is, the children are portrayed as emotionless, amoral creatures, as cold and dispassionate as Wells’ Martians.
Cleverly, it is not until very late into the novel that we hear any of the children speak. This produces an unsettling effect since the reader has become acquainted with the people surrounding the children, but the children themselves have been kept at a distance, which in turn emphasises their self-imposed remoteness.
Military Intelligence had previously confirmed that the USSR launched a missile at one of their own villages which itself suffered a Dayout event. Other ‘cuckoo’ events around the world resulted in the children being ‘disposed of’ shortly after they were born.
The children, aware that they are the only ‘cuckoos’ left in the world, reason that the USSR puts the state before the individual and therefore have no compunction in killing some of their own people to excise the invaders. The UK on the other hand would not countenance such a move. The proposal would have to be discussed, and liberal voices would be clamouring for the children to be given the right to live alongside us.
The government, Zellaby and the children all realise that if the children survive they will supplant humans as the dominant species. It is clear that they know that our weaknesses are our compassion and our inability to take effective action against them.
Wyndham very cleverly leads us to a point where the children have explained how our own liberal civilisation has boxed itself in and is powerless to defend the species as sections of society will inevitably lobby to protect the children’s right to exist.
Wyndham’s issues would therefore appear to be less metaphorical than his US counterparts. Certainly, there would be no worries over Communism on this side of the channel, although one could raise an argument for Wyndham making a point about the rise of youth culture in the Fifties, when many children were seen as alien by their parents.
It is perhaps immaterial since the main point is the need for mankind to address its complacence. The novel may in fact be more relevant today where many sections of society see their culture threatened by outside influences, be it the Right Wing Nationalists who feel their culture is being lost or the Muslim parents who fear their children being Westernised or radicalised, or the US Religious Right who see teachers and scientists destabilising the beliefs of their children. The genie in all these cases is, for good or bad, out of the bottle and gives Wyndham’s oddly prophetic, albeit slightly flawed, masterpiece a somewhat disturbing edge.
As David Bowie was to say some years later ‘Oh You Pretty Things… Don’t you know you’re driving your mommas and poppas insane?’
‘BELOW THE THUNDERS OF THE UPPER DEEP;
FAR, FAR BENEATH IN THE ABYSMAL SEA,
HIS ANCIENT, DREAMLESS, UNINVADED SLEEP
THE KRAKEN SLEEPETH…
UNTIL THE LATTER FIRE SHALL HEAT THE DEEP;
THEN ONCE BY MEN AND ANGELS TO BE SEEN,
IN ROARING HE SHALL RISE…
Ships are sinking for no apparent reason, carrying hundreds to a chill, dark, underwater grave. Strange fireballs race through the sky above the deepest trenches of the oceans. Something is about to show itself, something terrible and alien, a force capable of causing global catastrophe.
Humankind, having probed the uncharted vastness of the seas with men and machines, has found that it is not alone; a powerful and inexplicable presence lurks there. Has it mistaken our investigations for threats?
or could it be that this new intelligence is simply malevolent, intent on the destruction of those who have entered the fathomless deep it dwells within?’
Blurb from an undated Penguin edition, circa 2007
Although probably the weakest of Wyndham’s novels it is nonetheless interesting because of its themic relationship to his better-known works.
Mike and Phyllis Watson are two reporters for EBC (The English Broadcasting Corporation). In the prologue, in which they are watching icebergs float by, Phyllis suggests that her husband write a book of ‘how it all happened’, and Mike suggests that he start the book with some literary quote, in this case Tennyson, describing the Kraken, asleep in the deep. Thus, the reader is tantalised into entering the story which begins with mysterious fireballs crashing into the sea at points which mark the deepest areas of the oceans.
Before long, ships are disappearing, and then small islands start being invaded by ‘sea-tanks’ which exude jellyfish-like creatures who attach their tentacles to humans and drag them away to the sea.
Mike Watson is the narrator and, as usual, Wyndham creates a protagonist who is educated, middle-class and level-headed. Phyllis appears to be Mike’s equal in all things, and when working as a team to obtain information she is more than capable of employing her feminine wiles to persuade interviewees to talk more freely than they perhaps normally would.
Showing remarkable adaptability and versatility she even takes up bricklaying at one point – although admittedly for logical reasons which are made clear later in the novel.
Watson – as the narrator – writes very well and has a modicum of wit, reminiscent of a watered-down PG Wodehouse. It is, unfortunately, this style of reportage which is the novel’s failing.
As in all, I think, of Wyndham’s novels, the story develops over a long timescale, jumping months and sometimes years in order that changes can be observed. In other books, however, we are there with the protagonists, facing the triffids, or watching the sinister children of Midwich. Here, most of the action takes place off stage, reports are analysed by Mr and Mrs Watson who then interview military personnel or scientists. Eventually we do encounter the ‘bathies’ as they come to be known when they attack an island which Professor Bocker has predicted is ripe for invasion.
This section is Wyndham in top form, providing a truly gripping and imaginative experience which is eerily reminiscent of ‘War of The Worlds’. We soon return, however, to having to rely on ‘reports’ from various places in the world as to what the aquatic beasties are up to.
Again Wyndham has returned to the theme of the eternal battle between species in nature. If two sentient species exist on the same world, then they will soon be engaged in a battle for territory and resources.
What is very interesting about Wyndham’s invaders is that he postulates that they are not living creatures as we know them, but are some form of organic technology, an idea that was pretty radical for Nineteen Fifty Three. This suggestion, although tacitly accepted by the protagonists, is never fully explained or discussed.
One gets the impression that this is a novel that was written in a hurry, or at the very least was never fully revised before publication. The denouement seems particularly rushed, almost as if an editor had insisted on some upbeat ending which was hastily written in.
‘The Chrysalids is the story of a world in which genetic mutations – in plant, animal, and human life – are continually occurring, and when they do they are rooted out and destroyed as Offences and Abominations – whether they are a field of mutant corn, a calf with two heads, or a human child. The anguish this causes to the families which live in terror of deviation and in a small area surrounded by the Wild Country where the chances of breeding true is less than fifty percent, and the Fringes and Badlands beyond where the chances are far less; is described by John Wyndham in a manner all the more frightening for being so realistic and credible.’
Blurb from the 1961 paperback Penguin edition.
John Wyndham wrote a particular brand of British Science Fiction which became so popular that his work is often not marketed with what the Literary establishment term to the derogatory label of Science Fiction. Wyndham was at one time (and may still be) part of the British English Literature syllabus. Over a relatively short period he produced a handful of novels which were to become classics of British, and indeed World SF.
Unusually for Wyndham ‘The Chrysalids’ is set not in Wyndham’s usual UK rural setting of the Nineteen Fifties, but in an apocalyptic Labrador of the far future.
The setting however, seems oddly British in terms of social structure and terminology.
Typically for Wyndham the action takes place over a number of years and begins in the village of Waknuk. We see the village through the recollections of David Strorm, son of the religiously fanatic self-styled leader of the community.
Waknuk is a relatively untouched oasis in what we understand is a world otherwise devastated by nuclear warfare.
A form of Christianity has evolved in response to the prevalence of mutation and deviation in plants, animals and humans. Anything which deviates from the norm is deemed to be an abomination and is ruthlessly weeded out.
However, David discovers that the young daughter of a neighbour is herself a deviant, having six toes instead of the ‘normal’ five and David, it transpires, has a secret of his own in that he and seven others in the community are telepaths, a fact they very quickly learn to keep a secret from their fanatical friends and family.
Perhaps unintentionally, as Van Vogt did with ‘Slan‘, Wyndham has created an almost perfect allegory of the homosexual experience within a small community. The comparison becomes particularly poignant when the eight telepaths reach the age when they are expected to find marriage partners. One of them, Ann, decides that she is going to suppress her ‘talent’ and marry a non-telepath, much to the dismay of the others who are all convinced that she cannot deny her true nature.
At one point David himself, in an act which many Gay people remember from their teenage years, prays to God to change him, to make him ‘normal’ like everyone else.
It is unlikely however, that Wyndham intended the parallel, although the aspects of xenophobia and culturally instilled and endorsed prejudice are terrifyingly realistic.
In comparison with the two other ‘classic’ Wyndham novels ‘The Day of The Triffids’ and ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ one sees in all three Wyndham’s fascination with the fundamental basics of Nature; red in tooth and claw. In each novel Humanity finds itself at war with another species, or perhaps, one could argue, the savage forces of Nature. Wyndham seems never too concerned with the war itself as much as with the effects of the battles on the protagonists. ‘The Day of The Triffids’ shows formerly genial Britons throwing aside the veneer of civilised behaviour and cheerfully adopting polygamy and slave labour camps in order to save the species.
‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ gives us an average British rural community forced to kill its own adopted children.
None of the novels permit any possibility of compromise or co-existence. In this novel, humans are battling both Nature and change. The older generation resent social change as much as they resent the ‘mutational’ changes to their vegetables and livestock.
Eventually the telepaths are rescued by an advanced group of their own kind from New Zealand, but the moral code of their society is as bad, if not worse, than that of the restrictive religious regime since they have no compunctions about killing the humans who have been pursuing the escaping telepaths. They see non-telepathic humanity as a burnt-out species, doomed to extinction, who are better off being painlessly eradicated.
‘It was Diana Brackley who put the milk out for the cat; who dropped a speck of lichen in it by mistake; who noticed how the lichen stopped the milk turning.
But it was Francis Saxover, the famous biochemist, who carried on from there; who developed Antigerone, the cure for ageing; who then tried to suppress a discovery which was certainly in the megaton range.
And so it was Diana Brackley who went to town with Antigerone in one of Wyndham’s gayest most satirical forays into the fantastic.’
Blurb from the 1969 Penguin paperback edition
This late novel from Wyndham says far more about British Society in the late Nineteen Fifties than it does about its central premise – longevity. As is common for Wyndham, the characters are for the most part very polite Middle Class English people who speak with erudite lucidity and who inhabit a world which seems both alien and quaint from our current perspective.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this book is hardly ever mentioned in connection with Wyndham’s previous work, the three classic novels (‘The Day of The Triffids’, ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ and ‘The Chrysalids’) which turned him into a cult writer for generations of readers, and which crossed readership boundaries in that they were read and enjoyed by many readers who would not otherwise have been seen dead reading SF literature.
The basic premise surrounds the discovery of a lichen, found only in Manchuria, whose singular property retards the normal metabolic process, and thus can extend the expected lifespan to upwards of two hundred years.
When the two main characters (Diana Brackley and Francis Saxover), independently discover the properties of the lichen, their results are suppressed once they have considered the consequences to the world. Diana leaves her employment with Saxover, having kept from him her knowledge of the discovery of the lichen’s properties. She subsequently sets up a Beauty Salon under the name Nefertiti, where she injects her clients with extract of the lichen and so holds back the march of time for several hundred women.
Ten years on, various factors combine to leak the secret into the public domain and Wyndham examines the various reactions to the news from the point of view of the media, the Church and the government, as well as examining, albeit briefly, the consequences of lifespans covering centuries rather than decades.
Sadly, the novel is an anticlimax from the writer who gave us such rich food for thought in his earlier work. On the one hand it attempts to create in-depth characters who live too briefly on the page for us to appreciate them. There is Lady Tewley for instance, who came to Nefertiti as a naïve young woman, newly married into the aristocracy, and who has been subsequently transformed into a formidable member of her new class.
On the other hand this is contrasted with the effect on society, not of Antigerone itself – as the extract is called – but of the news of its existence. The novel reads like a first draft. It takes far too long to get round to examining the consequences of such a discovery and when the news is finally out one feels that Wyndham does not dig deep enough into what is obviously a rich field of possibility.
What is interesting about ‘Trouble With Lichen’ is that Wyndham sees longevity as a tool of emancipation, something which will free women from spending most of their life bringing up the next generation, and it is to his credit that he has peopled this book with assertive intelligent women, such as Diana herself and the formidable Lady Tewley. There is discussion within the novel of humanity evolving into a new longer-lived species, but one can’t help feeling that there is a subtext – particularly at this point in time – of a new species of women emerging, evolving and adapting to the changing times.
Academics have written enough about this novel to fill an entire shelf at least, and that perhaps is not a good thing since it tends to detract from the fact that this is a marvellously entertaining and thought-provoking work, maybe the single best British SF novel of the Twentieth Century.
Some years before the opening of the novel a plane containing a box of triffid seeds was shot down and, it is supposed, the tiny seeds were carried to all parts of the world since, not so long after, triffids began growing and multiplying everywhere. It is also supposed that the triffids were a product of Russian genetic engineering and used as a source of highly pure and efficient vegetable oil.
For those not in the know triffids are, in brief , six foot mobile plants whose main stalk ends in a trumpetlike ‘flower’ from which a prehensile stinger can lash out. The stinger contains venom strong enough to kill a man. The triffids can also uproot themselves and walk on their three ambulatory roots. Also, they have sticklike growths which drum against the main stem, creating a rattling noise with which some believe they communicate among themselves.
Bill Mason is a researcher working with triffids and in his world most specimens are docked of their stingers. Some are staked out in parks. Other people keep docked specimens in their gardens.
At the start of the novel however, Bill, who has been in hospital after an accidental triffid sting to his eyes, awakens to a strangely silent world. As his eyes were bandaged he was one of the few people to miss a worldwide display of cometary debris burning up in the earth’s atmosphere.
Eventually he discovers that the strange fireworks have burnt out the retinae of everyone who witnessed them. In the days that follow, the very few who have kept their sight attempt to reorganise, but it is only Bill who realises that now the infrastructure of civilisation has disappeared, the triffids may become masters of the earth.
Wyndham’s three major works – this, ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ and ‘The Chrysalids’ – all deal in their different ways with evolutionary issues and the battle between species for territory. It is here that the message is clearest, and shows an extinction event in which the triffids, until now contained and controlled by a more successful species, are suddenly given an evolutionary advantage. Triffids are carnivorous plants which may or may not have some form of rudimentary intelligence. It has been noted by Mason’s colleagues that when attacking humans they inevitably aim for the eyes. It is also pointed out, somewhat prophetically, that a triffid would always have the advantage over someone blind.
Therefore, by a combination of circumstances, Wyndham quite chillingly shows us how a more successful species (which need not necessarily be a more intelligent species) could, in evolutionary terms, supplant us.
Mason’s colleague makes the point that we go to great lengths to feed and grow the triffids and then design machinery to extract their oil, while all the triffid has to do is kill someone, settle down in the soil and wait for the body to decompose before using its stinger to transfer bits of rotting flesh to its ‘throat’.
What has never been clear is when this novel is actually set. Written in 1951, Wyndham obviously intended it as some near-future setting which, by the internal chronology, must be some time in the Nineteen Sixties.
Much is made of Wyndham’s rather quaint middle-class viewpoint and the fact that many of the survivors seem to be professional middle-class types. The interesting point about this is that it gives Wyndham a chance to have a swipe at some of the complacent attitudes of Middle England, such as the lady in charge of Tynsham Manor who would rather her community fail than surrender to immoral unchristian practices.
Coker is the most fascinating of the sighted survivors although his character may be merely a clever device on Wyndham’s part, since he is written as having a chameleon use of language and accents, which allows him to enter into debate with anyone, and therefore raises some questions which might otherwise have been avoided. The role of women in society, for instance, is brought up when Coker fixes the generator at Tynsham Manor and then berates a young woman for basically waiting for a man to sort it out. This is Wyndham addressing his women readers, telling them that women are more than capable of doing any job a man can do, but it is up to them to fight against the entrenched notions of society.