Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos has been filmed twice under the title Village of the Damned, but you will find very little of what made it to the movie in the novel by John Wyndham. As always, it is best to treat book and movies as two separate entities.

Having seen the movies and knowing (I thought) what the book was about, I decided to read it for myself. The book is long on philosophy and sociological meanderings and short on plot. Most of the story is told from an insider's point of view, a narrator that was part of the Dayout when Midwich was separated from the rest of the countryside by an invisible wall that rendered anyone entering its influence unconscious. The narrator and his wife, not allowed to return home, decide to make an end run around the police and military and find a way into the village only to be rendered unconscious. They are pulled out by the police and waken slowly and with few side effects of their ordeal by unconsciousness.

When the Dayout ends, the residents, having been under the influence of the effect longer, have some difficulty returning to consciousness and many are freezing. Some of the residents caught out in the open and subjected to the effects longest died as a result of exposure.

The narrator is friend with Dr. Zellaby, an author of philosophical and sociological examinations of mankind, and he is the first to realize that the pregnancies of young virgins and every woman able to bear children in the village a result of the Dayout. The military also have an inkling since they saw an anomaly at the center of Midwich during the Dayout when they flew surveillance. Dr Zellaby's wife is also pregnant, but it turns out she was pregnant by the usual means and her child is not one of the golden-eyed male and female hive minds born.

I won't waste too much time detailing the differences between the movies and the book. The essence is there, but none of the flavor since Wyndham's novel is long on exposition and short on action. Most of the action is explained and detailed by the narrator and through long -- and sometimes boring -- conversations with Dr. Zellaby.

A novel about being tied to a changeling, or cuckoo as the novel terms the children, able to force the "mother's" return when she gets more than 6 miles from Midwich is something that only a man would term science fiction, having never given birth to a child or been tethered to the child's demands for food, clean diapers, and attention. Many of the mothers, and indeed Zellaby's own daughter, leave their children behind for the town and military intelligence, who have taken control of the situation, to deal with. The rest of the story leads up to the death of a young man that nearly ran down one of the Cuckoos and the subsequent vengeance taken by townspeople and the Children, which leads up to the extermination of the last group of Children from the Dayout in Midwich.

The Midwich Cuckoos is an interesting story written at a time when the conventions of fiction were different. As I said before, the book is long on exposition and hearsay and short on action. Everything, aside from Zellaby's lectures, most of which are convoluted philosophical Mobius strips, is told second-hand, except where the narrator is on the scene. The ending leaves a bit to be desired, but there is a solid story behind the archaic conventions of storytelling. The novel is worn around the edges by newer and brighter tales of the same stripe but the heart of the story remains what happens when man is threatened by a new and different species that might supplant him -- fear, anger, and eradication. That part of the story still holds true and is worth the reading.

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