A Simply Ordinary Catastrophe: Humanity in The Midwich Cuckoos
Faced with the prospect of five hours in Gatwick, with only the snuffling of fellow travellers and a large black coffee for company, I embarked upon The Midwich Cuckoos, having bought it on the recommendation of a friend.
I had always been intimidated by John Wyndham, not only because his full name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, sounds like the beginning of a public school cricket team. The trouble being, as it is with so many great authors, that I hadn’t yet read anything; having made no headway into his personal canon, there seemed no easy way to start, just another unknown elephant in the corner of my stuttering literary knowledge. As has happened, the opportune insistence of a friend has opened me up to one of the most dynamic and unique science fiction authors of a generation, and for that I will be forever grateful. (Thanks Karl.)
The plot revolves around the downright insignificant village of Midwich, as we follow the male narrator (occasionally with wife in tow) as he explain the events that occurred on the evening of the “Dayout”, when all the inhabitants of Midwich – and anyone within a specific radius – inexplicably fainted, waking the next day with no apparent after effects. It is only on the discovery of the sixty-five simultaneous pregnancies afterwards that the Midwichers – and the mysterious Ministry of Information – begin to worry. The children are eventually born “humanoid”, under a veil of secrecy, and the remainder of the narrative deals with how these apparently supernatural beings interact with the closed, frightened villagers. What begins as a local curiosity grows dynamically into a gruesome sci-fi mystery, with not a little deference to contemporary sociological philosophy.
Having not seen The Village of the Damned, I was able to approach this fairly unencumbered in terms of narrative prejudice, and I’d be interested to see the way the book is treated on screen. Perhaps the most striking thing in the actual writing is the way Wyndham maintains a ‘domestic’ feel; the atmosphere meanders around the houses and characters of English village life with great familiarity, the kind of writing that causes Brian Aldriss to describe Wyndham’s fiction as a collection of “cosy catastrophes”[1. Aldiss, Brian W. (1973). Billion year spree: the history of science fiction. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0297765554.]. Although this has been read as a disparagement, it should be seen as a point in Wyndham’s favour, for he appears to access the more fundamentally human aspects of the genre through this foregrounding of the everyday and the ordinary, thus crafting a unique and powerful novel, which flies in the face of the somewhat patriarchal science fiction genre. In the opening paragraphs, the “luckiest accident” of the narrator’s birthday, coupled with the glow of “Ustinov’s latest extravaganza”, sets the naturalistic tone that is to pervade the atmosphere of this particularly unnatural event. The sense of foreboding is set-up with subtlety, Wydham making sure that the narrative isn’t allowed to take itself too seriously: “Midwich was, almost notoriously, a place where things did not happen…For consider the simple ordinariness of the place”. The comic bathos is one of the strongest, and perhaps most ‘English’, elements of the book, and the personable nature of the narrator quickly establishes a note of intrigue and a close proximity, lubricated with wit that is not showy or smarmy.
Importantly, the events aren’t allowed to stew in a state of anti-climax, the emotive expression and natural reactions of the characters in relation to the plot are well-engineered. The long-suffering doctor, Willers, after months of intense concern about the possible state of the Children, returns home to his wife after the first birth, demonstrating Wyndham’s ability to portray the individual faithfully within a supernatural story:
‘Rather drunk, Milly. Sorry. Take no notice,’ he said.
‘Oh Charley! Was the baby-?’
‘Reaction, m’dear. Jus’ rection. Bab’s perfect, you see. Nothing wrong with the baby… ‘Perfect, ‘cept for golden eyes, Not wrong at all.’
‘S-so s-silly, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘All that worrying. And now it’s perfect. I-I-I-’ He burst suddenly into tears, and covered his face with his hands.
Rather than a mechanical narrative peak, the reader is provided the most human aspect – in the aftermath, the doctor drunk and emotional with relief. Again, an awareness of humour is used, this time to underpin one of the most poignant moments of the entire novel, and an important domestic scene conveys one of the strongest themes in the narrative; the presence of human nature and the requirement to care for and feel empathy for other human beings, therefore perpetuating the survival of the human race. Willers’ tears act as their own narrative hook, with the cementing of the reader’s sympathy for him and Midwich as a whole. Not many other science fiction writers could use a man’s tears so effectively.
This kind of event contributes to the dynamism of the entire piece which, once the children are born, effectively see-saws between the musings of the military and Midwich elite (with Zellaby acting as chairperson) and the aggressively defensive actions of the Children, which result in a chain reaction of murder and tit for tat violence. In this sense, the core “science fiction” element is realised once again, quite gruesomely, in human terms. The passage where the Chief Constable is made an example of, after using a rather parental manner in the first prolonged interview with one of the boys, provides solid supernatural shock:
The Chief Constable’s mouth went slack…his eyes widened, and seemed to go on widening…Sweat burst out on his forehead, at this temples, and came trickling down his face. Inarticulate gobblings came from his mouth. Tears ran down the sides of his nose. He began to tremble, but seemed unable to move. The, after long rigid seconds, he did move. He lifted hands that fluttered, and fumbled them to his face. Behind them, he gave queer screams…He lay there grovelling… making high whinnying sounds as he clawed at the carpet, trying to dig himself into it. Suddenly he vomited.
The narrative becomes anatomical, almost textbook like, the detached description heightening the impact of the human body in the grip of something utterly inhuman. Somehow it is reminiscent of Orwell’s Room 101, with the focus on specific bodily suffering, although the community spirit of the inhabitants of Midwich and the eventual transparency (and ineptitude) of the government means this is not Nineteen Eighty-Four in Middle England; it is too affectionate for that, especially when we consider the kind of sympathy felt by some for the infamous third party, the Children.
There is much that could be said about the possible allegorical significance in the relationship between the “adults” and the Children (multiple racial or religious conflicts spring to mind) and certainly the somewhat sinister and indefinable presence of the Government behind the early key events signposts the political undercurrent here. The Russian reaction to their own “outbreak” is almost parody – they nuke the village – and it appears that the concern here is ultimately satirical. Neither political power is painted in a particularly considerate light, and although the relationship between Midwich and the Government gradually improves, the two are never fully reconciled; the enigmatic Benard Westcott acts as the unremitting figure of spin rather than Orwellian manipulation. In this way, the reader is drawn to identify with the Midwichers as a symbol of ordinary free citizenship, and a rich Marxist subtext is potentially seen – one rooted in passionate communal identity, rather than desire for the survival of the individual. Free People versus Corrupt Government, Left-wing versus Right-wing, Minority (the Children) versus Majority. Political allegory, however, doesn’t appear to be Wyndham’s main idea, and he is certainly less concerned with a lasting political message than other science fiction authors such as Heinlein[2. Cf. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – the human ‘survival instinct’ manifests itself, ultimately, as a Marxist revolution.].
The more explicit theme throughout appears to be along the line of Darwinist sociology, of the kind instigated by Huxley throughout his essays and prose. The Huxlian conceit is seen most obviously through Zellaby, the old writer who appears to unravel the mystery of the beings who ‘invade’ Midwich. Wyndham even references Huxley in his dialogue with the doctor concerning the cause of the ‘pregnancies’:
…And that,’ Zellaby went on, a little grimly, ‘leaves the possibility of implantation, which could result in what someone – Huxley I fancy – has called “xenogenesis”. That is, the production of a form that could be unlike that of the parent – or, should one perhaps say, “host”?
This apparently casual mention, whilst again contributing to the self-aware, naturalist nature of the text, seems to confirm the obvious influence of Huxley on the entire piece. The closer the narrative gets to its climax, the more philosophical Zellaby becomes, echoing not only the social authority of Brave New World’s Mustapha Mond, but also the kind of dithering, parodied member of bourgeoisie England that Huxley approached in Chrome Yellow. Even Zellaby’s manner contains hints of the straightforward, personable style found in many of his sociological essays. With The Midwich Cuckoos published in 1957, it appears the interminable presence of Huxley (with his Brave New World Revisited to be published the following year) was unavoidable, and despite Wyndham having a clearer idea of how to control a narrative, the text’s anthropological, evolutionary musings feel somehow lightweight. If Huxley was ‘a light philosophical essayist using the novel form’[3. http://www.huxley.net/studyaid/index.html] then Wyndham was a consummate novelist writing within a genre that stipulated some acknowledgement of ‘light philosophy’. His literary apprenticeship before the war, writing what he terms ‘ghost stories’, obviously gave him a great grounding in narrative form, but is (for obvious reasons) rarely mentioned in tandem with his famous works – even his publishers kept hushed his unsuccessful period when first releasing The Day of The Triffids under the shortened moniker of John Wyndham. The man knew exactly how to write a story, and appears to have used the philosophy of Huxley as a tool for character and narrative development rather than to convey a particularly impassioned sociological message.
In this sense, the Darwinist conceit that Wyndham appears to emphasize with Zellaby’s abrupt note after his unique ‘suicide bombing’ feels in some way tacked on:
…we have lived so long in a garden that we have all but forgotten the commonplaces of survival…If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does.
His poignancy in death seems to cement the transition Midwich has made from a community that merely lives to a community who must survive. The novel is certainly about the survival instinct, and uses it as the main crux of tension, but this, when mixed with the political current, becomes diluted. Once it is turned into a symbol for political and Darwinist progress, Midwich loses some of its narrative weight – that is, the community and characters of middle England. In this sense, however, the climax feels appropriately hollow; Zellaby, somewhat of a mystery to the reader throughout, has performed exactly what was required to leave Midwich again “as it was”, in stasis, without event or action, remaining the epitome of the English rural community. You can almost hear the Midwichers dismissing his note as a sociologists vague philosophising, and once again going on with the “simple ordinariness” of their lives. The thought that lingers after Wyndham’s novel therefore is not existential, but humanist; as the reader considers the incredible jolt on the foundation of English society they can only come to the conclusion that it will revert to the way it always was.
It seems then that we cannot, in the face of our gradually realised relief for the inhabitants of the town, detach ourselves from the collective ‘human’ aspects of this story. This is curious, considering that we arguably have no explicit connection to one single character; Zellerby, cleverly, is held at arms length throughout, by a narrator who exudes a kind of sensible anonymity; the most emotive piece of identification is at the opening, where the instant narrative hook is manifest in the touching concern for his wife – a fundamental sentimentality which appears now to be typically Wyndham. Eventually the identification with the narrator metamorphoses into concern for the inhabitants of Midwich, as symbolic of every other typically English, but utterly insular, rural community.
The true skill – as with all the great novelists – is this manipulation of reader sympathy throughout, to the point where Wyndham himself, speaking in 1960, states that even “The Children… aren’t so evil…” [4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/writers/12206.shtml]. A “cosy catastrophe” it may be, but a science fiction fantasy which manages to maintain such a focus on the nature of human beings as we seem them everyday, and still create a complex web of sympathies and emotions for both sides of the archtypal “humans versus aliens” battle, is a work of great insight; one which defines a significant corner of a bloated-genre, with all the quiet resilience of Midwich itself.