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The Midwich Cuckoos (SF) - John Wyndham *****

The recent TV adaptation of John Wyndham's classic science fiction novel inspired me to dig out my copy (which has a much better cover than the current Penguin version) to read it again for the first time in decades - and it was a treat.

Published in 1957, the book takes a cosy world that feels more typical of a 1930s novel - think, for example, of a village in Margery Allingham's or Agatha Christie's books - and applies to it a wonderfully innovative SF concept. Rather than give us the classic H. G. Wells alien invasion, which, as a character points out, is really just conventional warfare with a twist, Wyndham envisaged a far more insidious invasion where the aliens are implanted in every woman of childbearing age in the village (in a period of time known as the Dayout, when everyone is rendered unconscious). 

Apparently like humans but for their bright golden eyes, a joined consciousness and the ability to influence human minds, the Children effectively take over the village. But what's so clever about the book is not just the alien threat itself, but the difficulties it provides for the local people and the authorities when they try to deal with what is gradually realised to be an existential threat to humanity.

Even for 1957, the characters and the book's narration have quite an old-fashioned feel - I suspect Wyndham did this on purpose to emphasise the contrast between this already quaint English setting and the situation that the Dayout brought to the village. The narrator feels like a Wells character, while there's a chief constable of the blustering, thick-as-two-short-planks kind that Allingham celebrated as a wonderful example of Englishness (but now seems bizarrely unprofessional).

The result is a quite cerebral, but truly engaging story as the characters attempt to deal with what initially is pure mystery and later becomes a nightmare with no obvious way out. Because it's almost written as a period piece, the only point at which I felt it was let down by datedness was when Wyndham has a character suggest that there was little evidence for human evolution to our current form: even without DNA evidence, there was plenty of science on the matter already available by the 1950s.

One thing the book did for me was to inspire all sorts of thoughts about how the situation would be different now. One obvious aspect is that there are two house fires that kill people during the Dayout - because heating was largely based on open fires at the time. But the most dramatic difference was the ease with which what was happening was kept secret - something that's hard to imagine with modern communications and social media. I haven't seen the TV show, which has brought the setting forward to the present (and, from a publicity still, misses the whole point of the Children's partially non-individual nature because they all look very different from each other) - in doing so, I can't help but feel it will have lost much of the charm and fascination of the original.

Some classics (whether in science fiction or literature in general) prove distinctly feeble to a modern reader. I'm pleased to say this wasn't the case with The Midwich Cuckoos.

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Review by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here


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