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The Midwich Cuckoos
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1001 Monthly Group Read > March {2010} Discussion -- THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS by John Wyndham

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Charity (charityross) Discussion Time!!

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Jay (jaycadiramen) | 43 comments I guess I will kick us off.
The Day of the Triffids is one of those movies Of everyone has heard but which not many people have actually seen. I was lucky enough to watch it (again, as an adult) a few years ago. While nobody can doubt that the special effects were dire, the story was an intricate blend of layers in which the primary driver was not the Triffids but rather the human characters and how they coped with this adversity and each overcame their selfish nature.
I had never heard of this book before and was intrigued by the premise - an entire town that 'loses' a day and in which it is later found that every female (since the term woman is not applicable) is pregnant. When I them discovered that the book had been made into the cheesy movie 'Village of the Damned' I was concerned and expected the worst. Discovering that it was written by the author of 'The Day of the Triffids' wen some way to easing my trepidation. However I did still begin reading this book expecting to dislike it... And was quite surprised.
The story itself is ludicrous, however the characters so deftly (if sparsely) sketched and the situation so steeped in human haman nature, emotion and feeling that the plot itself can be (on the whole) ignored and the short book enjoyed simply as an exploration of human mature in a particular time in British village life.
And to me those are all key to the understanding and enjoymet of the story: the story is set in a particular time in the past in which cell phones were not around and bicycles and walking were an acceptable mode of transport, and in which respect, manners and community spirit were not so much considered important but which simply WERE important with no consideration bit the alternative; the book is set in a village, and in a British village.
One of my favourite parts of the book is when the women of the village are brought together to address and wzain their mass pregnancy, a fact which simply could not have escaped the majority of them bit which the author implies has simply not been broache and is simply a topic that is being ignored. That meeting is a highlight of the the book: village nature and thinking, and feminine thinking and values at that time in particular, are beautifully demonstrated.
In fact the majority of the books dwells on the pregnancy and the lead-up to the birth. The author does overstay his welcome in this area, and I found myself finding the last few long, philosphical conversations, in which nothing so much was being discussed as possibilities and conjecture, quite tedious. That's not to say the rest of the book doesn't deal fully with the story of the Children. The dread mounts and I simply could not digress out how the village, and ultimately the world, would get out of this situation. The story of the children is a bit rushed, covering aspects of their abiliiea and their manifestation over a period of nine years, and the endings happens all too quickly leaves a feeling of being quite contrived, but what there is in this part of the book is none the worse for it. The Children come across as a force to be reckoned with and the helplessness of the cilagers is quite understandable and the frustration I felt as I read the book (with their situation - which is a sign that a book has really captured me - as opposed to with the book itself) grew to almost imbearable proportions. In fact criticisms about being rushed and contrived a the end aside I don't think I would have persevered with the book had it bbeen any longer - I would probably have had to put it down for a while, read something entirely different, and revisit it when my frustration had abated somewhat.
A thoroughly enjoyable book on the whole and one I am glad to have read.

Kirsten | 35 comments I thought it was interesting that there were similarities in the description of the Childrens' behaviour to the how the Yrr behaved in The Swarm. Did anyone else see the parallels in the description of a collective thinking/being?

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Jay (jaycadiramen) | 43 comments Interesting observation Kirsten! Apart from the fact that the male and female children appeared to form two separate collectives there Is a distinct simarity in the collective thinking and the ability for a particular physical manifestation to become the prime and feed back information to the whole. However i didn't feel that the intentions of the Children, beyond simple and immediate self-preservation, was ever explained, while it was clear that the Yrrr had an axe to grind.

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I also was looking forward to reading this book, as I haven't read anything by Wyndham for many many years. I did enjoy the read, particularly the examination of how the human race is no longer accustomed to having to fight for survival(as a species). I thought it quite interesting at this time, when it's possible we face extinction in the relatively near future from our own hands, through climate change and its effects.

message 6: by Coqueline (last edited Mar 19, 2010 03:42PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Coqueline | 28 comments Classic sci-fi is not a genre I generally read. In fact, this is the first.

Even though I found the whole premise thought-provoking and it does have relevant philosophical questions behind it, I find the whole background, at best, cutely vintage. From the view that male and female are completely different creatures (if only mentally), the acceptation of female helplessness towards their own reproduction function (even by the male population), and the outdated views on the theory of evolution, it gave an interesting point of view of the zeitgeist of the era. Nevertheless, it was well written, and an enjoyable read. Just not convincing enough to be as creepy as it should've been for this time and day, I'm afraid.

Cindy (newtomato) | 196 comments Coqueline: "cutely vintage" is a great way of describing the book.

I only realized in the final third of the book that I was picturing everything in black and white, like The Twilight Zone. It made some of the sexist comments quaintly palatable.

Other than that, it was a pretty amusing book. Too much talking, but pretty thought provoking.

I wouldn't be surprised if there was a Twilight Zone episode pretty much like the story - especially when the narrator comes back to Midwich for a visit with Bernard after being in Canada.

message 8: by P. (new) - rated it 3 stars

P. (shimizusan) | 96 comments I am almost finished with the book, and have mixed feelings about the whole novel. When I read the blurb I couldn't help thinking 'I've read this somewhere before', then I remembered Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' and the later 'Oryx and Crake'. Those novels are far superior to Wyndham's story, but I have grown fond of his humorous quintessentially English apporach to the calamity that befalls his beloved Midwich.

The soft, benign language however does serve a higher purpose. The early suicide attempts of the women when they find out they are with child did disturb me. I could connect with the terror of the unknown, the feeling of being an incubator for god-knows-what, and the frustration of having the men of the village try and subdue the whole situation.

There were also moments where I thought, 'that would never be allowed to happen'. For instance, the women are portrayed as a bit stupid. I mean, at least one of them would demand an abortion.

But the discussion about the aliens only really being one girl and one boy (a sort of Jungian Collective consciousness) was brief, but good. I can see how this might have made a big impact on the readers at the time.

Kristi (kristilarson) | 266 comments I just started this today, but I'm cruising through it. Really like it so far. I enjoy the writing, it's pretty simple but effective. My first by this author, but I've got another waiting for me on my Kindle.

I just watched 'Surrogates' tonight, and there is a scene that describes how I imagined the beginning of the Dayout.

message 10: by mara (new) - rated it 2 stars

mara | 220 comments Mod
but I have grown fond of his humorous quintessentially English apporach to the calamity that befalls his beloved Midwich

I guess so, Zee! I couldn't wait to begin this book and now that I'm half way through I just cannot reconcile the attitude of the villagers and the narrative tone with what is happening. There is nothing like dread or even a semblance of curiosity. There is a flippin Virgin Birth for goodness sake and NOBODY wants to know what alien being or demon force impregnated her? It's just "oh dear, how odd..." no special dectors from top secret facilities helicopter in, nothing, just a bunch of men yammering on. Why aren't the women telling the story? I understand that you have to put the novel in it's context. But I just keep thinking, "really?"

Kristi (kristilarson) | 266 comments Has anyone seen the movie Hot Fuzz? That's how I picture Midwich.

They are strangely calm about the whole incubation thing. There is a passage in chapter 19 about how in America there would be 'coast-to-coast panic' during an invasion, but in England an invasion would be met with 'scepticism.'

message 12: by Amanda (last edited Mar 29, 2010 05:01AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Amanda To be honest, I'm struggling with similar issues to some of the other readers here and as a consequence, am not getting through it at any great speed. I'm a great lover of classic Sci-Fi and I'm very disapointed, because I really wanted to like Wyndham, but he does feel very outdated.

His distant approach to characterisation is making it a little hard to tell one person from another in what is a very large cast for such a short little novella and the indifferent way many of the characters are behaving to what is a rather terrifying occurance goes a bit beyond the explaination of a traditional 'stiff upper-lip'.

I'm especially having problems with the female characters, who seem to stoically accept the fact they have been mysteriously impregnated against their will, despite having no idea what is happening to their bodies, or what they are carrying. Occasionally, one will break down into tears, but quickly recompose themselves, or a younger girl might attempt suicide, but will feel better after having a good old chat...

It is also very queer to my mind that no one has brought religion into question considering the quiet, old-fashioned rural setting and the practiacally dozens of 'immaculate conceptions' that take place there. The security and attempted hush-up surrounding Midwich is shockingly lax too considering such a large fuss is made of it in the beginning of the novel, it doesn't seem to feature after the births. My suspension of disbelief is taking a rather large battering!

Michelle (fireweaver) | 104 comments Amanda, don't worry, a minor character does go off a religious deep end later on in the book, so the subject indeed gets brought up.

i do totally agree about the vagueness of the characterization - there were several times where 3 pages into a lengthy conversation i had to go back and realize "oh, it's that OTHER chick having a conversation with the old man!" i could not figure out the necessity of the narrator and his wife in the story. why couldn't one of the villagers, perhaps the old man's wife (the only one to have a non-Child kid), tell the tale and thereby delete some of the useless characters?

"cutely vintage" indeed - a great description of the town's reaction to the whole crisis. this book is so much a product of its times. these women attempt suicide, or one is seen to be "buying a bicycle and pedaling furiously up and down the countryside", because in the 50s it's apparently ok to die or to "accidentally" loose a baby whereas an intentional abortion is literally unthinkable to this crew. that one glaring conceit both made and flawed the book for me. on one hand i love the premise of these "cuckoo" kids sneaking into society, and i really wanted the book to do more with it. on the other hand, the book HAS to be in an era where abortion simply isn't done for it to work.

kudos for the group for picking a back-to-back pair of such dissimilar overly verbose sci-fi novels to compare!

Coqueline | 28 comments means that it is not outdated. Many parts of the US have this perspective as do several European countries. Surely, this makes it just as relevant today?

I beg to differ. Just because it is illegal in certain countries does not mean women in those countries wouldn't seek to have it done medically (as opposed to cycling themselves to death or other homemade methods decribed in this book) when they are faced with unwanted pregnancies. The women in the book seems to have a perspective that it isn't possible at all to have a medical abortion, and this complacency hasn't been relevant for many decades now, I think.

But then again, I also think it has a lot to do with the writer being male, who most probably have not done a lot of research into how real women will react and to what extent to the situation, and that the book reader demographic itself being mostly male that the book didn't delve further into the psychological complexity of mass unwanted pregnancies from the female's perpective.

Cindy (newtomato) | 196 comments Although it wasn't explicit, I figured the children had some influence over the mothers even while fetuses. Of course this was in retrospect after the kids started influencing people, but at the time it was horrifyingly odd. Perhaps that was the intent, reveal the influence later?

Coqueline | 28 comments Of course, the premise of the children's later development wouldn't be possible if all the women decided (and succeeded) to abort them.

message 17: by mara (new) - rated it 2 stars

mara | 220 comments Mod
Amanda, I like how you say "distant characterization." That's exactly it. I don't know though, let's go completely out on a limb and say that Wyndham meant for us to think all of this, that he was making a commentary on the way he perceived small town, conventional people in his day. Maybe it's one of those "it's the normal, everyday people who are scary, not the aliens" kind of thing. I don't know. . .

Hot Fuzz!! I LOVE that movie :-) Great tie in.

Amanda Cindy wrote: "Although it wasn't explicit, I figured the children had some influence over the mothers even while fetuses..."

Now that is an interesting never occured to me before because Wyndham makes no direct reference to it until later, but the attempts of the women to rid themselves of the pregnancies are rather passive, and if I'm remembering correctly, Wyndham puts stress on the fact that the suicide was an 'attempt' and possibly not a very good one.

It stuck me odd that the men were so resigned before, abortion isn't even mentioned and you'd have thought it would have run through a jealous husbands mind, or that of a medical practicioner concerned for the health and well being of the mothers. But there is never any question of the women just bravely seeing the pregnancies through to the end. Are the fetuses controlling the adults of Wyndham even at this early stage of development, or is Wyndham just too shy to broach the subject?

Michelle (fireweaver) | 104 comments Charlotte, sure, there are plenty of places where the prevailing attitude is that abortion isn't ok...but there would at least be a handful of people who'd sneak off to the nearest big city and quietly get one done anyway if this was set in modern small-town america. it's specifically the homogeneity of the idea, that abortion is literally unthinkable (as in, it's not even so much as mentioned once in passing) that struck me as decidedly antiquated.

as far as the Children exerting influence even in utero, hmmm, hadn't thought of it being a specific literary device. there are plenty of mentions of exactly *how* the Children were strange when the military guy was running through the places where other towns had had dayouts. anyone still got the book to check if there was a mention of specific in-utero crazy? i think i remember one place (the eskimo village??) where they said that everyone left the babies to die of exposure - if that's the case, then you'd have to assume that mental compulsion power doesn't develop until a few weeks after birth.

Kristi (kristilarson) | 266 comments It was mentioned that they didn't think the Children's ability to control didn't start for a couple weeks, about the time that all of the mother's brought the Children back to Midwich. Michelle, I think you're right about the Eskimo village, and I think there was another village in Africa (?) where the Children were aborted. I seem to remember the women perishing as well...

Coqueline | 28 comments ...and I think there was another village in Africa (?) where the Children were aborted. I seem to remember the women perishing as well...

It was a village in Outer Mongolia, and from the tone of voice I perceive it that the men murdered all women and children because they suspected the women had been lying with the devil.

Kristi (kristilarson) | 266 comments I watched the 1960 movie version last night, called Village of the Damned. It was pretty hilarious. The Chilren wore horrible blonde wigs. When they were doing their mind-control thing, their eyes would light up, but they would only show still shots while they were doing this. And it was in black and white. I guess we've come a long way in special effects since then. Has anyone seen this version, or the 1995 version?

Trisha Kristi wrote: "I watched the 1960 movie version last night, called Village of the Damned. It was pretty hilarious. The Chilren wore horrible blonde wigs. When they were doing their mind-control thing, their ey..."

On your description alone ~ I now know I need to get to my library and get this copy! Hilarious! I can't wait! :D

message 24: by FrankH (last edited Apr 06, 2010 07:22PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

FrankH | 39 comments Agree with Mara and others on the disconnect emerging from the horrific plot elements, the near languid reaction of the villagers to their fate, and the ruminative narrative style. At first, I wanted to reach into my Kindle and give these good burghers a whup up side the head. Don't they know what portends upon the blondish, uniform appearance? The distant glacial behavior? The golden eyes? 'FOR GOD'S SAKE, YOUR BODIES AND LIVES ARE BEING TAKEN OVER BY
ALIENS. DO SOMETHING'. But then, by page 80 or so, I thought, no, 'Midwich' is not really science fiction -- it's a kind of dry, understated satire on English mannered behavior. When the space invaders come and knock-up all the women, invite the villagers over for a cup of tea and a comforting chat on calmness and civility. Nothing more English-like than the
measured response to catastrophe: "What we need to produce," Angela summed up (at the town meeting) , "is something like the companionship of adversity, but without suggesting that it is an adversity -- which, indeed, as far as we know, it is not". How's that again? Imagine John Cleese as Zellaby in some of this dialog and you also get the idea. But I 'Carry On', find myself later reading about the Children as teenagers (even though chronologically they're much younger), and entertain a different idea: it's not satire, it's a parable on
parenthood and on something far worse than creatures from a distant planet -- adolescence. We have the mind control, the hive behavior, the supreme, know-it-all self-confidence, the punishments, including murder, meted out on the kindly moms and dads. Is it the 'Children' or the Parents who are truly 'Damned'? Nothing more logical for the old man to connive blowing up the entire tribe (I was expecting death by poison candy, but I gather the explosion at the end rules this out). In the remaining pages, of course, there's more talk and the continued, disengaged plot mechanics, until at the end, I have my final thought: We can't read this, unfortunately, as a literary lark; rather, the genesis and feel of 'Midwich' arises from the subconscious anxieties of the early atomic age combined with the influence of Huxley and the 'novel of ideas' on Wyndham's creative impulse. How else to understand the pedantic take on this material for someone rooted in the conventions of the pulp genre? For his time, I expect the discussions on species survival were forward-thinking, but it doesn't compensate for the stick-figure characterizations and the first-person technical lapses (is it just me or can Richard logically and seamlessly report on all we're reading about?). It's been two months of expository science fiction: On to free love and D.H. Lawrence.

message 25: by Coqueline (last edited Apr 07, 2010 01:55AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Coqueline | 28 comments Throughout the book, I always imagining Stephen Fry as Zellaby... ;)

Tanya (aka ListObsessedReader) (listobsessed) | 108 comments I actually really loved it! I've been meaning to get around to reading 'Day of the Triffids' for a long time, so I was pleased when this came up as the group read as this is going to be the push to get me to pick it up.

I got a similar feeling reading parts of this to what I did when I read HG Wells, so I was amused when they actually mention Wells' martians. I don't know that they really have that many similarities, just that classic sci fi feel. I came into reading it knowing how old it was, so the 'dated' content did not bother me.

FrankH wrote: "the first-person technical lapses (is it just me or can Richard logically and seamlessly report on all we're reading about?..."

There is actually a passage in the book that deals with this:

"And now I come to a technical difficulty, for this, as I have explained, is not my story; it is Midwich's story. If I were to set down my information in the order it came to me I should be flitting back and forth in the account, producing an almost incomprehensible hotchpotch of incidents out of order, and effects preceding causes. Therefore it is necessary that I rearrange my information, disregarding entirely the dates and times when I acquired it, and put it into chronological order. If this method of approach should result in the suggestion of uncanny perception, or disquieting multi-science, in the writer, the reader must bear with it the assurance that it is entirely the product of hindsight."

Judith (jloucks) | 1203 comments FrankH wrote: "Agree with Mara and others on the disconnect emerging from the horrific plot elements, the near languid reaction of the villagers to their fate, and the ruminative narrative style. At first, I want..."

I haven't even read the book, but I LOVED your comments on it here! Bravo!

FrankH | 39 comments Yes, Tanya, thanks for this note: I forgot or missed this passage..Not entirely persuasive, though. If the 'first person' is absent in much of the rendering, what's the rationale for this approach?

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Caterina | 16 comments My two-cents worth - it was a quick read and, I thought, well worth reading. I agree that it's as much a satire on small towns in England as is it science fiction - after all, the whole impregnation event is not really described, just the effects of suspended animation.

message 30: by Josh (new) - rated it 3 stars

Josh I read it in two days and while it's not the best sci-fi I've ever read, it's definitely up there. The style in which the story unfolded was a bit off-putting for me, but I don't see how it could've been done any other way. The philosophical content and the ending are what makes this worth reading IMO.

message 31: by mara (new) - rated it 2 stars

mara | 220 comments Mod
Great comments from Frank H. Yes, I do think that part of the "fun" of reading something like this is the journey it takes us on toward finding what people were thinking about in a certain time and place in history.

I love the idea that the book is a commentary on adolescence. Hilarious! But I like also how you've mention the early atomic era because we defitely see that theme: what can happen if you ignore a glaring problem or just wish that it will all work out and everything will be normal again. I wonder if part of the thrill of the book is that the reader is so much more excited than the villagers and sees so much more. We get what in reality we would NOT get, a philosophical point of view. This book is, maybe, not trying to be realistic; it's trying to use the advantage of being a book to slow down the action and actually ponder the situation at hand. On the other hand, it is realistic. In reality, when something bizarre happens, people sit around talking about it. You don't flip out. Think of all the news and discoveries that are received for the most part complacently and are the subject of mild table talk. Hmm.

message 32: by Mark (new)

Mark (bikeboy) | 14 comments I found the contrast between the coziness of the author's style and the intensity with which such events would be experienced in real life particularly amusing (Miss Marple meets the aliens?). As others have suggested this novel satirizes the British desire for calm and civility, which in this case almost brings the world to ruin. Compare the British reaction to the reactions of the other world communities where the aliens show up; although cruel, the other reactions (e.g. Soviets nuking a town) actually make a bit more sense.

This was fun read, and I think we should give John Wyndham a break. He wrote the novel in the '50s and was old enough to have served in World War I; we can't expect too modern a sensibility from him. If this was too lightweight a novel for some of us, we have D. H. Lawrence to look forward to.

Kristi (kristilarson) | 266 comments I like your comments, Mark. I really enjoyed the book, too. I thought it was really thought-provoking, and actually quite humorous. Now I'm motivated to read The Day of the Triffids.

message 34: by Ivan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ivan "The Day of the Triffids" was the second book by Wyndham that I have read, the first was "The Midwich Cuckoos" which was filmed as "The Village of the Damned" (the 1960 version with George Sanders and Martin Stephens is quite faithful - not totally - while the more recent version is gawd awful and should be avoided at all costs). I'm not much for sci-fi novels - which is strange because I love sci-films and television series, I guess I just need the visual. However, I consider this one of my favorite books. I'm thinking that one of the reasons I like it is that it all seems so plausible and possible (I also like that Midwich seems bucolic and the novel an idyll). The film lacks the ambiguity of the novel, the children may over-react in their vengeance, but they are never the aggressors. In the book one of the children is actually struck by the speeding car, and one is actually shot by the brother of the man killed in the car. Also, the children grow at twice the rate of humans, so that when they are seven they actually look fourteen - and are indentical (which would have been to big a trick for filmmakers in 1960). Anyway, if you enjoy "The Midwich Cuckoos" (obviously I did) you should also read "The Day of the Triffids."

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