Wednesday, June 16, 2010

British Science Fiction

John Wyndham The Midwich Cuckoos

*** Warning: This is a picture heavy post - mostly just because I adore the imagery associated with this book. Seriously - how can you not love this artwork? These covers are great! ***

I am a huge fan of the bizarre. Once, at Niagara, I forwent the romantic spots in the "Honeymoon capital of the world" (my best friend was there with her fiancee that weekend, too funnily enough, and they did all the sappy things) and dragged my bewildered boyfriend who hates spending money to Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum. It was great! Like, really great - I love these odd quirks and collections! There I found lots of things - dominoes made of bones, a dress made out of folded Starburst wrappers, an albino beaver - cool posters that were optical illusions, etc. That is just the type of girl I am.

> For the record, I thought it was a vastly romantic weekend - and so did the Boy, after I insisted he take a picture of me in the stocks that were on display with the plaque about how stocks were common in France up until the 1970s. His exact words were, "Okay, I have to picture - I'm going now!" while I struggled and yelled at him. Oh, he's a funny guy, isn't he? Ha ha ha, no. <

So it is no surprise that I am in for it when it comes to science fiction. This book in particular warms that cynical, jaded part of my sci fi loving heart. Let me explain:

As a child, my parents worked an insane amount of hours in an attempt to make a stable and financially viable living arrangement for me and my sisters. As such, from the age of 5 months, I stayed with my grandparents during the week and with my parents on the weekends. Grandmas, well -most of them, are notorious for being lax and sweet and sleeping a lot. My mother's mother was kind of like that, minus the sleeping. That and she could wield a wooden spoon like no other (Remind me to tell you that story sometime...). Anyways, I am an insomniac - not a severe one, but I don't sleep very much if at all, and I might average about two to four hours of sleep per night in my natural state - missing a few nights every couple of days, where I just lie in bed and meditate, sleep being my elusive friend. So anyway, living in Toronto, my grandma had a three bedroom bungalow with one of the three bedrooms being a living room. That was where I slept. So ... at 1am when I was still very much awake, and yet everyone else was snoring, I would turn on the tv and watch whatever was on. Usually that included Science Fiction black and whites or westerns. I forwent the Westerns most of the time in favour of the Sci Fis. And that was when I first saw the movie "Villageof the Damned" (1960). I fell instantly in love with the creepy children and the low voices of the professor and the narrator (I have realized I have a thing for low, throaty voices, which explains my love of Rex Harrington, William Hutt and Christopher Plummer.).

The film was really good, but it took me awhile to get to the book. And then someone bought it for my 24th birthday and I was able to read it again this past May. And I fell in love all over again.

So this will be a review of the novel - not the movie, but it will include some other tidbits and a kind of general discussion of John Wyndham, British Science Fiction, Cold War literature and my own lunacy.


The Synopsis (from Amazon):

In the sleepy English village of Midwich, a mysterious silver object appears and all the inhabitants fall unconscious. A day later the object is gone and everyone awakens unharmed - except that all the women int he village are discovered to be pregnant.

The resultant children of Midwich do not belong to their parents: all are blonde, all are golden eyed. They grow up too fast and their minds exhibit frightening abilities that give them control over others and brings them into conflict with the villagers just as a chilling realization dawns on the world outside ...
Brief, if good, synopsis.

The story opens with a narrator on the outside of this strange event. Richard Gayford, due to his strange position as resident of Midwich and absentee of the event, begins by outlining the scene as the reader first encounters it: Ambulances and police and people who walk or drive towards the village inexplicably get knocked unconscious. When removed, as Gayford and his wife are when they defiantly go through the military blockade towards the village, the people (and a canary) are at once conscious - ignorant as to what happened to them. Gayford also adds a few stories, the most notable about Zellaby - the resident professor and intellectual whose thought experiments and observations are what predominantly drive the story.

A day later, everyone wakes up - cold and confused, no one noting any damage except for the casualties caused due to the unconsciousness itself (ex. seniors dying from pneumonia after being cold for so long). Gayford and his wife return to their little cottage, and though there is a military presence - mostly noted by the reader as the introduction of Gayford's old friend, Westcott - the village more or less, returns to business as normal. Until Zellaby's daughter discovers that she is pregnant, despite the fact that she is a virgin. She is quickly married to her long time boyfriend, a member of the military base a little ways out of town. Soon after it is discovered that nearly all the women of child bearing age are pregnant - including the vicar's teenaged niece who happened to plan an unfortuante visit to Midwich that coincided with the strange incident.

Zellaby's wife becomes the driving force behind the calming of the women, herself also pregnant.

I will leave the rest to your imagination - obviously, children are born. They are strange children - very strange. And there begin to be incidents that make the villagers nervous, the catalyst to action.

Now onto an analysis.

The Midwich Cukoos is a brilliant piece of work - starting with the title itself. A cuckoo is such a bird that it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, allowing the other birds to nurture and care for the egg until it hatches. Kind of like a sneaky sleeper cell like bird. In this case, the term "cuckoo" applies to both the men and the women of Midwich (in terms of them being the victims of the cuckoos) . The babies that are implanted in the women of Midwich grow within the women and throughout this period it is not known whether the babies are theirs - the women begin to doubt that they are pregnant with their own offspring relatively soon - due to a combination of events, including the strange proximity of pregnancies. Once born - and all the kids look exactly the same with golden hair and eyes - the men come into play, one even threatening his wife with violence. Strangely enough - the man who hits his wife is seen beating himself through a window. Strange events continue to plague the village. But throughout all this, the men and women of the village continue to foster these children - now sure that they are not the offspring of the villagers themselves. This is a brilliant scenario because it serves as a great plank to jump into many different topics - the bond between mothers and children, the necessity of blood relations, the relationships between men and women when children are introduced, etc. Using the analogy to Cuckoos is the brilliant way to cinch it all together completely. The Cuckoos are never explicitly defined or even seen - though Zellaby speculates who they are and what they want, or even if they are the next evolutionary step for humans - there is no visual beyond the silver specter of the first few pages. This is also a well calculated move: leaving them ambiguous allows for the Reader to really speculate at the reasons behind the series of events, rather then the specific people themselves.

But what I think is particularly remarkable about this book - and all of John Wyndham's books - is the lack of compassion for the invaders. This is a story set within the confines of the Cold War - the secrecy and the races and the speculation of what lay on the other side of the Berlin Wall. It was the 1960s - Cold War paranoia was at its height and the book reflects this in an almost tongue-in-cheek manner that flows effortlessly over the words of the plot. The most evident form of this is when the military shuts down Midwich from the rest of the world (there is a ban on publication of anything to do with the Children) and the news Zellaby and Gayford receive from Westcott about what was done to The Children in Russia (kaboom). The treatment of the military and the idea of "sleeper cells" runs throughout as a reminder that the whole world was on edge in a real way at the time. There was actual real concern over Soviet powers and the ability to have spies and agents West of the Iron Curtain. I think that the political messages of the story are intertwined with the plot so well that takes a second to realize this, but it is nothing to swallow it as truth.

Unfortunately, this blogging thing is preventing me from uploading much more, so we'll cut it there. I would love to discuss this more in the Comments, or if popular - by a sceond post.

Thanks and Cheers! :)

For more information on John Wyndham:

Article from the Globe and Mail, I enjoyed it.

Further adaptations and such (thank you Wikipedia!)
The Simpsons, "Wild Barts Can't Be Broken"

The original British Adaptation and its sequel (1960 and 1963, respectively)
Note - there is also an American version with Christopher Reeves - I liked it alright, but it lacks the coolness of the British versions that is more true to the book. Americans - always have to see the humanity in things. :)

No comments:

Post a Comment