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The Midwich Cuckoos

Published in 1957 The Midwich Cuckoos is, at first sight, a relatively slight novel, taking as its starting point a classic Science Fiction theme - alien invasion - and bringing an imaginative twist to the idea, in having the "invaders" arrive on earth as "cuckoo children", raised by host mothers, and then becoming a threat to the village community and having to be destroyed. The novel was published, it is interesting to note, at a time when the theme of alien invasion was being filmed in American movies such Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, films which covertly attempt to deal with contemporary issues connected with the cold war and the fear of Communism. The Midwich Cuckoos, it might be suggested, is simply a British variation of a topical theme, with a long-established English rural community threatened from the outside by the alien invaders.

 I would suggest, however, that the novel becomes more interesting when you stand back from it and see it in the context of late 1950s British attitudes, and also within the terms of the development of popular science fiction itself. Within the novel there is more than a hint of the importance of wider social issues and problems - of Britain's position within the international order, attitudes towards science and technology, and attitudes towards the role and efficacy of liberal intellectual moral arguments about politics and pacifism in the late 1950s. It is also significant that the novel is written on the eve of the so-called 'New Age' of Science Fiction writing, associated with writers such as Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, writers who self-consciously moved away from the so-called 'Age of Wonder'/'Amazing Stories' type of science Fiction of the 1940s, and from the 'hard-core' science-based Science fiction of writers such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and A.E. Van Vogt. In the works of these later writers we see a 'softer' and less technical treatment of science and technology, and the introduction of perspectives from psychology and sociology, the human sciences. Wyndham's writings are, in this sense, "on the cusp", between the technological wonders of that previous age of Science Fiction, and the more speculative and frequently pessimistic writing on the social role of science and technology. This can, in turn, be linked to changes in the perception of Science and technology in the 1950s, and the decline of confidence in science that manifested itself in the 'Horror Science Fiction' of the 1950s. This lack of confidence was based either on fears of a future based on scientific and techno-rationalistic thinking alone (science detached from morality), or alternatively an expression of the limits of scientific thinking (science rushes in where angels fear to tread!). How these fears manifest themselves in The Midwich Cuckoos is something I would like us to explore through various activities.
(i)A Terribly British Invasion. From the opening page of the novel we are made aware of a setting which is presented as quintessential English. Much of the action is centered on life and its disruption within Midwich, and it is only near the end of the novel (Ch 19) that we jolted out of this provincialism and informed that the 'invasion' is international, not just confined to this English village. How is the village presented? What sort of community is it? How does the markedly middle class narrator present it? Is it important that it is a relatively quiet and untroubled hamlet, with its minor intrigues but, in general terms, relatively tranquil and peaceful style of life? What is the impact of the fact that this closely-knot community has to come to terms with the fact that it is part of an international world, and therefore part of the world of international issues of power, politics and "real-politick"? Are their any grounds for seeing this as symbolic of Britain's wider role in international affairs, and the impact of this on everyday English life?
(ii)The invasion and the invaders. How are the children presented as "aliens" and as 'other' to the villagers? What, in particular, do you think is significant about their appearance, about the way in which they assume human form, and the manner in which they invade? It is worth noting the significance of the fact that, when the women realise that they are pregnant, the novel explores the issues of 'natural' pregnancy and the cultural attitudes towards 'natural' processes of conception and childbirth (look, for example, at the account of the women's reactions, and the ways in which they have to learn new attitudes towards their pregnancies). How does the novel treat the children as alien invaders, and particularly the perspective which the children bring towards notions of the life force?
(iii)Science. Would you describe the novel as Science Fiction? Does it follow what you would consider to be the conventions and expectations of scientific fiction? How, also, is science presented within the novel as a whole? Look at the way that the novel, at various points, attempts to derive a rational and scientific approach towards the events which are described, as opposed to seeking supernatural, metaphysical, religious or purely psychological forms of explanation for events. Does this mark the novel as belonging to a particular genre of popular fiction?

(iv) Humanity, civilization, and the crisis of the middle class liberal. Zellaby is probably the most significant figure within the novel. He is, for most of it, the means of introducing speculative questions of morality, politics and the implications of scientific thinking, and a means of drawing out wider themes of right action and response. At the end of the novel it is he who realises that the only course of action is to kill the Midwich children. You could, I would suggest, see Zellaby as a representative of the dilemma of the civilized middle class liberal intellectual, bound by standards of "civilized" and "rational" behaviour, but also seeking to save the good of the community as a whole. He dramatises, therefore, the classic plight of the liberal intellectual, who may be morally against war and violence, but has to resort to war and violence in order to preserve the social and moral order which underpins civilized society. In the 1950s this was not, for the educated middle classes, simply an academic question: the novel, in its references to the Soviet responses to the children, reminds us that the issue of when it is right to stand up to an alien and despotic political regime was very much an active issue for educated opinion in the period. Thinkers such as Zellaby may realise that war and violence are intrinsically wrong in themselves, but may be necessary when called to defend oneself against political, military or ideological threat from outside. Is this reading too much in?

(V)The novel's readership? Who, do you think, the novel sets out to reach? What is its intended readership, and how is this indicated? You might consider the proposition that science fiction is the expression of "one particular social group ... the scientifically and technologically orientated middle class.' [See particularly the article by Adrian Mellor, 'SF and the Crisis of the Educated Middle Classes', in Popular Fiction and Social Change (ed. C. Pawling)]. I personally am less sure about this view, feeling that it restricts our view of the readership for this kind of novel (and that we must also remember that the film was made into a very popular film, Village of the Damned. Nevertheless, there is still a general sense of "cosiness" about this tale of alien invasion, particularly when set against contemporary American novels and films which dealt with alien invasion.

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