Other Thoughts: The Chrysalids and the Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham

Left, an English farmhouse. Right, an Amish farmhouse

Midwich and Waknuk, maybe. CC by Ilamont and Andrew Smith

Back when Waterstones still did 3-for-2 deals, I picked up the entire John Wyndham collection – since his 6* novels conveniently fit the offer perfectly – read 3 and forgot about them. Oops.

Recently, I finally got round to reading the other three: Chocky, The Midwich Cuckoos (better known as The Village of the Damned) and The Chrysalids. Let’s call it the psychic child trilogy. And, without realising it, I’ve listed them in reverse chronological order – Chrysalids was 1955, Midwich Cuckoos 1957 and Chocky 1968. But in terms of their topics, it makes perfect sense to read them the other way around.

In fact, if I were a book publisher, I would publish Chrysalids and Midwich Cuckoos back-to-back, and I would tell people that they have to start reading Chrysalids the moment they finish Midwich Cuckoos. Individually these are two great books, but together they form something much more. In this blog post, I’m going to natter a bit about how these two books actually tell the same story – as if once in relief, and once in intaglio.

The Children

So yes, psychic Children. Even if you’ve never read Midwich Cuckoos or seen the film versions, its depiction of creepy psychic Children – all identical blonds with pale skin and glowing eyes, forcibly implanted into unwitting mothers and able to read and control minds – is ingrained in the public subconscious. Even The Simpsons parodied it. There is one thing I should mention though – in the book, the Children can only read each other’s minds (the idea that they can read other people’s minds and foretell attacks was added for the movie). In fact, they are really just two beings – one male and one female – divided between sixty-odd bodies. The book never states exactly where they came from, but the hint is that they were created by aliens or gods either as a weapon or simply as a new race of humans.

The Children of Chrysalids on the other hand are no mystery – they were conceived by humans, but born with a mutation that made them able to communicate ‘thought shapes’ to each other (unlike the Midwich Children, the Waknuk Children can’t control the minds of others, and outwardly they appear totally normal). They represent an affront to the fundamentalist Christian townsfolk, just as the Midwich Children represent a rather more obvious affront to 1950s values (even before they start exhibiting psychic powers, neighbouring villages are repulsed by the orgiastic implications of sixty women, many unmarried, all giving birth to identical children at the same time). Each child remains to some extent an individual, but the borders between them are far fuzzier than between normal humans, and later they come to think of themselves to some extent as one being.

But the biggest difference between the two is this: the Midwich Children are unsympathetic villains. The Waknuk Children are sympathetic heroes. When it’s suggested that the Midwich Children might one day replace humanity, this is meant to be a horrifying possibility. When it’s suggested that the Waknuk Children might do the same, it’s the bright, optimistic ending. Gordon Zellaby – father figure to the Midwich Children – dies killing them, and this is a heroic sacrifice. Joseph Strorm – father of Chrysalids’ protagonist David, and capital-F Father as the religious patriarch of the village – dies failing to kill them, and this is a karmic death for an unlikable villain.

The Setting

Midwich Cuckoos is set in a ‘present day’ (i.e. 1950s) English village called Midwich somewhere in the Home Counties, while Chrysalids is set in an ultrareligious post-apocalyptic Canadian farming hamlet called Waknuk thousands of years in the future. But they aren’t as different as they may sound. Post-apocalyptic means that the technology level in Waknuk is a bit behind Midwich – no motor vehicles – and since the inhabitants of Waknuk are conservative Canadian Christians, they don’t really differ much from 1950s rural English types in their thoughts and desires.

Of course, outside this nucleus, the worlds differ almost diametrically. Both villages are trapped in bubbles – Midwich is first enclosed within a strange time dome that knocks out its inhabitants, and then has its borders strictly controlled by the Children, while Waknuk is a patch of relative genetic ‘purity’ surrounded by the Fringes, which are the wild, mutated lands where those unfortunate enough to be born deformed are driven – but Midwich is where the Children are strongest, while Waknuk is where they are most under threat. The Midwich Children use their powers to forcibly keep themselves in the village, while the Waknuk children use theirs to escape.

In both worlds, the political left and right disagree about what to do with the children. In Midwich Cuckoos, the story nudges you towards siding with the authoritarians, who want the Children dealt with as quickly as possible, rather than the liberals who want them protected. On the other hand, Chrysalids makes it clear that it’s the liberals, who want to relax the laws on mutation, who are the goodies and the authoritarians – who are literally called the Right Wing Church Party – who are misguided. Call John Wyndham what you like, he’s certainly not a doctrinaire.

The Powers that Be

As is often the case in Wyndham shadowy high-tech power lurks in the sidelines. Midwich Cuckoos begins with its protagonist Gayford (yes, I know. Hey, it was the 1950s) being recruited by British military intelligence to spy on the children. The military also has a mysterious laboratory in the village (which is never really explained, and might well be left over from an earlier draft) which it converts into a school for the children with famous scientists as lecturers, apparently hoping to win the Children over as agents. But this backfires as the Children become more and more intelligent, until they can effortlessly foil all military attempts to control them. Near the climax, the military send a bomber over Midwich, and the Children use their powers to force its crew to jump out – they then demand a plane of their own to take them to a distant island where they’ll be safe from military attacks. This is no small concern for them, since the Soviets have just blown up another village of Children with an atomic cannon and, as all the Children are connected, they know they’re the only ones left.

Chrysalids on the other hand has Sealand – futuristic New Zealand, isolated enough that it avoided the worst of the nuclear war, but with a population where everyone is a psychic mutant. Sealand can watch events in Waknuk because David’s sister Petra has phenomenally strong psychic powers. Rather than forcing their planes away, Petra calls them in, and she uses her powers as a beacon to lead them right in. After all, they’ve already felt their friends who stayed in Waknuk being tortured and killed.

The Philosophy

If there’s one theme that recurs over and over in John Wyndham’s works, it’s that two intelligent species cannot share a planet without killing each other. Humans and Triffids in Day of the Triffids. Humans and the sea-dwellers in The Kraken Wakes. Even men and women in Trouble with Lichen. And so it is with Midwich Cuckoos and Chrysalids. Both stories agree that there can only be one victor in the war between individualist humans and the collective Children – they just disagree about who it should be.

The Midwich Children never seem to believe they are human, but having always been drawing their plans against us. Being psychic lets them scheme with one another, and without individuality they seem to have no deeper reason for being. The Waknuk Children on the other hand think of themselves as mutated humans right until the end, when the Sealand woman (she never gets a name) tells them they are a separate species – and the “superior variant” at that – which David is never quite sure about. Being psychic lets them communicate on a far deeper level, and they can love in a more meaningful way than any human can.

Incidentally, the views of the Sealand woman don’t differ much from the most prejudiced Waknuk person – she wants to see all non-psychic humans eliminated and feels no guilt at killing whole tribes of both pure humans and “deviant” misshapen humans. They may be more advanced technologically and biologically, but the Sealanders are no better or worse morally than either the Christian Waknuk folk or the barbarians at the Fringes.

The minds of the Midwich Children are strictly divided by sex (‘gender’ doesn’t seem to be the right word – although they inhabit distinct male and female bodies, the male and female hive-minds, although separate, seem to be essentially the same) and the plot is almost entirely driven by the actions of men: Zellaby, Westcott, Leebody and Gayford are the ones who work out the children’s plan, all the police officers and military men are, well, men, and it’s cuckolded men who form a mob to try to kill the children. The women, hysterical due to mothering instinct, mostly argue in vain to save the Children. The Waknuk Children on the other can all communicate with each other, male or female, and when they are in love they essentially become one person. The main plot drivers here are women: six-toed Sophie and her mother, psychics Rosalind and Petra, and the Sealand woman, while the villain of the piece is David’s abusive father. That’s very typical Wyndham gender politics there – men and women as yin-and-yang, equal but opposite.

Finally, there’s religion. In both books, characters wonder if the Christian God has anything to do with the Children. For some of the women of Midwich – especially those who were unwilling single or thought themselves infertile – the Children are first seen as a “gift of God”, as the Vicar goes to work trying to calm those worried that they have somehow fallen into sin. Later he rejects this idea – since the children appear to have no souls, they cannot truly be in God’s image – although as Zellaby points out, if God exists across all places, why should he be restricted to one form? Why can’t there be more than one intelligent species in the universe? For the people of Waknuk, the Children are a blasphemy and a direct insult to God, since they are not in God’s image, and must therefore be purged, as the Preacher explains as he persuades women to abandon their babies. His brother, Uncle Axel, isn’t so sure, since as a sailor he’s met many different tribes of mutants who all believe that their form is the holy one. But, as the Sealand woman points out, if God exists across all times, why should he be restricted to one form? Why can’t Creation change and evolve?

The Summary

As George Lucas once said, it’s like poetry, they rhyme. I was legitimately surprised to learn that The Chrysalids came first – it feels like a sophisticated response to the relatively primal horror of The Midwich Cuckoos. The echoes – or maybe shadows – are unmistakable:

Midwich Cuckoos Chrysalids
The Children look… Strange Normal
Their mothers think they are… Gifts from God Blasphemies
The Children are… Unnatural Natural
The Children become… Villains Heroes
The religious are… Heroes Villains
Most major characters are… Male Female
The heroes are impeded by… Women Men
The Children initially fight to… Stay at home Escape
The Children use their powers to… Drive away aircraft Summon aircraft
The Children decide to… Fly to an island Fly to an island
The surrounding land is… Tranquil Violent
Technology and military force is… A threat A lifeline
They are betrayed by… A father figure A father
The heroic philosophy is… Authoritarian Liberal
The story ends with the defeat of… The Children Humanity

One basic idea, almost two diametrically opposed versions of it. And, the really amazing thing is, John Wyndham managed to make both versions work.
* Not including the short story collections, his novels under other pseudonyms, and his posthumously published books.

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