As to this—well, we have lived so long in a garden that we have all but forgotten the commonplaces of survival. It was said: Si fueris Romae, Romani vivito more, and quite sensibly, too. But it is a more fundamental expression of the same sentiment to say: If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does. . . .—The Midwich Cuckoos
In dramatic terms, one advantage of alien invasion stories is their violent ripping away of illusions. Such stories reveal the fragility and transience of that safe, conventional, "normal" world which we take for granted.
John Wyndham is a master of this type of tale, and The Midwich Cuckoos (adapted for the screen in 1960 as The Village of the Damned is a classic specimen of the uncanny made more macabre via a familiar, humdrum setting.
The rustic serenity of the insular, isolated English town of Midwich evaporates following a brief UFO visitation that leaves, in its wake, 62 unexplained pregnancies among the townswomen. The subsequent birth of peculiar golden-eyed children—"The Children"—is carefully concealed by the British government through a program of misinformation and censorship that seems quite plausible given the Cold War backdrop against which the story is set.
As the government establishes a bureaucratic regime in the village to investigate the phenomenon, Midwich's insularity and isolation become even greater, though for very different reasons.
As time progresses and the Children mature, their unearthly nature blossoms: They possess a communal psyche that allows them to learn at an astonishing rate, and their tremendous collective will carries with it the power to compel ordinary humans to do their bidding. Unsurprisingly this power brings them into conflict with their surrogate families, with the other Midwich villagers, and with the government officials who have been assigned to the village to monitor them.
The fate of the Children becomes increasingly intertwined with that of Gordon Zellaby, a cultured and inquisitive intellectual who has settled in Midwich with his wife to pursue the contemplative life. Like the Children, Zellaby's intellect has always set him apart from the community, yet now he is intimately connected to events—for his wife, despite her age, is one of the women who turn out to be pregnant following the UFO visit. A curious mentor-adversary relationship develops between Zellaby and the uber-brood.
For Zellaby's detachment allows him to grasp what the villagers and military intelligence cannot: The Children are invaders. Zellaby is the first to compare the Children to cuckoos. The cuckoo bird lays eggs in sparrows' nests, and when they hatch the cuckoo-chicks invariably prove stronger and more voracious than their nestmates. Thus the sparrow's maternal instinct will lead it to nurture and feed "aliens", so to speak, while the sparrow's own young wither and eventually starve.
From this grim analogy Zellaby draws his conclusions.
The Children themselves confirm that Midwich has become the center of a Darwinian-selection battleground, in which the human race looks upon the face of its own destruction. Evolution has come marching into Midwich to the beat of a war-drum.
Thus the story can be seen at the level of a struggle between two profoundly different species—one fundamentally collective and integrated, the other more individualistic. But it is important to recognize that such a conflict cannot, by definition, be seen as occurring between The Children and homo sapiens writ large, but between The Children and a specific, individual member of homo sapiens. The struggle takes place between the perfectly unified, communally minded Children and Zellaby, who is the archetypal free-thinker.
Zellaby's individualism is unfettered by dogmatism, and this keeps him one step ahead of everyone else. He deciphers the how and why of the UFO visit, the pregnancies, and the Children's perplexing abilities and behavior long before the villagers or government experts can posit anything better than hysterically superstitious fables—whether about curses or Russian plots.
For, as Wyndham's story makes clear, the whole of homo sapiens has a tendency toward a mass-mind as well, albeit one more clumsy and inefficient than the Children's, and of more ambiguous capability. As Zellaby observes:
A kind of self-protective reflex would defend the ordinary man and woman from disquieting beliefs—That is, unless it should get into print. On the word of a newspaper, of course, eighty or ninety percent would swing to the opposite extreme, and believe anything.
Later Zellaby is an eyewitness to a "suicide." A teenager accidentally clips one of The Children while driving his car; the Children turn their mesmerizing collective attention toward the offender, and he immediately slams on the gas and drives headlong into a brick wall at fatal speed.
Zellaby is frustrated by the skepticism which greets his description of events:
You know that I have some little reputation through my books, and you know me personally, but how much is that worth against the thought-habits of "the reasonable man"?
So little that when I tell you what actually occurred, your immediate reaction is to try to find ways in which what appeared to me to have occurred could not in actual fact have done so.
Zellaby's capacity for free-thinking and unpredictable decision-making even allow him to outwit the superhuman Children at a critical point. Setting aside any transcendent philosophical arguments in favor of individualism, it has very pragmatic survival-principles by which to commend itself. For despite all the advantages conferred by group-unity, crucial adaptivity is always missing in a population where no one is able to think "outside-the-box." A population that exhibits surprising and personal spontaneity has an critical advantage in facing the unpredictable elements of the Cosmos.
The story can also be seen on a much more humane level than a Universe red-in-tooth-and-claw. That is, The Midwich Cuckoos is as much a tragedy as anything else—for Wyndham is not simply offering us an image of soulless Bug-Eyed-Monsters or pod-people. Even in their ruthless ascent toward dominion The Children retain a sense of humor and even a capacity for compassion; perhaps their most humanizing trait is their fondness and respect for Zellaby.
Yet the same collective psyche that fuses them together into a perfect unity also cuts them off from homo sapiens—the Children are unable to regard ordinary humanity as anything other than alien, and even Zellaby is ultimately their nemesis in a zero-sum game.
Zellaby, on the other hand, is not so individualistic as to be bereft of empathy for the rest of the human race. It is this empathy that motivates his plotting against the changelings; but his empathy stretches so far as to even include these invaders whom he has come to love. So he suffers from an inner struggle, the tension between his duty to humankind and his fascinated, quasi-paternal affection for humankind's bane. The Children sum up Zellaby's dilemma as well as their own during a poignant conversation with their tutor-enemy:
We are all, you see, toys of the life force ... now it has set us at one another, to see what will happen. A cruel sport, perhaps, from both our points of view, but a very, very old one.
The novel is undoubtedly dark, and with a dark conclusion. Yet there are certain sparks that illuminate a possibility for unraveling the Gordian knot of Individual vs. Collective. Early in the story Mrs. Zellaby—a very thoughtful, insightful, and mature woman—finds herself filled with angst-filled foreboding due to her inexplicable pregnancy. Her husband listens to her melancholy musings, and tells her, "We face it together. You're not alone, my dear, you must never feel that you are alone."
Zellaby's resolution of the Gordian knot can be seen as a reconciliation of the Individual and Collective. That is, he has enough of the collective-spirit to be willing to sacrifice himself on behalf of humankind—yet he is individualistic enough to play a gambit that his fellow humans shrink from, a gambit which the Children do not expect.
And in the preceding words to his wife there is a hint of that strange holistic phenomenon called empathy, by which a bridge may be made across the gulfs separating the assorted specks of life floating through the Cosmos.