The Fallen Children is a modern day rewrite of John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos, in which the women of a community are forcibly impregnated with alien Children. These Children grow quickly, have telepathic and telekinetic skills, and the divide between human and alien quickly becomes first untenable then deadly, as both species act to protect themselves against the threat of the other. Fair warning: Wyndham is one of my favourite authors, though The Midwich Cuckoos is not, I think, one of his better works.
Owen’s updated version is a YA novel that takes place on Midwich Estate, council housing for disadvantaged social groups. In his Foreword he claims that “these young people face impossible circumstances outside of their control and fight them regardless, even as the world around them assumes the worst and does everything it can to drag them down” (p. 2). He’s clearly trying to write an ultimately hopeful story focused on freedom and choice, and as a rewrite his success is mixed.
Where the influence of Wyndham is least felt—and what really differentiates the two books—is in the narrative voices of The Fallen Children and the novel's consequent emotional immediacy. It’s much choppier than Cuckoos, primarily because of these constant changes in perspective. The quartet of protagonists—Keisha, Siobhan, Maida, and Morris—all tell their stories in their own words. Even within individual chapters these four personalised narratives compete for attention, with perspective often changing every few pages. This can be destabilising for the reader, but Children, like Cuckoos, is a destabilising story—so the device works well. Emotions run high, especially amongst the girls, as they discover and navigate their strange and unwilling pregnancies. By privileging the reactions of those at the centre of the mystery—and at the centre of the exploitation, the violation, of forced pregnancy—Owen is able to convincingly get across the emotional lives of his characters.
Wyndham never quite managed this—not in Cuckoos, at least, though he was far more successful in books like The Chrysalids (1955). The Midwich Cuckoos was also told in the first person, but that person was primarily an observer. Richard Gayford and his wife Janet were out of the village when the other women were impregnated—they never had to deal with the emotional repercussions, or the resulting Child. And unlike the other Midwich residents, they were able to leave the community, spending some years in another country before returning to see what havoc the Cuckoo Children had made in the lives of their former neighbours. Gayford was interested, but not really affected, and the two women characters who might have been the avenue to really explore this type of sexual violation were soon excused from the task. Angela Zellaby, discovering her pregnancy at the same time as the other women discovered theirs, was found to be carrying her husband’s child—a perfectly normal boy. Her step-daughter Ferellyn had a Cuckoo Child who died soon after birth, at which point she moved away from Midwich and out of the story.
In effect, Wyndham’s choice of narrator distanced story from character in a way that The Midwich Cuckoos never quite recovers from. Owen doesn’t make that mistake, and I tend to think his story is initially stronger because of it. His primary focus is that of the affected teens. The impregnated girls of Midwich Estate are essentially host mothers, as they were in Midwich village, but while the latter are described by a rational, distanced observer the former are allowed to transcend their experimental status. They’re not lab rats, not something to be monitored and questioned by someone outside of the experience. Their experience is their own, and not one to be filtered through the perspective of an objective Gayford-analogue.
That experience is largely a negative one. Keisha and Siobhan, especially, consider teen pregnancy a disaster, something that will anchor them to the Estate and a life of poverty—especially as both girls had dreams of higher education. And there’s no coming together the way there was in Midwich village, where the entire community rallied around the afflicted. No, they’re stuck with Snapchat and backstabbing gossip, classmates who glory in their predicament: “O M G. / Taking bets whos the biggest slut!! / They are fuckin rank” (p. 86). They’ve got unsupportive families and teachers who are worse than useless (even one who’s an active predator himself). There’s nothing magic about these pregnancies, for all Maida calls her daughter Marvel. It’s violation all the way.
And because this is a story about violation, it’s also a story about freedom—because violation can’t be recognised as such unless there’s an ideal to compare against. For the young women of the Midwich Estate, freedom is something that mostly happens to other people. They’re from poor families, uneducated mostly, and Maida at least is ringed around with religious restriction and familial expectation. Freedom seems so attractive precisely because they don’t have it. What they have, in its place, are socioeconomic restrictions. Estate kids, the wrong class and race and religion. No-one expects them to succeed in life. No-one even entertains the possibility that they’re the cuckoos in the nest, capable of being more successful than their peers.
Keisha’s well aware of this. “It’s funny how, when you’re young, everyone expects you to mess up your life. They even work against you to make sure it happens. And then they gloat when they prove themselves right” (pp. 138-139). Of course these girls were going to end up pregnant, the community thinks. SLUT is written on Keisha’s door—she’s living down to all the things anyone ever believed of her.
No one ever escapes the Estate. Poverty drags you back, hopelessness, lack of chance and choice.
And teen pregnancy.
But it’s not enough to be violated, to have freedom taken away as impregnation is inflicted on them without consent—a strange accelerated pregnancy at that, one which links the mothers together, gives them a sort of empathic awareness of each other. Like Midwich the village, the babies are aware, and able to manipulate. This, too, is freedom and violation, and The Fallen Children explores this in two very different ways.
Siobhan is horrified by her pregnancy, wants nothing more than to end it. But even the word “abortion” is forbidden to the hosts—the foetuses simply do not allow it to be spoken, exerting control over their mothers’ bodies. “My baby is protecting itself. If I can’t think it, I can’t do it” thinks Siobhan (p. 83), but violation breeds resilience in more ways than one. She tries to cut herself, but the baby won’t let the razor touch her skin. She tries to throw herself off the top of the Estate building, but the baby drags her back at the last microsecond. And then Siobhan turns to technology. She can’t say “abortion,” but Google has auto-complete and so when she types in “How to give yourself an …” (p. 131) she gets the results she’s looking for. (For the sake of research I tried this myself. It’s the second suggestion, right after “enema.”)
Siobhan’s already a drinker—and why wouldn’t she be, it’s no more than anyone expects from a girl like her, seen as nothing more than a drunken little slut—and the baby clearly doesn’t see alcohol as a risk. Siobhan’s body was used to it—perhaps it didn’t strike the interloper as unordinary—and so she drinks and drinks, keeps herself constantly drunk until she manages to kill off what she couldn’t control. “I won” she says (p. 169), bleeding her violation out, reclaiming her freedom, her potential and ability to choose, and I never liked her more. (The remaining children never liked her less.)
It’s worth noting that in Wyndham, the one very young girl briefly referred to—and only at a distance at that—accepts her pregnancy almost beatifically, naming her child Theodore, “gift from God.” I rolled my eyes a damn sight more at that than I did at Siobhan, because I know who’s example I’d be following if I were in their shoes—and my own choice would have “coat hanger” written all over it.
At the other end of the spectrum is Maida, who initially seems to be taking the gift of God route, the Wyndham teen. But it turns out Maida is more interested in the gift of power, and the ability of the foetus to protect itself is something she actively utilises to protect herself from her abusive father. She antagonises him in front of witnesses, knowing that he’ll try to hit her—and when he does try, the foetus takes his mental control away, ensuring its host isn’t damaged and making Maida’s dad beat the shit out of himself for a change. And when Maida/Maida’s Child is finished, and the Estate community is shrinking back from the bloody, violent scene, Maida “straightens up, looks around at them all, deliberately, carefully—and smiles” (p. 176). Violation breeds resilience, but it can also breed further violation. I’m sympathetic to Maida’s desire to get shot of her family, but never has she looked more like her father than in this moment.
This is what happens when the powerless get the power to fight back. No-one’s going to be writing SLUT on Maida’s door, she thinks—she’s taken what’s happened to her, the unwanted violation, and twisted it to her own advantage. Except Maida’s door does get tagged, and it’s here that The Fallen Children really does fall away from its predecessor.
Both books are essentially split into two halves: first the forced conception and pregnancy, then the local community and their interaction with the rapidly developing and powerful Children. I reread The Midwich Cuckoos prior to starting on Owen’s interpretation, and for me Wyndham’s first half was much poorer than his second. Primarily because of the distancing effect of the outsider narrator, he doesn’t really dig into the emotional reactions in the way that Owen does. But that distanced narration comes into its own in the second half of Cuckoos, giving a really chilling (and mostly unbiased) account of the interaction between Children and community, and the inevitably horrifying consequences thereof.
Owen is less successful, and it’s partly because his narrators are so close to the situation that their emotions are clouding their judgement—and, by extension, the judgement of the author, who appears to be so invested in giving his characters hopeful endings that he’s forgotten the shining metaphor of the original text, and what made it so effective in the first place. This lack is linked, inextricably I think, with the diversity of the updated edition. Marginalised by race, class, and religion, the narrators of Children provide a compelling mirror to the homogeneity of Midwich village. It’s a mirror that underpins the debate on powerlessness that runs through the first half of the text. A poor black teen from a council estate is going to have a very different response to pregnancy than a married, middle class woman from a prosperous village, and that the pregnancy is coerced and strange doesn’t change that. Made even more vulnerable by her pregnancy, for instance, Keisha is preyed upon by a formerly trusted teacher and ultimately expelled from her school. Her main support is the small network of Estate teens—themselves marginalised in different ways—who are also affected by their own alien-induced pregnancies. Together, this diverse bunch use each other’s strengths to build a substitute family unit, and it’s done very effectively. But then the Children grow and develop and nothing really changes.
It’s a bit like Star Trek. Aliens come along and they look a little different (something about the nose, usually) and they may act a little different; but underneath, once you get to know them, they’re pretty much the same as us. And so Owen's Children have snowball fights and Christmas dinners and there is the potential for a powder keg with the Child named Zero—who is particularly, personally resentful of Siobhan’s choice to abort—but a good talk with Mum and he’ll be alright. The Children may be different, but with a bit of effort we can all get along.
Wyndham doesn’t make this mistake. His Children are alien, alien from the get go, and they are scary as hell because they’re not like us and never will be. His distanced narrator really hammers home the experience of the Other and it’s deeply frightening. The thing about cuckoos is they push the other little birds from the nest. They starve them out, they’re bigger and stronger. It is war and it’s not going away.
On some level Owen realises this I think. The community reaction to the Children becomes more negative, more destructive, as their power grows, and towards the end of the book Children stops being a rewrite of Cuckoos and starts being a rewrite of The Chrysalids. In that book, a group of young mutants, also with telepathic powers, are raised in a post-nuclear war community that has fallen into religious fundamentalism. In such a society, any creature exhibiting mutation is declared ungodly; mutant humans are sterilised and abandoned in the wilderness to die. The story is told from the point of view of a group of young mutants who try and fail to hide their natures from the “norms.” Attempting to escape to a distant community of mutants like themselves, the young people have to literally fight in order to get away—in much the same way as the Cuckoo Children of Midwich Estate have to battle their own neighbours to escape to a secret group of Children down in Cornwall. But The Midwich Cuckoos is not The Chrysalids, even if they share a theme. They may be the same story but they’re told from different sides, and their separate strength lies in how Wyndham is able to evoke sympathy and a sense of the inevitability of war both from the mutant others (in The Chrysalids) and from the norms (in Cuckoos).
Owen doesn’t do that. He just gets muddled, and in the desire to show that differences can come together he forgets that sometimes they can’t. And I can see his problem: he can’t treat the aliens as aliens because his goal is to show disadvantaged teens overcoming adversity. If the aliens are aliens, if it is war as Wyndham claims, then birth and expectation stands triumphant in the text and the chances of Keisha and co. getting out of Midwich Estate on their own terms are essentially shattered, with the low expectations held of them an accurate thing. But for them and the Children to get out, to overcome the handicap of birth, no-one can really be alien. If you can choose to be a good human, regardless of what you actually are (and both “good” and “human” are loaded terms, carrying with them their own constantly changing set of cultural expectations), then the door is opened for teens everywhere to be whatever they wish. And while that may be an admirable message and a hopeful one, it also undercuts any real sense of alien threat in the text, reducing it down to people who just don’t understand what it’s like to be different instead of the problem of actual, fundamentally irreconcilable natures.
Those irreconcilable natures – or at least, the idea of them – is at the core of both interpretations. Wyndham clearly believes that irreconcilability does exist, exploring the problem through multiple works. Yet in The Fallen Children, Owen is not only unconvinced by the idea of irreconcilable natures, he actively rejects it. Whether this rejection is a theme he too explores in his other works I’m simply not sure (this is the first book of his I’ve ever read). It does, however, make for a very different story—and I’m not convinced that in the context of a rewrite it is an entirely successful one. The idea that no irreconcilable differences exist can be a strong one (it’s kept Star Trek going for decades now, after all) and it can certainly be used to represent the positive ideals of communication, exploration, and reconciliation. If this book existed on its own I might perceive it differently—but it doesn’t. It exists as a transformative reading of a classic sci-fi/horror text, and it can only do that by gutting the horror of irreconcilable natures that made that original text so strong to begin with.
All of which is to say: Cuckoos was a horror story. Children just thinks it is.
If, like me, you tend to gravitate towards the horror in your stories then Owen’s transformation of Cuckoos may be, after a strong start, ultimately unconvincing. Power is used, and powerlessness doesn’t derive from anything but the use of power by other entities. The power differential between the Children and the community is so great that it is, ultimately, a matter of survival for both species. The Children are a threat and anyone not influenced by parental love can see that, and see it clearly. Keisha can talk to her Cuckoo Child until she’s blue in the face about how he can choose to be good, but Zero is alien and dangerous and his people are waiting for him. His goodness is not ours, and does not have to be.
Wyndham was both less and more clear-sighted.