22 May 2010

A confusion of cuckoos

This has been a week of cuckoos.

On Tuesday, on the recommendation of Gayle Reynolds, I left my usual furrow to read Good omens. I'm glad I did; it was both funny and thought provoking. It's a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman but, despite having read several Gaiman novels, I somehow hadn't heard of this one even though it's been around for twenty years. Anyway, to get the point ... at the heart of the story is a changeling: a baby swapped in the cradle at birth. Given Gaiman's part in this, it's no surprise that the changeling in question is none other than the Antichrist. Nor, given Pratchett's involvement, is it surprising that said Antichrist gets delivered to the wrong address. But enough of the detail ... my point, for now, is that I started the week with a novel built around the myth of the changeling.

Moving on a couple of days, and on Thursday came the announcement that Craig Ventner had created "synthetic life". I don't want to get bogged down in circular arguments about whether he has "really" created synthetic life or not (I have my view, but it's irrelevant here). Suffice to say that the actual mechanism was to mug a passing bacterium, whip out its genetic payload and replace with DNA built in the laboratory ... in other words, an ultra sophisticated version of the cuckoo trick. (Strictly speaking, this is a class libel ... most cuckoo species are not brood-parasitic at all: they raise their own young. But I'll stick with common parlance, based around Cuculus canorus, the common European cuckoo.)

Thursday was also the day when, setting off early, I suddenly realised that I didn't have a book for the journey. In the dark I found a pile of paperbacks recently bought from a charity shop, selected a slim one for there was little spare space in my bag, and slipped it into my pocket. So it was that, as I pondered the Ventner announcement, I found myself reading John Wyndham's The Midwich cuckoos.

Wyndham's fiction features a small village in which, after a period of mass unconsciousness, every woman of childbearing age finds herself simultaneously pregnant. The book was written at a time when social attitudes to conception outside marriage were very different from today, and so reads oddly to 2010 perceptions. It was also a world of cold war paranoia, only a few years after the end of the 1939-1945 war. But set aside that historical gloss and Wyndham, like Jules Verne, had the knack of seeing future technological possibility. More than two decades before in vitro fertilisation became a reality, Wyndham's "cuckoos" were exotic ova implanted by an (unknown, but presumed to be extraterrestrial) agency. Biotechnology more generally was often the core of Wyndham's fictions (for example genetic modification in The day of the triffids or an age retardant serum in Trouble with lichen), along with its pitfalls; an alternative parallel to Verne would be Huxley's Brave new world. Anyroad ... to get back to the point, Wyndham's cuckoos started not in the nest but in the womb ... as close as the 1950s could reasonably get to Ventner's synthetic cuckoo within the cell itself.

Unlike the antichrist (back in paragraph two ... do try to keep up!), the young cuckoo emerging from an egg left in somebody else's nest is not really a changeling. It is added to the clutch of eggs in the nest, rather than replacing one. On the other hand, once that egg hatches the interloper chick evicts its acquired pseudosiblings so the effect is the same.

The trouble with a chance cluster of anything is that it sets the mind on a track which is no longer chance but a self structuring chain. The coincidence of three changelings in three days generates thoughts about changelings. So on Friday I had to pull down from the shelf and reread the most achingly sad but stunningly superb changeling fiction I know: Keith Donohue's The stolen child.

Where the changeling comes from (and the human child goes) is variable, depending on where your mythologies originate, but broadly speaking it is usually a magical offspring. Sometimes it is a magical geriatric. Donohue's changelings, though, are the geriatrically preserved result of previous exchange. That is, child "A" is stolen so that "B" can take it's place and live as human. Child "A" then becomes the most junior member of a band of similar beings living lives of suspended childhood in the woods. The senior member of this band, when the opportunity arises, is substituted for child "C" who is abducted and becomes the new most junior member below "A". There are a dozen or more of these sprites in the group, and opportunities for changing are not frequent. "A" may wait, suspended in prepubescence but ageing in mind, for a century or more before the opportunity comes to kidnap "Z" (who becomes the newest recruit to the woodland band) and resume interrupted human life in a time and family utterly unlike that from which s/he was originally stolen. It is all worked out in heart breaking detail, but with irresistible empathy, and there is an epiphanous ending (on both sides of the theft) to crown it all.

And so a week of cuckoos has passed.

  • Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good omens. 1990, London: Gollancz. 057504800X (hbk) or 1991, London: Corgi 0552137030 (pbk) and more recently 2007, London: Gollancz. 9780575080485 (hbk).
  • John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos. 1957, London: Michael Joseph. More recently republished 2000, London: Penguin. 014118146X (pbk).
  • John Wyndham, The day of the triffids. 1951, London: Michael Joseph. More recently republished 2003, New York: Modern Library. 0812967127 (pbk).
  • John Wyndham, Trouble with lichen. 1960, London: Michael Joseph.
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave new world, a novel. 1932, London,: Chatto & Windus. More recently republished 2003, Lodi, N.J.: Everbind. 0971075697
  • Keith Donohue, The stolen child. 2006, London: Jonathan Cape. 9780224076968 or 0224076965 (hbk.), 9780224076975 or 0224076973 (pbk.).

No comments: