Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-1990) is best known for her short stories in the Children of the Atom sequence–starting with “In Hiding” (1948)–about hyper-intelligent mutant children and a well-meaning psychiatrist who brings them together. In 1953, she added two additional stories and expanded it into a novel. Here’s her bibliography and SF Encyclopedia entry. I’ve decided to read the three short stories published before the novelization. I might at some later point tackle the complete Children of the Atom (1953). I’ll also review the only other story she published before her brief 1970s comeback.
First, here’s a bit of historical context that helps place the Children of the Atom stories. In The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (2013), Robert A. Jacobs analyzes radiation’s “paradoxical iconography” that dominated early Cold War media. Jacobs describes the paradox as follows: “its abstract nature (invisible, odorless, tasteless), when combined with its true dangers (genetic mutation, cancer, death), allows it to evoke impossible worlds emerging from the ordinary one” (12). In film and fiction, “radiation came to symbolize a break in the normal structure of everyday reality” (13). The mere reference to its presence served as a “narrative marker” to indicate that “from this moment on anything was possible” (13). Modern readers might scoff at a nuclear logic (if it’s described at all) more alchemical rather than scientific but it went with the territory. Think of the B-film with a Geiger counter ominously signally some gigantic mutant about to appear… No informational deluge required. The author’s certainty about the audiences’ terrified/fascinated uncertainty is enough to justify whatever transpires.
Shiras’ stories in the Children of the Atom sequence fit Jacobs’ formulation perfectly. She provides no explanation for the hyper-intelligent mutant children other than vague references to a nuclear accident and radiation exposure. I’m not entirely sure what to think of these short stories. She avoids many of the pitfalls of other mutant children tales (A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids come to mind) by the inclusion of caring normal adults who empathize with them and attempt to provide them a better life. Ultimately, the historian in me kicks into gear–they are fascinating relics of the earliest Cold War years and that adds another level of appeal.
“In Hiding” (1948) first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (November 1948). You can read it online here.
“In Hiding” introduces Peter Welles, a thoughtful psychiatrist, and Tim, a boy who seems different despite his average grades and normal child-like behavior. Tim is referred to Dr. Welles by his kind teacher Miss Page. Dr. Welles’ believes one should always trust a teacher, especially a veteran who taught him as a child (meaningful observations like this one add an air of realism to the proceedings), a proceeds with an array of tests. The results? Welles believes Tim is hiding something from his teachers and family. Over time, Tim opens up to Welles and grows to trust him. And the secret is immense…. Tim pretends to be normal as he is really a hyper-intelligent mutant created by a nuclear accident. And he’s far more than simply precocious–at reads all the books in the library, corresponds with luminaries across the globe, writes under various pseudonyms, and conducts cat breeding experiments in his own workshop.
But Welles knows that Tim, despite his brilliance, is still a child. And a child needs friends and to learn how to navigate the world. Perhaps other children born around the same time and location with a similar exposure to radiation might exist and suffer hidden lives. Tim and Welles come up with a plan to find them and start to dream about starting a school for similar gifted children.
As I mentioned in the introduction, other stories with mutant children whose intelligence might be taken advantage of might ascribe a sinister purpose to Dr. Welles’ inquiry. Instead, Welles genuinely cares for Tim and empathizes with his desire to meet other children with his gifts. Throughout I worried that everything could slip into a cloyingly saccharine malaise but, despite the endless descriptions of Tim’s gifts, the story maintains a deep sense of care and love. “In Hiding” treads a fine and careful line.
Recommended for fans of 1940s SF.
3.25/5 (Above Average)
“Opening Doors” (1949) first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (March 1949). You can read it online here.
Following close on the heels of “In Hiding,” “Opening Doors” follows Dr. Welles and fourteen-year-old mutant genius Tim’s attempt to find other mutant children. The responses to a code place in the newspapers trickle in. The cryptic answers suggest that other children yearn for companionship with children like them. Welles sets off to investigate the case of Elsie Lambeth.
Elsie, committed to an insane asylum, develops other ways to cope with her intelligence. She pretends to be crazy and experiences bouts of depression, violent tantrums, and sullen spells (14). Some of it is an instinctive reaction to those she views as beneath her. In other instances it’s an act to get what she wants. And in the asylum, she’s treated kindly by another well-meaning adult, Dr. Mark Foxwell, who attempts to teach her behavior guidelines and supplies her with an endless amount of books. Welles reveals the story of Tim to Foxwell and convinces him to support his efforts to bring Elsie to his new school. Of course, he has to convince her guardians–whom she dismisses as idiots (yet secretly admits that they tried in their way to care for her).
As with “In Hiding,” Welles continues to act on his deep desire to assist those in need. Shiras deploys essentially the same plot features as the previous story. Welles builds trust with Elsie, convinces adults around her of his good will, and eventually reaches a breakthrough. Unlike Tim, Elsie requires far more assistance as she experienced greater hardships (the asylum itself is presented as a rosy institution filled with great people which is hard to believe).
“New Foundations” (1950) first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (March 1950). You an read it online here.
The third variation on the theme follows Welles on further travels to inquire and gain the trust of other potential mutant children. He reaches his first (although surmountable) challenge with Jay Worthington. Jay wants to join Welles’ school but must take care of his loving family (and his blind historian father). Welles also meets with Stella who writes best-selling novels about Ancient Egypt.
By this point, the lack of real challenges facing Welles and his charges, endless half-baked philosophical debates between the children, and a parade of brilliant achievements all accomplished in secret started to grate on me. I assume the last additions to the sequence that form the novel version add more direct forms of conflict. I cannot help but assume that when the true nature of Welles’ school and his students is discovered, not everyone will be pleased… and many will want to use the children for their own benefit.
“A Day’s Work” (1952) first appeared in Science Fiction Adventures, ed. Philip St. John (November 1952). You can read it online here.
Like the Children of the Atom stories, Shiras spins a tale grounded in the realism of the everyday — albeit an everyday unlike our own. A slice-of-life story account of lives of the doctors and assistants at a Revivifying Center, “A Day’s Work” examines the moral conundrums posed by new medical advances–in this instance, the ability to revive the recently dead (if their organs remain mostly intact). In this world, it is homicide if you do not quickly report someone’s death in case the Revivifying Center could rescue them. But some of those who are rescued really want death to be death.
The story actively celebrates career-driven women who devote themselves to medicine and male allies who treat them as equals. A young woman who witnesses the almost miraculous recovery of a loved-one, inquires “can women do this work too?” (102). And the male doctor and his assistants are quick to point out–absolutely! “We have two of them in our Center” (102).
While the story feels on the minor side, it’s a shame that Shiras didn’t produce more visions in the 50s. Somewhat recommended for fans of lesser known 50s medical-themed science fiction.
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