Short Story Reviews: Wilmar H. Shiras’ “In Hiding” (1948), “Opening Doors” (1949), “New Foundations” (1950), and “A Day’s Work” (1952)

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.

3.75/5 (Good)

“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).

3/5 (Average)

“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.

3/5 (Average)

“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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13 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Wilmar H. Shiras’ “In Hiding” (1948), “Opening Doors” (1949), “New Foundations” (1950), and “A Day’s Work” (1952)

  1. I’ve always loved In Hiding. I think it far transcends the period atmosphere of the time it was written. The loneliness and sense of isolation of the boy (alleviated only slightly by his friendship with the caring psychiatrist) is unforgettable.

    • I enjoyed the tenderness in its telling. Unfortunately, the later two stories do not as successfully convey the isolation and loneliness of the children — or as she follows the template so closely it doesn’t resonate as much as “In Hiding.”

      Did you ever get to the rest of the stories? Or only “In Hiding”?

  2. P.S. I also read the novel Children of the Atom, which I gather used the three original stories for its opening chapters. I remember little about it, which may indicate my reaction to it compared to my reaction to the first story “In Hiding.” The rest of the book (two original stories and additional material) lacked (for me) the poignant quality of the first story. Maybe I’ll re-read it to see if it does more for me.

    • Yes, they form the first three sections. Two later stories appeared in the novel only (I don’t know if anything else was changed).

      As I mention in the review, I assume she adds some form of conflict. Other than the struggles of the children in their previous lives before they join Welles, it’s pretty smooth sailing. SF Encyclopedia implies that things go somewhat south when they “reveal themselves, taking the risk that in trying to help normal humans they may end up as a martyred Pariah Elite.”

      What rescues the stories is the sympathetic treatment of normal humans who try to help them and are not bothered by their extreme intelligence. That’s not a normal trope in stories of this ilk… the mutants often separate themselves completely and go form their own society and look down on all the idiots below them (some of my vitriol towards that premise informs my comment — hah).

  3. “A Day’s Work” is similar in its philosophical questioning to Scalzi’s “The Dispatcher” novellas. The conceit amuses me a little, but there’s something in a medical procedure to revivify the recently dead that utterly fails to get my sympathy. The Scalzi stories don’t medicalize the revivification process or mechanize it like Morgan’s “Meths” in Altered Carbon, but make it inexplicable and therefore unexplained…which works far better for me.

    The Dr. Welles/Dr. Xavier-from-Marvel-Comics stories actually repel me. Whatever teensy-tinsy tolerance I once possessed for this nonsense is swamped by the tidal wave of absurd, underplotted, over-performed spectacles whose budgets could feed, clothe, and house millions.

    • Is there direct evidence that Dr. Welles actually inspired the Marvel nonsense though? I care little about the premise in later manifestations but I do think the underlying story as present in “In Hiding” is solid.

      “A Day’s Work” was a brief trifle on an intriguing topic that didn’t do that much with the premise. But… it made me wish she had written more outside of the Children of the Atom sequence in the 40s/50s.

      • Is there direct evidence that Dr. Welles actually inspired the Marvel nonsense though?
        There isn’t, to my knowledge, though that “thoughtful-adult-mentors-weirdos” trope isn’t underrepresented in SF. I don’t think one need hunt too far to find it under many an author’s creative rootstock.

        • It’s definitely not a premise I gravitate towards. But Jacobs’ discussion of the alchemical powers of radiation in film (cited in the first portion) inspired me to track down a few stories that fit the bill!

    • Expendable Mudge: The Dr. Welles/Dr. Xavier-from-Marvel-Comics stories actually repel me. Whatever teensy-tinsy tolerance I once possessed for this nonsense is swamped by the tidal wave of absurd, underplotted, over-performed spectacles whose budgets could feed, clothe, and house millions.

      Yes. My first reaction to JB’s post here at this late stage was to think of how much of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s product of the early 1960s — Bruce Banner transformed into the Hulk by gamma radiation, Reed Richards and company transformed into the Fantastic Four by cosmic radiation, the X-Men into mutants, a vast repertory cast of mutated villains — invariably relied on the ludicrous “alchemy” of radiation.

      Though I retain a respect for Kirby’s vast powers of imagination, the still vastly energetic reactor core that those absurd, underplotted spectacles are still running off and exploiting these sixty years on.

      JB: The mere reference to its (radiation’s) presence served as a “narrative marker” to indicate that “from this moment on anything was possible”

      Indeed. It was still doing that in X-FILES episodes in the 1990s.

      It was a trope. Preceding the Shiras stories, more noted authors of the 1940s produced their own series in this vein — the Kuttners’ ‘Baldy’ stories (mostly 1945) and Van Vogt’s ‘Slan’ stories (starting in 1940!), for instance. It was over a quarter-century old by the time Lee and Kirby recycled it.

      • Hello Mark — I mentioned Slan in my review but haven’t read the Kuttner tales yet. I found Slan a truly awful novel…. And definitely what poisoned the well re-this trope. That said, as I mentioned to Expendable and Carl also pointed out, there’s something in how Shiras tells her story that conveys genuine warmth and feeling that transcended the move toward my least favorite SF trope (in the later stories) of the pariah elite persecuted by society because of their intelligence… Hence, I found the first story in particular an enjoyable read.

        • I suspect it’s the accidental element of their creation–through exposure to radiation or hidden ancestry (which smack of “pure blood” and eugenics arguments) that generate achievement vs. hard work and merit–that frustrates me.

      • Had it not been, by the time those men were dipping their pens into nuclear waste, fully evident that the damage done by radiation was much more immediate and routinely lethal, I might be as forgiving as you are. But as a duck-and-cover kid, I knew even then that this stuff was Bad News not cool stuff.

        • One of more interesting things about Robert A. Jacobs’ The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (2013) is the American campaign to convince those downwind from test sites that the tests were harmless… the common imagery included animals acting like normal animals while the weapons exploded in the background.

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