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.
Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?
1. The Brave Free Men, Jack Vance (magazine 1972)
From the back cover: “The Faceless Man was a prisoner in his own palace and his power over the people of Durdane was in the hands of another–the hands of Gestel Etzwane, a youth whose thirst for vengeance against the dreaded Roguskhoi would slacken only in oceans of their blood.
But to destroy the Roguskhoi, Gastel would have to unite a world that survived by its separateness. To do this was more than dangerous, but Gestel had little choice. He would return to the people control of their lives–and send them to fight to their death…”
In 2021, I posted Part I of my Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art series on the Atelier Heinrichs & Bachmann. Between 1966 and 1971, they created a kaleidoscopic array of psychedelic visions for the German press Heyne Bücher. I described their art as follows: “Pop surrealism? Lowbrow art? The Andy Warhol effect? However you classify Atelier Heinrichs & Bachmann’s covers […] they’re gleeful and sarcastic.” And despite a few readers who disliked their exuberant/chaotic hilarity (someone described them as the “very nadir in SF cover art”), I stand by my positive assessment. And I bring you Part II of my series!
Hello everyone! Thank you for the immense support over the last twelve years (!) of my website. I keep doing what I do in part due to all the wonderful comments you leave, discussions you participate in, and suggestions you make. I can’t emphasize how much I appreciate it. I was recently interviewed by Cora Buhlert over on her website. She’s a three-time Hugo-nominated fan writer and a wonderful reviewer of vintage SF (often at Galactic Journey). Check out the interview here.
Lester del Rey’s Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Fourth Annual Collection (1975) is a mystifying read. For an anthology series claiming to contain the best stories of 1974, del Rey completely misidentifies all the hard-hitters of the year. For example, it does not include a single Hugo– or Nebula-nominated story.
My advice: Ignore the title. Instead, if you have an unnatural obsession with anthologies like myself, then contemplate picking up a copy for the Vonda N. McIntyre, F. M. Busby, John Brunner, and Gordon R. Dickson stories. The rest are average to poor.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“If This Is Winnetka, You Must Be Judy” (1974), F. M. Busby, 4/5 (Good): Until I read this story, I assumed F. M. Busby’s SF from the 70s was as blunt and imprecise as Cage a Man(1973) and “Tell Me All About Yourself” (1973). With the emotional strokes reminiscent of Silverberg’s masterpiece Dying Inside(1972), Busby spins an ingenious time-travel tale about a man who lives his live in non-sequential sections.
Today I’ve reviewed the twelfth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future–and the first from the early 1980s. Pat Cadigan howls a ghastly punk scream into the vastness of the night.
Previously: Ann Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (August 1953). You can read it online here.
Up Next: Barry N. Malzberg’s “The Idea” in In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories (1971) (as K. M. O’Donnell).
Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” first appeared in Light Years and Dark: Science Fiction and Fantasy of and for Our Time, ed. Michael Bishop (1984). You can read it online here.
Whenever I delve into the nihilistic streets of cyberpunk, I enter the mental soundscape and acute estrangement imbued by the seminal 80s goth/post punk band The Cure: “scarred, your back was turned / Curled like an embryo” (“Cold” from Pornography, 1982). Robert Smith’s incantation of “a shallow grave / A monument to the ruined age” almost personifies cyberpunk’s fleeting but terrible power and apocalyptic conceptions of dark streets and conglomerates stamping out the last individuals finding their way across the net.
Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?
1. The Escape Orbit (variant title: Open Prison), James White (1964)
From the back cover: “STRANDED ON A PLANET OF MONSTERS. When the survivors of the his starship were taken prisoner by the insec-creatures against whom Earth had fought a bitter war for nearly a century, Sector Marshal Warren expected to be impounded in a prison camp like those the Earthmen maintained. But the “Bugs” had a simpler method of dealing with prisoners–they dumped them on an uninhabited planet, without weapons or tools, and left them to fend for themselves against the planet’s environment and strange monsters. A “Bug” spaceship orbited above, guarding them.
Won the 1979 Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Award for Best Novel.
I’ve now tackled the only pre-1990 Hugo Award-winning novel I had yet to read. And I was not disappointed. Fresh off Vonda N. McIntyre’s ingenious generation ship short story “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn” (1974) with its winged-alien voyagers, I savored Dreamsnake‘s original blend of feminist science fiction and post-apocalyptic quest tale.
In the past few months, I’ve put together an informal series on the first three published short fictions by female authors who are completely new to me or whose most famous SF novels fall mostly outside the post-WWII to mid-1980s focus of my reading adventures. So far I’ve featured Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019), Nancy Kress (1948-), Melisa Michaels (1946-2019), and Lee Killough (1942-). To be clear, I do not expect transformative or brilliant things from first stories. Rather, it’s a way to get a sense of subject matter and concerns that first motivated authors to put pen to paper.
Today I’ve selected an author I’ve never read–Eleanor Arnason (1942-). According to SF Encyclopedia, most of her best-known science fiction appeared from the mid-1980s onward with To the Resurrection Station (1986) (which I own), A Woman of the Iron People (1991), Changing Women (1992), and the Hwarhath sequence (1993-2012). Unfortunately, I did not encounter her work in my late teens and early 20s when I read science fiction more widely.
I’d rank Eleanor Arnason’s first three published short fictions as the most auspicious start of the those I’ve covered so far. Her stories–often self-consciously in dialogue with pulp worlds and plots–demonstrate a fascination with ritualized landscapes and behaviors and feature female narrators attempting to find their place in strange new worlds.
Let me know which Arnason fictions–perhaps from much later in her career–resonate with you.
“A Clear Day in the Motor City” first appeared in New Worlds 6, ed. Michael Moorcock and Charles Platt (1973). This does not seem to be available online. If you find it, let me know.
Like a cryptic quilt, a strange ritualized landscape drapes across the polluted industrial expanse of Detroit and Windsor. On clear air holidays, when “the Seven Sisters” were visible from the roof of a nearby office building, CEOs adorn “wreaths of plastic oak leaves” and release pigeons to “whoever’s responsible for the weather, to bear our thanks to him, her, it or them” (187).