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.Continue reading