Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Review: The Children of the Atom

The Children of the Atom by Wilmar H Shiras (1953)

One of the joys of hunting down obscure books is sitting down of an evening to read some delight that I've stumbled across in a dusty secondhand book shop.  One of the disappointments is discovering that said delight is actually a thundering letdown.  Such is The Children of the Atom.

Child Psychiatrist Peter Welles examines Timothy Paul, a very normal though withdrawn 13-year old boy.  Welles quickly discovers that Timothy's normalcy is just a front and he is in fact a supergenius who makes Leonardo da Vinci look like Forrest Gump.   Investigating further, Welles discovers that there are more children like Timothy; all of them offspring of parents who died within a year of receiving a fatal dose of radiation in a nuclear accident.   Welles resolves to bring these "wonder children" together in a special school where they can develop away from the eyes of a misunderstanding public.

Normally, I'd put in a stinger sentence hinting at how the plot takes off from here, but it doesn't.  The entire book is nothing but one long ramble about how these genius kids are ever so lonely and misunderstood, how each copes with the burden of being so brilliant, and how happy they are to join Welles's school.  That's pretty much the entire plot.  Unlike Olaf Stapledon's Odd John, which also dealt with adolescent supermen, The Children of the Atom has no sense of anything at all.  The mutants in Stapledon's book are frightening even at their most benign because they are destined to displace mankind and they know it.  To them, even as teenagers,we're as unimportant as dogs.  God knows what they'll be like when their powers mature.  Shiras's mutants, on the other hand, just want to write novels and poems.  That's not a generalisation; to a mutant every one is an author.  Homo Scriptor, I suppose.  There is a subplot tacked on towards the end about some nutcase denouncing the kids, but it's handled so perfunctorily that it might as well not be there at all.  Indeed, one comes away with the impression that Mrs Shiras was so in love with her characters (watery as they are) that she made the writer's great mistake of protecting them from any hardship when her real job is to heap every misery in Creation on them.

Why such a wet slap of a tale didn't just slip beneath the literary waves isn't any surprise if one knows anything about science fiction fans–especially those of the 1940s and '50s.  It's the same reason that Van Vogt's Slan became a "classic" for all its lumbering plot and bog standard prose.  Think about it.  Your typical science fiction fan of the time picks up a story about a group of lonely teenagers who everyone thinks are either dead normal or a little weird?  Who write stories in secret that no one appreciates but would be if they could just get published?  Who are certainly destined for greatness when they grow up and can finally reveal themselves for what they are?  Who meantime can only take solace in one another's ethereal company?  Sound familiar?  It should.  Add a nagging sense of inadequacy and these Wonder Children are one mimeograph machine away from attending science fiction conventions.

Based on a trilogy of short stories that originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction and  is allegedly the inspiration for the X-Men comic books. That explains a lot of things.

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