Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#1: Shiras/Smith/Plauger/Neville: Unusual Children

These are four authors with a number of things in common. Each produced a single work which I'd particularly recommend. In each case, that work is about children who are different, and need to fit into ordinary human society. And each of the works in question is notable for its relative lack of melodrama. Instead of the cliche bloodthirsty mobs, fanatical terrorists or faceless kidnappers, we get children growing, talking, thinking. (The four works combined yield a total of one abortive mob and two possible murders.)

Wilmar Shiras was a one-book author, but the book was "Children of the Atom" (***+), one of the better workings-out of the theme of superior mutant children. The children are the scattered orphans of parents whodied of radiation poisoning after an major accident. All are superhumanly intelligent, which isn't necessarily a survival characteristic in very young children, and most of them have learned to hide their intelligence. The first part of the book originally appeared in 1948, as the novella "In Hiding", in which one of the children decides to trust a doctor with his secret. The subsequent portions of the novel, written over the next two years, have the children seeking each other out, and trying to decide what to *do* with their gifts.

The writing is thoughtful, entertaining, and low-key -- except near the end, when a televangelist attempts to drum up a panic. (Shiras wimps out a bit at this point, essentially deciding that the way to deal with ordinary folks is to really *be* ordinary. Books can age as much because opinions about, say, how to bring up children change as because technology passes them by.) By and large, though, the book is remarkable for its lack of histrionics. The children spend their time talking or writing to each other, not cowering from mobs with pitchforks and torches.

Elsie turned on him swiftly and snapped: "I don't know how to talk about people like that if I can't say either 'stupid' or 'crazy'."
"Well, don't bite me; I'm a Thomist," replied Wells mildly.
"What's that?"
"I'll lend you the Summa tomorrow and you can read it through before lunch."

I suppose George O. Smith is a *two* book author. Aside from minor stuff I wouldn't wish on many readers, there's the series of "Venus Equilateral" stories (***) and there's "The Fourth R" (***+). The former is WWII-vintage fiction centering on an interplanetary radio network. I liked it well enough, but I wouldn't recommend it to a new reader because the stories' obsolete technological superstructure keeps getting in the way: Reading a story about people improvising a vacuum tube isn't as thrilling as it used to be. "The Fourth R" is more recent (1959), and in any case less subject to obsolescence.

Jimmy Holden is *effectively* super-intelligent, because he's inherited a gadget from his murdered parents which grants perfect memory. His problem, aside from escaping the killer, is that society only grants children limited status. Announcing to the world that you've decided to set up on your own isn't an option for a five-year-old, however bright. "The Fourth R" has a narrow focus -- primarily upon Holden's growth towards autonomy; Smith only looks superficially at the longer-term social implications of the gadget -- but, like Shiras, he does a thoughtful and low-key job. (If the book doesn't work as well as Shiras's, it's partly because Holden's specific problem is a largely artificial one, which is fairly certain to solve itself with time.) The effect of this book, like that of "Children of the Atom", is somewhat weakened by changing times, but it's still a solid and interesting read.

"...I am not going to establish a dangerous precedent that will end with doctors qualified to practice surgery before they are big enough to swing a stethescope or attorneys to plead a case before they are out of short pants. I am going to recess this case indefinitely with a partial ruling."

P.J. Plauger's sf output has been largely unexceptional (you might say that English isn't his native language :), except for the short story "Child of All Ages" (****). (I've been concentrating on novels, rather than short stories, but for something like this I'll make an exception.) It's also the best handling I've seen, in sf, of the theme of the exceptional child in a society in which children are second-class citizens. This is more of a problem for Melissa than for most exceptional children, because she's been a child for twenty-four centuries, always having to move on after a few years (when people start noticing) and find a new town or country into which to fit. Most societies can find a place for a strange orphan, but it's rarely a comfortable one. And societies that do have more comfortable places sometimes like to see documentation. And then it's all to do over again, before she's recognized for what she is. (The source of her longevity will not work on adults, but her experience suggests that she's not likely to survive the process of convincing people of this, once they realize that she's not aging.) The story appeared in the 3/75 Analog. I assume it's been anthologized since, but don't know where.

"It was King George, and you know it. Look, before I came here I lived in Berkeley for a while." She caught May's look. "I know what my records say. After all, I wrote them..."
"...Kids don't get invited to the events that make history. Until very recently all they ever did was work. Worked until they grew old or worked until they starved or worked until they were killed by a passing war. That's as close as most kids get to history, outside the classroom."

Since I'm looking at authors who only have a single work I'd really recommend here, I thought I'd include Kris Neville's "Bettyann", though it stretches the theme somewhat. Actually, there are two works by that title. The original 1951 story (****) tells of a pair of alien shape-changers, in human form, who are killed in a traffic accident, leaving behind a human-shaped infant who is too young to know she is an alien or a shapechanger, and who is adopted and brought up human. In some ways, mostly psychological, she remains different, but those differences grow smaller with time. Then, one day, relatives come to take her home. Another highly recommended short story. The 1970 fixup novel (***) is weaker -- it is diluted by the uninteresting parallel story of her kinfolk in space, and simply by extra detail -- but it still retains the powerful core story. (There is a semi-sequel short story titled "Bettyann's Children" (***), by Lil and Kris Neville, in Roger Elwood's 1973 anthology "Demon Kind".)

"Alone, one hot summer afternoon, she went to a flock of English sparrows on the lawn before the house and picked one up gently in her hand and held it to her face and answered its puzzled chirping by imitating the conversation of the flock. Dave came out, letting the screen door slam, and the birds flew in terror. "How the devil did you manage to slip up that close to them, Bettyann?"
She answered, "I guess I just did." It occurred to her then to ask the question of herself: but there was no answer other than the one she had given. "I must have just been thinking right," she said...

One of the cliches of the genre is that the best way to portray super-intelligent people is to portray them as children, while they're still comprehensible. An often-overlooked difficulty is that children don't make the rules, no matter how bright they are. Before they can take the world by storm, they have to go through years in which they must fit into society on its own terms, without being too badly mauled in the process. The books in which such children help themselves along with atomic rayguns or black belts in karate or super telehypnosis can be good fun, but it's nice to have more restrained works, such as these, to balance them.

Dani Zweig
"The death of God left the angels in a strange position."
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