Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras
(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 46, Sept 2008)
Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras
Avon Books, 1953, 192pp
As our name suggests, Ray Gun Revival exists in part to recover something that has been lost. To do so, we must look to the past and understand it in order to revive it. So, in this column, we will look at older books, most considered to be cornerstones of the SF genre, as well as some hidden gems along the way.
We’ll start with one that I’ve wanted to read for a long time, but never got around to. First, though, a bit of background: I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and was an avid comic reader. As such, I was addicted to the X-Men. One of the taglines for the X-Men was “Children of the Atom.” I wanted to know where that came from.
The year is 1948 and the West has just entered the nuclear age. Hiroshima is still fresh in everyone’s mind, and both the benefits and the disadvantages of nuclear power and weapons are becoming known. With any new technology, there’s always a fear involved (and quite often that fear is well-founded). In this case, the fears were twofold: first, the Soviets had access to the bomb, and secondly, nuclear radiation’s effects on living matter were still mostly unknown with mutations being one of the few known effects.
So along comes a housewife who taps into the latter of these fears and produces a masterpiece, Children of the Atom. It began its life as a novella in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1948. Two more short stories followed in 1949, and then the final novel (which took the three stories as the first three chapters and included two more chapters) appeared in 1953.
The year is 1972 and it has been about 15 years since a nuclear plant exploded. A number of children born to survivors of the blast are now starting to come of age. Unlike the mutants of comics fame, these children don’t have paranormal abilities, but are just really, really smart, each in his own way. However, they have all learned early on that the world is not quite ready to accept them and their abilities, so they have gone into hiding, either by pretending to be normal or by becoming outcasts whom no one bothers.
One of these children of the atom is Timothy Paul. School psychiatrist Peter Welles is called upon one day to make an assessment of young Tim and discovers much more than meets the eye. Welles gradually develops a relationship with Tim, who reveals all the incredible things he has done prior to his fourteenth birthday, such as being an accomplished author (under a pseudonym, of course), designing a building, speaking and reading multiple languages, and performing genetic cross-breeding experiments.
Tim and Peter surmise that there must be other children like Tim, products of the same nuclear accident. They clandestinely set out to discover these other children of the atom and bring them together so that they can establish a commune of sorts where the children can produce their great works without fear of the outside world turning on them.
A large portion of the book is about the search for the other children. Once they’ve been found, we’re subjected to a chapter of psychoanalysis of the children as they attempt to come to grips with their great minds trapped in children’s psyches. But overall, it’s a captivating and exciting book. Some of the writing definitely feels aged and reflective of that pulpy era, but overall Shiras is able to evoke the feelings of alienation we all felt in growing into adulthood.
And there’s the key to why this is a classic: by using the conventions of SF, Shiras shows how the fantastic future is really not so different from us. We can understand ourselves a bit better by projecting ourselves onto Tim or any of the other children, hoping and feeling for a moment or two how our lives have meaning like his. Like the children, we all felt alienated because we were somehow better (or hoped we were) than ‘common’ people.
No, not all fiction needs to aspire to creating these feelings in us, but when it does, it makes for an enjoyable and beneficial read, and Children of the Atom definitely merits its