Children of the Atom
Children of the Atom is a 1953 science fiction novel by American writer Wilmar H. Shiras, which has been listed as one of "The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953-2002." The book is a collection and expansion of three earlier stories, the most famous of which is the novella "In Hiding" from 1948, which appeared on several "Best SF" lists. The book's plot focuses on superhuman children with immeasurably high intelligence who have to hide their youth, and work from hiding in order to get along in the less-intelligent world.
Dust-jacket from the first edition
|Cover artist||Frank Kelly Freas|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
In the novel, much of which was originally published as a series of stories in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, hidden throughout a future America of 1972 are a group of incredibly gifted children — all approximately the same age, all preternaturally intelligent, and all hiding their incredible abilities from a world they know will not understand them.
These children were born to workers caught in an explosion at an atomic weapons facility, and orphaned just a few months after birth when their parents succumbed to delayed effects from the blast.
Like the characters in the better-known X-Men series, these children are mutants, brought together to explore their unique abilities and study in secret at an exclusive school for gifted children, lest they be hated and feared by a world that would not understand them. The Oakland Tribune described it in 1953 as "the inevitable adjustments and maladjustments of minority genius to majority mediocrity".
In Shiras' book, none of the children are given paranormal super powers such as telekinesis or precognition—their primary difference is simply that of incredible intellect, combined with an energy and inquisitiveness that causes them to figuratively devour every book in their local libraries, to speed through university extension courses, and to publish countless articles and stories all over the world, but all done carefully through pen-names and mail-order, to disguise their youth, and protect them from the prejudicial stereotypes that less intelligent adults continue to try and enforce on children.
The story comes to an abrupt end when a lay preacher speaks out against the children, and a mob forms at the gate of the school. Although the mob is dispersed, the children realize that they need to be part of the greater society in order to avoid these kind of situations. The book ends as they plan to rejoin public schools.
One reviewer wrote, "What we find here is an inventive updating of Stapledon's famous Odd John (1935) in very sensitive, unsentimental terms, with the addition of a sense of community, a benefit that Stapledon's protagonist never got to fully experience. Shiras tells her story in simple yet affecting prose, a kind of blend of Sturgeon and Simak. "
The story, about the incompatibility between the superman and normal humans, strikes a chord with many children, who feel "different from the common herd, neglected, ridiculed, ignored, only to triumph when allied with others of our kind."
Groff Conklin praised the novel for its "richness of character development." Boucher and McComas, however, were disappointed by it, saying that while the stories it was based on were first-rate, the novel-length expansion had become "talkative, oversimplified, lacking in suspense or conflict, and, in short, just not adding up to an adequate novelistic treatment of a splendidly stated theme." P. Schuyler Miller, despite acknowledging that the expansion was less effective than the original work, still concluded that it was "representative of the kind of thing science fiction does well."
- Top 50 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, list by the Science Fiction Book Club
- Children of The Atom - Information on the novel and author Wilmar Shiras
- Nancy Nye (July 12, 1953). "How Orphaned Child Prodigy Reacts to Mediocre World". Oakland Tribune. pp. 2C. (note: Article includes photo)
- Review by Science Fiction Weekly (dead link)
- "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1953, p.85
- "Recommended Reading," F&SF, September 1953, p. 101.
- "The Reference Library", Astounding Science Fiction, March 1954, p.154
- Chalker, Jack L.; Mark Owings (1998). The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Bibliographic History, 1923-1998. Westminster, MD and Baltimore: Mirage Press, Ltd. p. 301.