Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras

This review refers to the reprinted Hardcover version by Red Jacket Press 2004.

Red Jacket Press specializes in facsimile reproductions of long out-of-print science fiction and fantasy books. Among its recent titles is Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras (1908-1990).  First appearing in serialized form in Astounding Science Fiction (now known as Analog), it was published as a novel by Gnome Press in 1953. It has been credited by many to be the inspiration for the X-Men comic book series.

Children of the Atom is the story of a few dozen children whose parents were exposed to radiation in an accident while working at an atomic plant. Within two years of the accident, the parents die of radiation sickness and their infant children end up with relatives or are adopted. The novel begins thirteen years later (in the “future” 1971), when psychiatrist Peter Welles is asked by a friend to talk with Timothy Paul, a bright but quiet teenage boy.  Welles is slowly able to overcome Tim’s reticence and gains his confidence, learning that Tim is a genius, and is not only an inventor and a budding geneticist, but is also a best-selling author (he uses a pseudonym). Once Peter realizes the origin of Tim’s intelligence, he and Tim set out to find the other “Wonder Children,” who turn out to also be hiding their abilities from the world.

No, these children cannot fly or fire concussive blasts from their eyes; they are instead all exponentially intelligent. This is not a superhero story, but one about gifted children learning to understand and embrace their abilities, and overcoming their sense of isolation by joining together into a community. Can the children come together, and if they do, what will they do with their abilities? What if the rest of the world finds out about them? Can it accept the existence of such exceptional children?

Red Jacket Press has reprinted Children of the Atom as a reproduction of the original first edition hardcover, complete with vintage dust jacket artwork and a listing of other 1953 Gnome Press titles on the back. Completing the edition is a protective slipcase and a card containing Shiras’s biography. This is a great-looking edition that fans of the book will enjoy.

What about those who have never read the book before?  It is considered a science fiction classic, but has it stood the test of time?

The modern reader approaching Children of the Atom has fifty years of the Cold War; the Red Scare; the Civil Rights Movement and a myriad of other social and political events that follow the earliest written portions of Children of the Atom. This is without mentioning the decades of exposure to the X-Men and other comics discussing the issues first presented in this book. When reading this novel, one must readjust one’s expectations and view Children of the Atom not just for the ideas it presents but the historical context in which it was written.

Wilmar Shiras began writing Children of the Atom shortly after World War II, a war in which millions of people died and the United States used the power of the atom to destroy thousands of people with just two bombs. At the same time, the United States emerged as a world power, if not the world power. Children of the Atom is part of the legacy of World War II, a story in which a miraculous and terrible power discovered by science spawns a new generation both scarred and blessed by that discovery. In addition to this premise is the message Shiras puts forth in the form of the community the children try to create, as it suggests a humanism that seeks both scientific and social progress. This is “soft” science fiction, dealing more with literary theory than atomic theory (at one point the children analyze Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition“), focusing more on how the children can use their genius to make the world a better place, than how they mutated into geniuses.

Children of the Atom is composed of five chapters, the first three of which appeared as short stories in Astounding Science Fiction between 1948 and 1950. The complete novel, including the last two chapters, was published in 1953. The first three chapters and last two chapters are distinct from each other in tone to such an extent that one cannot help but think that the latter were influenced by the rise of McCarthyism. If this classic has any flaw, it is in that these last two chapters come across as too easy in their solutions, and even more disturbingly, too close to what would be considered the conventional response to the personal freedoms threatened during that era. Again, this reaction occurs with the benefit of reading the book fifty years after the fact and with having read works published since 1953 that are more critical of the period, most notably Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, not to mention the X-Men.

Despite this shortcoming, Children of the Atom is still deserving of its title “science fiction classic.” It is an influential early statement in a decades-long discourse in science fiction and literature in general, as well as a necessary read for any fan of the X-Men. It is the story of lost innocence and of the hope that such loss may lead to a brighter future. I highly recommend Children of the Atom both as an entertaining read and as an important artifact in the history of science fiction.

Arthur Bangs

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