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25 September 2011

Wilmar H(ouse) Shiras was born in Boston in 1908, and died in 1990.
She married her husband when she was 18 and they raised five children. It was for them that she began telling the stories that would ultimately become her single great work. There are some authors who appear to have only one good book in them, and Shiras may have been one of that sort, since she never produced another although she lived for many years after publication, first of portions of the book, then of the whole book.
But in 1948 she submitted a novella, In Hiding, to John W. Campbell, the novella appeared in the November issue of Astounding and made an immediate impression. Shiras had tapped into the angst of the time about atom bombs, radiation and mutation, and her story, about a boy who is a genius well beyond any human before, far from playing on those fears, showed the essential terrible loneliness that such a child would suffer who has no peer even amongst most adults. It became an instant classic, and readers eagerly awaited more.
They received it with the publication of the next novella, Opening Doors, in 1949, followed by the third, New Foundations, the same year. Shiras then added these together, and they became the first three chapters of her five-chapter book, and the entire book, Children of the Atom appeared from Gnome Press in 1953.
The book is a tour de force, at a time when many authors were writing work that indicated all radiation-produced mutations would be inimical to human life, hideous, or a dead end, Shiras wrote about children who were none of these things. (The Midwich Cuckoos is a good example of the other type of book.) In her work the child is both a genius and a rather lonely boy. Raised by his grandmother, he is quiet, introspective, and a loner in less obvious ways. He secretly writes and corresponds with adults who believe him to be an adult. He has articles published in scientific journals whose editors believe him to be highly educated and a scientist.
But it is not until a local psychiatrist befriends him and discovers the child’s secret that the boy finds a genuine friend who can know and accept him as he really is. Inspired by the possibility that there may be more children out there created by the same event as produced this boy, the doctor gradually discovers more of these children and, understanding their deep needs and the dangers that will beset them when/if they are discovered, he establishes – with financial aid from the boy’s grandparents – a place where they, he, and several other sympathetic adults, can live, work and learn together.
It is clear from the start that the children have already outstripped him in everything but emotional maturity, but he knows the problems they do face now and will face later and accepts that in a few years he will be as a child to their adults. He believes that the human race needs them, and that only with what they can do and bring will humanity reach emotional maturity themselves and only with the children’s later leadership will humanity go to the stars without destroying themselves.
When this book appeared in the 1950s, it was said that its intellectual analysis and the writer’s deep knowledge of people and the philosophical foundation of the writing were another step in SF’s coming of age. That may sound like a great deal for an SF novel, but Andre Norton in discussing it with me in 1991 soon after Shiras’s death praised it in similar terms. She had known Wilmar Shiras, and said that in her opinion the book was one of the best ever written in the genre.
There are still copies of this book to be found. In 1959 the UK SFBC published it in hardcover in England, (the copy I have – passed on from a friend’s estate) and looking at it on Amazon last year I saw that they had nine copies available, and in a different edition again for those quoted in this piece. In some ways this book may appear simple to modern readers, in its time it was hugely innovative, but other writers have since used the theme, however mostly they didn’t deal with it as well, and this original work is still a great read and worthy of a place on anyone’s shelves as forerunner of a new sub-genre. Highly recommended.

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