Review: Children of the Atom

Wilmar H. Shiras
1953

This book has quite a reputation (in SF literature at least) for a couple of reasons, and after reading this myself, I would have to say deservedly so.  However, I would like to separate those reasons from my enjoyment in reading it.  Before I get into what I actually thought of the story, I would like to touch upon the reasons this particular book has the reputation it does.

First, this book is considered a very early example of intellectually driven science fiction, as opposed to the action/adventure and technologically oriented ‘space opera’ style fare that was very popular back then.  Not that space opera was the only thing going around, many authors – Heinlein being the prominent example – were beginning to produce tales that saw good character development and a solid grounding in the scientific realities of the times.  But here we see a story built around the central themes of psychology and philosophy.  It’s interesting, it’s refreshing, but leads to a challenge for the typical Gnome Press reader which I’ll address later.

The second thing of note is the similarity to the X-Men comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  Though widely credited with the inspiration behind the now global entertainment franchise, this has never been officially acknowledged.  Indeed though, The parallels between the two tales are there and unmistakable.

There is an excellent synopsis of the book over at Red Jacket Press.  I recommend reading that to get a taste of what the books’ all about.  You can pick up a beautiful and faithful reproduction of this Gnome Press 1st edition also if you wish.  The Red Jacket reproduction is reviewed at SFFWorld.  It’s a more academic review than I like (or are capable doing…), but it’s worth a read.

Back to, and regarding the story however, as much as I enjoyed it as a piece of true science fiction history and as part of the Gnome Press family, I was frustrated by it.

It’s very interesting in places and very droll in others.  It might be better to say the story moves along in some places and stalls in others.  The beginning of the book is engaging, we meet our main characters, uncover the source of Tim’s problems and embark on Peter’s quest to collect and empower these special children.  This continues nicely as we move first to Elsie’s and then to Stella’s stories.  However, once the school is established the story starts to founder.  It perhaps becomes a vehicle for the author to voice some speculations and opinions through hyper-intellectual dialogue amongst the growing population of children.  Things get a little more interesting when mysterious pranks start to occur in the school and the prospect of uncovering the culprit begins to engage us again, only to stumble once the perpetrator is found and we dive into the academic discourse once more. I mentioned the typical Gnome Press reader earlier, and it’s with this issue that I think they would have a problem, as indeed did I.  For all it’s cool premise and intellectual appeal, this story just doesn’t rock – stark contrast to the tale I had just completed, Space Lawyer.

It’s all wrapped up quickly and neatly, and in a way that is just a little anti-climactic and bit disappointing.  An interesting book?  Sure.  A different book?  Yes.  Worth reading?  Of course.  But a fun book?  No, not for me anyway.

Just as a footnote, is this book really ‘science fiction’?  The only possible elements of any kind of real sf I could discerne was that it’s set in the ‘future’ (the early 1970s), and that these kids’ intellects were boosted by their parents’ exposure to a dose of radiation.  Are these things enough to constitute a real science fiction story??  I dunno, you be the judge on that.

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