Children of the Atom

Wilmar H. Shiras (the H stands for House, her maiden name) is perhaps the single oddest story in Classic F&SF, maybe ever. Married at 18 and going on to raise five children, she rethought her life after World War II. At the age of 40, in 1948, she returned to college to get a degree, did translations for publishers, and decided to send off a novella she had originally put in a drawer. Published in the November 1948 Astounding, “In Hiding” was that rare first story that was also an instant classic. It appeared almost annually in anthologies and was named as one of the best novellas before 1965 by the Science Fiction Writers of America when they created their Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Shiras added two sequels in 1949 and 1950. A forgotten little tale appeared in the November 1952 Science Fiction Adventures. And that was it. Her total production in the field, four stories. She disappeared until four shorts in the early 1970s and then left forever.

Somehow, though, Greenberg got her to add two more to bulk out the tale of the children to book length and called it falsely a novel, though that was absolutely commonplace for series of connected individual stories at the time. Like the first story, the book was a sensation. F&sf fans in general felt like the super-bright children dismissed by their uncomprehending parents in the book, and took the book to heart more than any other metaphor since A. E. van Vogt’s Slan.

A woman writing science fiction was still unusual enough to create attention, especially to the mainstream world. A woman addressing the fears of the nuclear age by using science fiction to depict an optimistic tale about mutant children was electrifying. All children seem like mutants to their parents; they inhabit a changed world that they will change even more. That’s an idea that f&sf could explore better than any other type of fiction; its ability to literalize possible futures spoke to the 1950s and gained it sudden critical attention. The Oakland Tribune for July 12, 1953 reviewed the book alongside another equally remarkable novel by an outsider, Vercors’ You Shall Know Them. Both seemed to portend the possibilities of where the field could go if treated as serious fiction.

The Tribune was Shiras’ hometown paper. It did a long article on her next to the review by Nancy Nye:

“Children of the Atom” marks another step in science fiction’s coming-of-age. Its interest and palatability as adult intellectual fare are further enhanced by a deliberately restrained and non-sensational style, emphasizing the widening gap between logical development from an unreal but plausible premise and the uninhibited gadgetry of conventional “space opera.”

Groff Conklin reviewed it for the December 1953 Galaxy:

The book now has a story line and richness of character development that lift it out of the realm of the standard “supergenius” tale. Unreservedly recommended.

Contents and original publication:

• “In Hiding” (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1948)
• “Opening Doors” (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1949)
• “New Foundations” (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1950)
• “Problems” (original to this volume)
• “Children of the Atom” (original to this volume)

Children of the Atom, by Wilmar H. Shiras, 1953, title #28, 216 pages, $2.75. 5000 hardbound copies printed. Grey boards with black lettering. Jacket Design by Frank Kelly Frease [typo for Freas]. “FIRST EDITION” stated on copyright page. Manufactured in the U.S.A. by H. Wolff. Back cover: 25 titles. Gnome Press address given as 80 East 11th Street, New York 3

Children of the Atom jacket front
Children of the Atom jacket flaps

Children of the Atom maroon cloth

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