Children of the Atom Analysis
by Wilmar H. Shiras

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Children of the Atom Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Children of the Atom combines two important motifs in science fiction: that of the superbeing, previously portrayed most memorably in Olaf Stapledon’s classic Odd John (1935), and the ubiquitous anxiety caused by the use of atomic weapons in 1945. Human mutations caused by atomic energy would become a staple in science fiction. Examples include John Wyndham’s Re-Birth (1955, also known as The Chrysalids), Lester del Rey’s The Eleventh Commandment (1962), and Edgar Pangborn’s Davy (1964). Wilmar Shiras is perhaps the first, however, to see this kind of catastrophe in the theological sense of a “eucatastrophe”: a felix culpa, or fortunate fall. What will emerge from the sin of using the atom and its inherent powers is not punishment in the form of breeding of monsters but is instead the possibility of advancing the human race to its next evolutionary plane.

In many science-fiction depictions of what Homo superior might be like, a clear line of demarcation is established, and “normal” humans, Homo sapiens, are often treated by the superior race as humans treat animals such as dogs. Odd John’s nickname for the human narrator of Stapledon’s novel, for example, is “Fido.” The first story in Children of the Atom, “In Hiding,” ends with this very image: “Peter Welles would be Tim’s friend—not a puppy, but a beloved friend—as a loyal dog, loved by a good master, is never cast out.”

As a separate novelette, “In Hiding” is much more famous than the four stories that follow it. It was voted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. One reason perhaps is that the positing of an evolutionary successor to humans in science fiction almost always leads to contempt, conflict, and then destruction of one race or the other, as evidenced in the self-destruction of Odd John’s superhuman colony, or indeed that of the entire Earth in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953). “In Hiding” seems to imply that such a plot line will follow.

The novel as a whole shows humans and superhumans as eventually becoming able to forge bonds of amicability and trust. This trust is based on the strong Christian religious underpinnings of the book. None of the supergeniuses dismisses organized religion out of hand; the children’s great project is modeled on the Summa treatises of Thomas Aquinas. They refuse to substitute a “higher” morality as a replacement for outmoded Judeo-Christian ethical traditions. Odd John excuses murder as being absolved by the needs of a higher being, but Shiras’ children are able to spot a trickster because of his casual assumption that abortion for the purpose of choosing the offspring’s gender is acceptable. Even the name of Timothy Paul, who suggests the children’s reintegration with Homo sapiens, is an allusion to two of the first Christian apostles to the gentiles. Shiras’ insistent subtext is that these children of the atom are still the children of Adam.