Children in SF

Tagged: Theme

In his essay "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction" (in Science Fiction at Large ed Peter Nicholls anth 1976; vt Explorations of the Marvellous 1978) Thomas M Disch asserts, tongue only partly in cheek, that sf is a branch of children's literature – because most lovers of the genre begin reading it in their early teens, and because many sf stories are about children. Whether or not sf is essentially juvenile in its appeal, there is no doubt that many of its writers are fascinated by childhood and its thematic corollaries: innocence and potentiality.

There are many types of sf story about children, but four particularly popular variants are of special interest. The first is the story of children with benign Psi Powers. Examples are: A E van Vogt's Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946), about a nascent community of telepathic Supermen; Theodore Sturgeon's The Dreaming Jewels (February 1950 Fantastic Adventures; exp 1950; vt The Synthetic Man 1957), about a strange boy adopted by a carnival, and More Than Human (fixup 1953), about a gestalt consciousness composed of children; Wilmar H Shiras's Children of the Atom (stories November 1948-March 1950 Astounding; fixup 1953); John Wyndham's The Chrysalids (1955; rev vt The Chrysalids 1955), about telepathic Mutant children after an atomic war; and such later works in a similar vein as Richard Cowper's Kuldesak (1972) and "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" (March 1976 F&SF). The abilities of these children seem benign because the stories are usually narrated from the child's point of view. The societies depicted in these tales may persecute the children, but the latter generally win through and constitute their own, "higher" societies, with the reader's approval.

The second type is the reverse of the first: the story of monstrous children, frequently with malign psychic powers. Examples are: Ray Bradbury's "The Small Assassin" (November 1946 Dime Mystery), about a baby which murders its parents; Richard Matheson's "Born of Man and Woman" (Summer 1950 F&SF), about a hideously mutated boy; and Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" (in Star Science Fiction Stories 2, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl), about an infant who terrorizes a whole community with his awesome paranormal abilities. J D Beresford's The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; exp vt The Wonder 1917) is an early example of this sort of story, in that the child prodigy is seen entirely from the outside and thus takes on a frightening aspect. In tales of this type, society is usually threatened by the child and the reader is encouraged to take society's side. Brain Child (1991) by George Turner is difficult to characterize, as its superchildren, created by an Intelligence-enhancing experiment in biological and psychological engineering, appear as both appalling and attractive. The purely monstrous child became a Cliché of Horror fiction, especially in the 1980s, a decade when, perhaps for some as-yet-undiagnosed sociological reason, sf itself showed a distinct falling off in the number of stories devoted to superchildren.

The third type, which overlaps the first two, concerns children in league with Aliens or with humans so very different that they might as well be alien, to good or ill effect. Examples include Henry Kuttner's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" (February 1943 Astounding), in which Far Future educational toys (> Toys in SF) provide two children with an escape route from their parents; Ray Bradbury's "Zero Hour" (Fall 1947 Planet Stories), in which children side with Alien invaders; Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990), in which the alien "Overlords" supervise the growth of a new generation, whose capacities are unknowable by ordinary humans and may be exercised among the stars; Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers (1954), in which Martians compete for control of a child's mind; and John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (1957; rev 1958; vt Village of the Damned 1960), about the alien impregnation of Earthwomen and the terrifying Psi Powers of the amoral children they bear, and his later novel Chocky (March 1963 Amazing; exp 1968), about a boy with an alien "brother" living in his head. Zenna Henderson's stories about the People, most of which are collected in Pilgrimage (coll 1961) and The People: No Different Flesh (coll 1966), belong here since they are largely concerned with sympathetic aliens who appear to be normal human children (their alien parents usually make only fleeting appearances). Jack Williamson's The Moon Children (1972) and Gardner Dozois's "Chains of the Sea" (in Chains of the Sea, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg) also belong in this category. Greg Bear's Anvil of Stars (1992) features a community of adolescent children – but no adults – on a starship, undergoing tuition by aliens for making war against genocidal superbeings. This novel is interesting in its creation of an all-adolescent culture.

A subset of this third form of story concerns children whose strangeness and varying degrees of distancing from humanity result from their being brought up by animals: Rudyard Kipling's wolf-raised Mowgli is a notable early example, from which Edgar Rice Burroughs's ape-raised Tarzan may (as Kipling himself suspected) be derived. Further instances include the eponym of the television series Lucan (1977-1978), who like Mowgli was brought up by wolves.

The fourth type of story is concerned not so much with a conflict between the child and adult society as with the child's attempts to prove himself worthy of joining that society. Much of Robert A Heinlein's relevant work falls into this "initiation" category – e.g., his early story "Misfit" (November 1939 Astounding), about a boy whose prodigious mathematical ability enables him to save the spaceship in which he is a very junior crew member. Most of Heinlein's teenage novels, from Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) to Have Space-Suit – Will Travel (1958), fit this pattern, as does the later Podkayne of Mars (1963). Precocious children, adults before their time, also feature in James H Schmitz's Telzey Amberdon stories, such as "Novice" (June 1962 Analog), in Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage (July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men"; exp 1968), and in much of Samuel R Delany's work. Delany's novels – e.g., Nova (1968) – are characteristically, in Algis Budrys's words, about "the progress of the Magic Kid . . . the divine innocent whose naive grace and intuitive deftness attract the close attention of all". The "Magic Kid", who gains the acceptance of adult society through sheer charm (rather than discipline in the manner of Heinlein), has appeared in the work of other writers, as in John Varley's "In the Bowl" (December 1975 F&SF). More in the Heinlein tradition are a number of 1980s novels by Orson Scott Card, whose stories regularly feature the transition from a troubled adolescence to a maturity forced by circumstance, most famously in Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; exp 1985) and again in The Memory of Earth (1992). However, many of the books listed above in this category feature post-pubertal teenagers rather than children proper. Such protagonists are so common in sf, their rite of passage being one of sf's basic themes, that there is little point in prolonging the list, although it is worth mentioning Doris Piserchia, who in books like Earthchild (1977) seems to use sf imagery precisely because it provides objective correlatives for pubertal anguish.

As in literature generally, the child's point of view has frequently been used by sf writers because it is a convenient angle from which to see the world anew. Thus, Kingsley Amis makes good use of his choirboy hero in the Alternate-History novel The Alteration (1976). Ray Bradbury transmutes his own childhood experience into the nostalgic and horrific Fantasy of The Martian Chronicles (coll of linked stories 1950; rev vt The Silver Locusts 1951) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). Gene Wolfe repeatedly uses a child's-eye view to haunting effect in such tales as "The Island of Dr Death and Other Stories" (in Orbit 7, anth 1970, ed Damon Knight), "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" (in Orbit 10, anth 1972, ed Damon Knight) and "The Death of Dr. Island" (in Universe 3, anth 1973, ed Terry Carr), and childhood memories haunt and shape the memoir structure of several of his novels such as Peace (1975) and The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols). Harlan Ellison's fantasy "Jeffty is Five" (July 1977 F&SF), about a boy who is perpetually five years old, uses the child's viewpoint to make a statement about the apparent decline in quality of US popular culture. William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) is at its most successful and moving when filtering the bewildering events of its voodoo-in-Cyberspace story through the consciousness of the one of its four protagonists who is an actual child, the Japanese girl Kumiko. There are numerous other examples.

An interesting subgenre is the story that opposes a world of childhood and a world of adulthood as if they were, anthropologically, two different cultures whose clash is bound to cause pain. This is the fundamental strategy of much of Stephen King's horror fiction and also his sf. It forms a particularly grim element in James Patrick Kelly's "Home Front" (June 1988 Asimov's), in which kids interact, eat hamburgers, and get drafted for an endless, meaningless War occurring offstage.

Although sf about children was not especially common in the 1980s in book form, it was popular in the cinema. Obviously relevant films include E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Explorers (1985), D.A.R.Y.L. (1985), Flight of the Navigator (1986) and a variety of "teen" movies, a number of which are listed in the Cinema entry.

Anthologies devoted entirely to stories about children include Children of Wonder (anth 1953; vt Outsiders: Children of Wonder 1954) edited by William Tenn, Tomorrow's Children (anth 1966) edited by Isaac Asimov, Demon Kind (anth 1973) and Children of Infinity (anth 1973) edited by Roger Elwood, Analog Anthology Number 3: Children of the Future (anth 1982; vt Analog's Children of the Future 1982) edited by Stanley Schmidt, and Children of the Future (anth 1984) edited by Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg and Charles G Waugh. [DP/PN/DRL]

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