Being a Kid After the Bomb

For Halloween, and in homage to the SF roundups that my favorite Gawker offspring io9 publishes on the regular, here are seven visions of childhood after nuclear war. These stories are a good example of a category of evidence that I initially thought would fit into my dissertation, but eventually had to abandon when I realized that I’m really writing about kids *doing* science, not kids as the *subjects* of scientific activity. The unfortunates in these stories, be they physically mutant, telepath, or super-intelligent, exist because their parents let scientific advancement and the technology of war slip beyond their own control. For a future post, I’ll put together a similar roundup of kids who have been experimented upon (think Olivia from “Fringe”)…but that’s for later.

For now…enjoy. And if you can think of other instances of postnuclear childhoods in literature or the movies, please comment and add; I may write something academic about this someday.

In chronological order, and with selective spoilers:

1. Lewis Padgett (actually the husband-and-wife team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore), “The Piper’s Son” (1945), originally published in Astounding Stories. I found it in an anthology edited by William Tenn, 1953’s Outsiders: Children of Wonder. Telepaths abound in this post-bomb world. The story follows Burkhalter, a telepath (or a “baldy”—they have no hair) as he tries to figure out what’s wrong with his telepath child. The Baldies have always been very careful to make it clear to non-telepaths that they won’t use their powers for evil; they believe that this is a matter of their survival (nobody likes people who can read minds). But some Baldies think that this course of action is wrong, and the Baldies should exercise their power to lead the world. One of these renegades has planted messages about Bald supremacy in a story for Baldy kids, and the message has reached Burkhalter’s son Al, who starts playing “nasty tricks” on his friends. This story melds the nuclear theme with postwar anxiety over delinquency and the pernicious influence of mass media, and embellishes with a little bit of post-Nazi skittishness about racial divisions. “Padgett” wrote another story about kids gone wrong that I’m going to be addressing in my dissertation: “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”, which is about two kids who discover toys from the future that hopelessly mess up their minds. 

Outsiders: Children of Wonder, ed. William Tenn, 1953

2. Poul Anderson, “Tomorrow’s Children” (1947), originally published in Astounding Stories. A weary survivor named Drummond travels around the US assessing genetic damage to humanity in the wake of widespread nuclear war. What he finds is not encouraging. When he reaches one far-flung outpost, he sees that almost all the children have some mutation or other. Anderson’s not subtle about this reveal: “One of the babies began to cry. It had two heads.” The de facto President of the US, Robinson, who’s sequestered in the Pacific Northwest, hopes beyond hope that the human race can survive by quarantining non-mutated offspring; when his own wife gives birth to a boy, its “limbs [are] rubbery tentacles, terminating in boneless digits.” Yikes! Postwar nuclear fear at its most unmitigated. 

3. Judith Merril, “That Only a Mother” (1948); originally published in Astounding Stories, repub’d in Tenn’s anthology. Like Robinson’s baby, the infant star of this sad tale has serious deformities; Henrietta’s father is a “technical lieutenant” in an army fighting WWIII, and has been exposed to radiation multiple times, so the baby has no legs or arms. BUT she has uncanny mental abilities, and can form full sentences while still less than a year old. This story is notable because of the relationship between the baby and its mother—Margaret, the mom, is in denial about the baby’s deformity, and refuses to accept any medical opinion to the contrary—and because it’s downright creepy to think of a baby being able to full-on talk. This story also combines two of the most common themes in stories about postnuke childhoods: unusual intelligence, and physical mutation.

Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras, 1953. There's a Siamese cat on this cover because one of the super-smart Children breeds them.

 4. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras (that’s a female writer, again) (1953). If this title sounds familiar, that’s because there are two X-Men properties with this subtitle (an arcade game and a series of comic books). It also seems that many of the plot points of the X-Men series were ganked from the original Shiras stories and novel. Here, a group of children is born to workers who were exposed to radiation in a nuclear facility; their parents die, and they’re left to grow up in a world that finds their extraordinary intelligences to be scary. This is possibly the best-case scenario when it comes to visions of postnuclear childhood: our scientific breakthrough, which seemed scary and self-destructive, has instead enabled us to make an evolutionary leap. And these kids are downright cute: Timothy, for example, spends his energies making model houses and writing essays for magazines; no threatening telepaths here. This book, like John Hersey’s The Child Buyer, which will be a significant presence in my dissertation, is responding to Cold War fascination with gifted children, their identification, and their education. 

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955).

5. John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955). Wyndham, a British novelist who wrote Day of the Triffids(1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957, eventually made into the film “Village of the Damned”), clearly had an interest in both the postapocalypse and childhood. In The Chrysalids, set thousands of years after the catastrophe, communities have made the elimination of mutations and deviations into a part of their religion. The protagonist, David, has strange throwback dreams about cities that are lit by electricity, and soon realizes that he’s also telepathic. Cast out of his community by suspicious elders, he and a couple others of his generation wander through the so-called Fringe areas, where deviations and “blasphemies” abound, and eventually find another community…but that’s enough spoiling. There is a wonderful New York Review of Books Classics edition of this one.

Philip K. Dick, Dr. Bloodmoney... (1965).

6. Philip K. Dick, Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965). In case it’s not clear from that terrifying cover, the mutant children in this particular vision aren’t so pleasing as the ones in Shiras’ book. Dick’s seven-year-old Edie Keller has a conjoined twin named Bill living inside her. Bill is sad that he can’t live outside of Edie’s body, and their parents don’t believe in his existence. He’s a telepath who can speak with the dead, so he’s also super-intelligent, but his position as a tiny ball of cells inside his sister’s body, when combined with his hyper-smarts, makes him bitter and upset. In a memorably sick-making scene, Edie goes to the town’s doctor, who examines her and believes her story: “It was not the first case of this kind. If he had his x-ray machine, he would be able to see the tiny, wizened shape, probably no longer than a baby rabbit…Someday the girl would die and they would open her body, perform an autopsy; they would find a little wrinkled male figure, perhaps with a snowy white beard and blind eyes…” Philosophically, the good doctor remarks: “To the girl, it was normal; she had lived like this all her life—she did not know of any other existence. There is nothing, he realized once more, which is ‘outside’ nature; that is a logical impossibility.” Is Dick advancing this point of view, one that absolves the older generation from responsibility in creating Edie’s situation? I think not, given the terrible image of the blind baby Santa in Edie’s body.

7. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980). Hoban, who wrote the “Frances the Badger” series of children’s books (Bedtime for Frances; Bread and Jam for Frances), also penned this decidedly less soothing story. It takes place in a postnuclear England, generations after the bombs; society has regressed to an Iron Age level of technology, literacy, and social organization. The book is written in the imagined dialect of the time, and is sometimes almost impenetrable; too bad, because the story hits on many of the notes of intergenerational tension that I find most interesting. Riddley, an inquiring teenager, wants his society to advance beyond its present state. He finds old prewar technology buried in the ground, and fantasizes about what it must have been like to live in that world:

You try to think of how it musve soundit when the Power Ring ben there and working not just crummelt stannings and a ditch. It musve ben some girt jynt thing hy hy up and with a shyning and a flashing to it time back way back when they ahd boats in the air and all the res of it. Did it woosh and hum or ben it dumming and beating like the hart of the worl and what ben the music come out of them pipes? You dont know nor you wont never know. You can feal how there ben Power there. 

I like this one as an example to throw into the mix, because in it the young protagonist actively grapples with the idea that the science and technology of long ago was alluring and dangerous at the same time. This reminds me of other post-apocalyptic, but not post-nuclear, fictions, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore (1984) or George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949), in which the education of children becomes of paramount importance to an older character. This education inevitably involves some discussion of the nature of civilization’s downfall, and the adult characters must decide how much to tell the rising generation. If anybody can think of other books or movies depicting postapocalyptic education, let me know. And yes, I already know about the “Star Wars” scene from “Reign of Fire”. Worth a watch!