Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964)
Review by Ian Sales
A garish orange cover, the strapline “A fiendish race of demonic children is spawned in the genetic chaos of a runaway nuclear explosion” and a back cover that promises a story set “in the hideous aftermath of the atomic sunburst”, and you might be forgiven for thinking Phyllis Gotlieb’s debut novel is a piece of 1950s schlock sf which trades more to the genre’s pulp ancestors than it does any kind of serious speculative literature.
It’s true that the novel’s central conceit is straight from the heartland of sf of a couple of generations earlier and wouldn’t stand a moment’s scientific scrutiny in the present day, but Sunburst is more than first impressions would indicate. Its protagonist is a Tom-Sawyerish thirteen-year-old girl who reads considerably older than her years; but then she has reason to. She lives in Sorrel Park, a small US town which was sealed off after an accident at the local nuclear power station. It has been under martial law ever since. However, it’s not simply the fact of the accident which has led to this – those volunteers who tried to contain the incident at the power station subsequently had children… who exhibited freak psionic powers on reaching puberty.
These “psis” are now incarcerated in the Dump, a camp surrounded by barb wire, army guards and a special electromagnetic field, and in which the Dumplings behave like superpowered hoodlums. Shandy, the thirteen-year-old girl, has so far managed to escape testing for psi powers by the military, but has just been caught by Jason, the military’s tame psi. She proves to be an Impervious, which means no psi power works on her. They can’t read her mind, when they cloud people’s minds to make themselves invisible she can still see them, when they knock people out or freeze them it doesn’t work on her…
All this proves very useful when the Dumplings escape. It’s up to Shandy, Jason and Doydoy, a disabled Dumpling reluctantly instrumental to their plans, to find them for the military. It turns out the Dumplings have made a beeline for the “Chicago Pentagon”, which houses the computer which runs “the country and most of the planet”. They plan to hold it to ransom. Happily, they are foiled by Shandy, Jason, Doydoy and Prester, the only African-American psi (who had successfully hidden his powers from the military).
The prose boasts a vim not common in sf novels of the time, and its central cast are drawn well. Unfortunately, even for 1964 that central conceit feels badly dated. Even worse, Gotlieb’s attempt to explain it – through Shandy – proves less than acceptable. Sunburst has a welcomingly diverse cast, but to spend pages explaining that juvenile delinquency is genetic and most often to be found in immigrant families is offensive nonsense. It is this genetic delinquency, Shandy theorises, which has mutated to give the Dumplings their psi powers. While Gotlieb repeatedly argues that this does not make them any less than human, and so they must be treated as fairly as anyone else would be, it’s a definite misstep to equate delinquency with “animal behaviour” and psi powers as something that is useful only to “more primitive” organisms.
It then transpires that Shandy too is a mutant, but of a new type: a “supernormal”. This essentially boils down to a genetic morality. Supernormals must be Impervious so as to be immune to outside influence, they must be of above average intelligence, and they must mature at a slower rate than their peers. Shandy fits all these criteria. It gives her a role in the future, now that the military can no longer keep secret the existence of the Dumplings, or the consequences of the nuclear accident at Sorrel Park. But, still… a genetically encoded morality? That’s a little… absolute. And just the sort of tosh you’d expect in a sf novel of the 1930s or 1940s. It’s a little disheartening it should still be around more than two decades later. And equally disheartening it should be at the core of what would otherwise be a well-written novel.
Many science fiction novels impress with their ideas but are let down by shoddy deployment. Sunburst unfortunately exhibits the opposite behaviour. Disappointing.