The People: No Different Flesh, Zenna Henderson
The People: No Different Flesh, Zenna Henderson (1966)
Review by Ian Sales
Although popular during the 1950s, and in print up until her death in 1983, Zenna Henderson is mostly forgotten these days. Her last book in print appears to be a NESFA retrospective collection in 1995. She is best-known for her stories of the People, a group of humanoid aliens with psychic powers who settled secretly on Earth. This may well be why she is no longer read, because those stories are the sort of backwards-looking science fiction popular during the first half of the twentieth century which confuses its future setting with nostalgia. The People: no Different Flesh, the second collection about the People, is a case in point.
According to isfdb.org, The People: No Different Flesh was first published in the UK in 1966 – although its contents, six novelettes, all originally saw publication in F&SF between 1961 and 1966 – and only saw print in the US the following year. It is in fact arguable whether it qualifies as a collection or a fix-up novel, as Henderson uses a framing narrative extended from the first story, which gives the book its title, to introduce each of the following five novelettes.
Mark and Meris live somewhere in rural USA, and have just lost their baby. One stormy night, they find a young girl, no more than three or four years old, who can float through the air, speaks no English, but seems to be able to read minds. They name the girl Lala after the only word she seems to be able to say, “muhlala”, and look after her, hoping to find her family but also realising that may not prove possible as they’ve realised she’s not from Earth. Soon afterwards, Lala’s father turns up, and explains that the two of them are of the People, born on another planet, but sent to settle secretly on Earth. Their “lifeslips” crashed during a storm, and the father, Johannan – although most of the People have ordinary Anglophone names, some have weird made-up ones – has no idea where to find the nearest People community. Happily, they find him instead – although not before an incident with a young rich tearaway and the neighbourhood’s “good kid”, Tad, who has been running around with him and his crowd.
Once the other People have arrived, they tell stories to Mark and Meris to describe who and what they are, and it’s these that form the bulk of the book. The first, ‘Deluge’, is set at the time of the break-up of the People’s home world, called by them Home. It is narrated by an old woman, who elects to stay behind. Nothing is explained, not how the People live, nor what destroys their planet. It’s implied the People were once highly sophisticated but have since lost the bulk of their knowledge – although apparently not all of it, as they are capable of building spaceships to evacuate their planet. The spaceships scatter, and some head for Earth. The second story, ‘Angels Unawares’, tells of a young couple travelling into an unnamed Territory in the late nineteenth century as the husband has been hired as the superintendent of a mine. En route, they stumble across a farmstead that has been burned to the ground, and in the ruins they find a young girl, around eleven or twelve years old. Like Lala, she quickly shows her extraterrestrial origin by floating through the air; and, like Meris and Mark, the narrator, Gail, and husband Nils decide to look after the injured girl, and don’t seem at all bothered by her magical abilities. Before reaching the mine, they spend the night at a town founded by a Christian fundamentalist – it was men from that town who killed the young girl’s parents and brother and burned their farmstead. Once at the town, the three settle quickly, but a member of the fundamentalist town who recognised the girl has followed them…
‘Troubling of the Water’ is set at roughly the same time as ‘Angels Unawares’, and again the narrator is not one of the People, but a teenage boy. His parents, young sister and himself are trying to eke out a living in Fool’s Acres, a farm in the Territory, but water is scarce and their creek is beginning to run dry. A meteorite crashes nearby and from it they rescue a young man who is badly-burned. Although he heals quickly, his damaged eyesight does not return although he can apparently sense objects about him. With the injured man’s help, the family discover water on their property beneath the bedrock, and the farm is saved. The fifth story, ‘Return’, is told from the point of view of one of the People, a young woman who persuades her husband to take her back to Earth from New Home so her baby can be born there. But their spaceship crashes and he is killed. She is rescued by an old couple who are working a played-out mine. The canyon where the People lived has been dammed and turned into a lake, which is what caused the crash. The young woman is arrogant and condescending, despite being treated well by the old couple. Eventually, she learns the errors of her ways.
The final story, ‘Shadow on the Moon’, mentions the Space Race without actually giving any details, or even mentioning NASA. It was published in early 1962, so it’s possible it was written before either Gagarin or Shepard made their historic flights. Remy, seventeen years old and one of the People, wants to go to the Moon, but his parents forbid. Then he and his sister, Shadow, stumble across a mad old man living in a shack near an abandoned mine… and it transpires the old man’s on built a rocket in the mine-shaft, but then died in a cave-in, and his father is trying to finish the spaceship in order to bury the son’s body on the Moon. The story makes no concessions toward realism – the spaceship is shaped like a giant bullet, it’s powered by a thought-amplifier which would allow non-telekinetics to lift it into space, and it was built by four ex-armed forces (possibly from WWII) men who appear to have no relevant qualifications or experience.
Although published in the mid-1960s, it’s hard to identify when the framing narrative in The People: No Different Flesh is set. While the stories follow an historical timeline, beginning at some unspecified time on Home, the first story set on Earth, ‘Angels Unawares’, takes place in the late nineteenth century. The teenage girl from it is mentioned in ‘Deluge’ and appears to be roughly the same age, which suggest the journey from to Earth took days or weeks at most. The setting for all stories is identified only as “the Territory”, and since by the turn of the twentieth century only Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico had yet to gain statehood (Alaska didn’t even become a Territory until 1912, and a state until 1959), the People seem to have settled somewhere in the south-west US. Which also fits in quite well with the mention of deserts and mines. But, it’s implied, Mark and Meris are more contemporary, especially given that at least one of the People they meet is the offspring of the children named in ‘Angels Unawares’ and ‘Troubling of the Water’, and yet… There’s mention of television, but everything feels like it belongs several decades earlier. Tad finds a Model A in a junkyard, and Ford stopped making them in 1931. The People travel to Mark and Meris’s house in an Overland, a car company which folded in 1926. True, there are thirty-year-old cars still on the road in 2014, but would cars from the early days of motoring be routinely seen, even in rural America, in 1965? By 1960, 20% of US farms still didn’t have electricity, so I suppose it’s possible. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Henderson was born in 1917 in Arizona, so her stories of the People may well be set in the world in which she grew up…
Having said that, there is a lot of 1940s to 1960s science fiction which, despite its galactic empires and alien worlds, always manages to feel like it’s set in 1930s USA. It’s not just the often-unimaginative extrapolation – which is mostly not an issue in the case of The People: No Different Flesh – such as computers the size of small buildings, everyone using paper to record things, or storing data on tape… But details such as men wearing hats and smoking cigars, the rigid gender roles, the way in which technology is not prosaic but tied to specific science-fictional signifiers – there are spaceships but no hair-driers, for example… This lack of immersive world-building proves a strength in The People: No Different Flesh because the bulk of the book is historical. The framing narrative, however, is weak, not only because its setting doesn’t entirely convince as contemporary but because its entire raison d’être feels weak – gratitude for the rescue of Lala, and curiosity – and far too authorial. The People themselves are also too much paragons, the protagonist of ‘Return’ notwithstanding, and read like real good neighbourly sorts dialled up to eleven. With magical powers.
I can see how some might find these stories charming, but for me I’m afraid they’re somewhat too insipid and saccharine, and far too driven by nostalgia for a “simpler time” which all too often romanticises the hardships of past days. Disappointing.