The People: No Different Flesh, Zenna Henderson

thepeopleThe 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.

 

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The People Collection, Zenna Henderson

The People Collection, Zenna Henderson (1991)
Review by Jenni Scott

Zenna Henderson’s Pilgrimage: The Book of the People is an early entry on the SF Mistressworks list: a 1961 collection bringing together a number of short stories originally published in the 50s. Rather than just collecting together the individual stories into an anthology, the author wrote interstitial connecting material, effectively turning the separate items into something like a novel; clearly the individual stories had all had a coherent background in the first place, to enable this to work. The subsequent publication The People: No Different Flesh (1966) worked in the same way, to fill in more of the overarching story of extremely human aliens who crash-land in rural Arizona following the break-up of their home planet, and who subsequently have to find a place for themselves on Earth despite their differences from us earthfolk. Out of print for many years, the 90s saw two separate reprints of Henderson’s People stories, in the form of a Corgi reprint of Pilgrimage & No Different Flesh with four additional stories (The People Collection, 1991); and a NESFA (New England Science Fiction Association) edition of the two books with six additional stories, including one previously unpublished (Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson).

I’ve had the collected People short stories since the Corgi edition came out. The reason I bought it then was because of my familiarity with various of the stories which tended to get printed in a number of older anthologies; now, however, I suspect that the name Zenna Henderson rings few bells with most sf readers unless they buy second hand anthologies with pulpy covers. It’s not the top of my list of re-reads but it’s got staying power, and every so often I find myself repeating one or two of her phrases in my head: a child crooning to her dolls that they would shortly go up “Inna blaza glory!”; the nearly-Spanish-sounding ejaculation “Adonday veeah!”.

In many ways, Henderson’s stories must now be highly unfashionable. For a start, they’re about as far away from hard sf as you can get and deeply culturally-specific to boot. Her aliens look human enough to pass as such on Earth, ok fine maybe, but they also have names like Timmy and David, can interbreed with humans (though not without being surprised that this is the case), and follow American norms and culture only better – more morally, more uprighteously. Oh yeah, the stories are also quite noticeably religious, which must be enough to damn them in many people’s eyes. Henderson, however, is nothing like a guilty pleasure, simply a good read and a comforting one to boot. Don’t get me wrong, bad things do happen, and not just to bad people – named characters, children and even babies die, but not to make a point so much as because death is part of the world and of our lives. At the end of Henderson’s People stories, though, the protagonists have learned and grown, even if the process is painful; they are fundamentally stories of hope.

The central concept of the collection is that at the end of the 19th century (that is, the turn of the century from Henderson’s perspective), a number of small space-lifeboats landed around the Southwest of the US, crashing to a greater or lesser degree. The surviving inhabitants had to try to find each other, where they had been separated from their loved ones, and to find a place where they could make a community in the face of disbelief, fear, and even murderous attacks on the part of the human locals. Why? Because although looking entirely human outwardly, the People have special powers of telepathy, telekinesis, dowsing, and more gifts that are specific to Henderson’s stories: weaving with sunlight, setting metal to glow hot or cold. Henderson’s characters are different from the Earth folk around them, and different is dangerous – or dead.

At the same time, the People’s differences are also delightful; their extra powers are used to enjoy the physical world that surrounds them (viewing sunsets from the vantage point of someone who can fly), and of helping each other even at cost to themselves. Although the religious tone is clearly at the forefront of the stories, the message is one of love of the physical world and its beauty, the importance of being yourself as strongly and truly as you can be, and of using all the gifts you have even though these will mark you out. Despair and self-loathing are the enemies, not conventional immorality (though her characters pretty much do stick to conventional morality nevertheless). The earthling characters that the People interact with, and the reader, end up wanting to be like these cheerful, friendly, willing, individuals who are just full of life.

The things that I can imagine might stick in the craw of a reader new to Henderson’s world is that appearance of sentimentality at which the last sentence hints, along with the romance that pervades the pages as many of the female characters fall for their One True Love. I would say it’s not actually sentimental so much as comforting; characters struggle with the bad things that do happen and have happened in the past, but a lot of the focus is on getting better, getting well (mentally and physically). It’s not what you’d call a particularly feminist world but it still has strong women characters who do their own stuff and are driven by their own motivations. True, a large part of that is about looking forward to marriage and having babies, but done as a natural background part of life rather than an all-encompassing goal, and accompanied by companionship and mutual support, not just surface attraction. Henderson is clear that women can interact with men, and girls with boys, on terms of friendship, even if it’s clearly going to turn into love subsequently; it can be done without besmirching it with lust, as it were.

The contemporary cultural impact of this now-unfashionable writer was widespread enough at the time to have inspired a film version starring William Shatner. She also had imitators, in particular Alexander Key, the author of the book of Escape to Witch Mountain, which shares a telling number of similarities to the stories included in Pilgrimage. In fact, enough people have questioned whether this is a case of outright plagiarism to cause the author of this page to address the issue. For what it’s worth I imagine that website has the right of it – Henderson popularised a very powerful archetype and Key picked up on it and on various identifiable elements. In reading this collection that powerful archetype, and many vivid characters, will come to life for you.

This review originally appeared on jinty.

The Anything Box, Zenna Henderson

The Anything Box, Zenna Henderson (1965)
Review by Kev McVeigh

“there is sometime among children another seeingness — a seeing that goes beyond the range of adult eyes, that sometimes seem to trespass even on other dimensions.” (‘Turn The Page’)

The 14 stories collected in The Anything Box almost all feature children in some kind of relationship to a parent or teacher. From the title story onwards teachers observe children with some form of magic, some way of seeing a different world, or of influencing the world, that is denied or lost to adults.

Henderson is probably best remembered for “The People” stories about a community of aliens crashlanded on Earth and hiding out in the South West USA. The Anything Box stories share some similarities of setting, and scenarios, but are significantly darker and less sentimental in most cases. The sometimes twee moralising of The People’s secretive interactions with humans is replaced here with more tragic consequences. In ‘Come On, Wagon’ when Thaddeus is told he can’t use unexplained powers that he used to move his toy wagon, eventually life comes full circle and he no longer has the ability which would save his Uncle’s life. In ‘The Last Step’ the teacher interrupts the children’s game, only to realise later that their game was a premonition of reality, and they have no escape because the game was terminated.

Although children are at the centre of these stories the focus is repeatedly on the power of imagination:

“When I was in the first grade, my teacher was magic” (‘Turn The Page’)

“Imagination is an invaluable asset. It is, I might say, one of the special blessing bestowed upon mankind.” (‘The Last Step’)

“Too young to learn that heart’s desire is only play-like” (‘The Anything Box’)

“Magic, us old-timers would call it. Dunno what you empty, don’t-believe-nothing-without-touch-it-taste-it-hear-it-proof younguns would call it.” (‘The Grunder’)

Written in the 1950s, published between 1951 and 1962, these stories have an innocence of telling on the surface, but their own magic in part through Henderson’s charmingly regional voice. It is often said that SF has very few regional writers, but Zenna Henderson’s native Arizona and Southern California is clear in some of these stories. In a couple of cases they remind me of the great RA Lafferty, (though they pre-date his first publications) in their inventive, quirky language, (‘Things’) and their emphasis on the power of language precisely used (‘The Last Step’, ‘Hush!’) As a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints Henderson is often mentioned as an influence on Orson Scott Card and others, but there is no sign here of the more dubious imagery of some Mormon writers. If anyone the more recent writer I see in ‘Walking Aunt Daid’ is Nicholas Fisk, and in ‘Turn The Page’ possibly the Kelly Link of ‘The Faery Handbag.’

Henderson may not be a religious zealot, though there are touches of spirituality in her stories, but she is a passionate proselyte in her own way:

“I can see that you haven’t forgotten the lessons she taught you. Only you have remembered the wrong part. You only half learned the lessons. You’ve eaten the husks and thrown the grain away. She tried to tell you. She tried to teach you. But you’ve all forgotten. Not a one of you remembers that if you turn the page everyone will live happily ever after, because it was written that way. You’re all stranded in the introduction to the story.” (‘Turn The Page’)

Another aspect of Henderson’s writing, according to her Wikipedia entry is that ‘her work could not be considered feminist’ but the petty arguments between Crae and Ellena in ‘The Grunder’ and his irrational jealousies are foregrounded and highlighted. The best story here, ‘Subcommittee’ looks like an obvious tale of human and alien children learning to play which eventually teaches their military parents to co-operate too. Alongside this however, Henderson demonstrates the dismissive ignorance of domestic reality in the military husband. Elsewhere there are hints of patronising behaviour in male Head Teachers to females, and so on. Henderson, as noted, came from a conservative background and was writing at a time when outright feminism was not visible in SF,so perhaps these little touches were what she was able to offer?

Overall, The Anything Box is an enjoyable collection with an angry undercurrent. Its occasional lapses into sentimental views of childhood are a product of its time, and tempered by a cynical tone in some of the adults. (Two stories open in almost identical words, ‘I don’t like kids’ and ‘I don’t like children.’) Time has taken its toll on Zenna Henderson’s work, as with most of her contemporaries, but her best work remains interesting, slightly charming and shouldn’t be forgotten. She tried to tell you. She tried to teach you.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.