Immigrants in an Alien World: Zenna Henderson’s The People: No Different Flesh

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Adventure is a cornerstone of all the books reviewed in this column. But not all adventures are big and flashy. Sometimes, the most intense experiences can arise right in your own neighborhood, right around the corner. And when I was growing up, some of the most memorable stories I encountered were Zenna Henderson’s stories of the “People.” They are rooted in the real world of the American West, but are stories of fantastic powers and alien beings; stories of outsiders, outcasts and immigrants, and the type of personal adventures that spoke to my adolescent heart.

I’ve never read a full-length book by Zenna Henderson while I was growing up, but I was quite familiar with her short fiction work. She is most closely associated with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a magazine I didn’t have access to during my youth (my dad was an Analog and Galaxy kind of guy). Looking over her bibliography, however, I recognized many anthologies that I found in my local library. And while most of the stories I read in those anthologies are long forgotten, I still remember hers vividly. I read many Westerns in my youth, but unlike other authors whose descriptions were largely generic, she described the western mountains in a way that made you feel like you’d been there. Her characters were evocative and familiar, relatable in spite of their alien origins and fantastic powers. Her stories were infused with religious faith, and were often object lessons on the worst and best behaviors that faith can inspire. The faith of the People, which included invocations of the “Presence, the Name and the Power,” was close enough to my Christian faith with its trinity of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” that I could see the parallels, and allowed me to examine that faith in a new light. The stories took topics I encountered in church, and breathed life into them in a way that made them compelling and interesting. I sometimes wondered how the alien People were so similar to the people of Earth, but the point of the series was that, despite their differences, the People were people, too. Henderson’s stories taught me about kindness, compassion, and tolerance, and they had some things to say about immigration that are especially relevant to our world today.

The People: No Different Flesh is not Henderson’s first book of the People, but the stories were not written in chronological order, and can be enjoyed in whatever order you encounter them (as I did). And this book represents a good sample of what the People stories represent.

 

About the Author

Zenna Henderson (1917-1983), was born and spent most of her life in Arizona. She was a graduate of Arizona State, and worked as an elementary school teacher. In addition to teaching in Arizona, she taught in Air Force Dependents schools in France, at a school for children with tuberculosis, and in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. She was a Christian throughout her lifetime, baptized in the Mormon church, at one time identifying as a Methodist, and reportedly worshiping in more independent congregations later in life. Her faith had a large influence on her writing, which often dealt with matters of religion and belief.

Henderson’s first SF publication was in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1951, and it was followed that same year by her first story of the alien visitors called “The People,” the stories for which she remains best known. She was one of the early female voices in science fiction, and unlike others, did not employ a masculine pen name or the more ambiguous initials. Her stories were notable for the range of viewpoint characters, which included males, females, children, and the elderly. She received one nomination for a Hugo, in 1958.

Two of her works were adapted for television. In 1972, ABC produced a TV movie, The People, starring William Shatner and Kim Darby, which was based on one of her stories. Another story was adapted as an episode on the TV anthology series Tales from the Darkside. Her stories are also a clear, if uncredited, inspiration for the Alexander Key novel used by Disney as the basis for their film Escape to Witch Mountain.

This is not the first time someone has reviewed Zenna Henderson for Tor.com. For Jo Walton’s thoughts on the author, look here for a review of Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson, NESFA’s excellent anthology of all the “People” stories.

 

The World of Psi-ence Fiction

Mankind has long been interested in powers that go beyond what is possible in nature, and there has been speculation that expanded mental powers might be the next step of human evolution. In the late 19th Century, some attempted to address the idea scientifically. Philosopher Max Dessoir coined the term “parapsychology,” and in the 1930s, Joseph Banks Rhine used the term to describe the research he was doing at Duke University. These concepts began to find their way into science fiction magazines of the time, which were always looking for new theories and discoveries to explore. The term “psi” is often incorporated into descriptions of these types of powers (as the first letter of the Greek word “psyche,” meaning “mind” or “soul,” psi is used to denote abilities or phenomena beyond the reach of normal physical or mental functions.) Another term that is often used is ESP, which stands for Extrasensory Perception.

Even magazines associated with the hardest of sciences included stories of psi and ESP, and the subjects were explored by scientifically rigorous authors like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Larry Niven. Editor John Campbell had a particular fondness for these stories, and a few of my favorites from Analog included James H. Schmitz’s tales of the young telepath Telzey Amberdon and John Dalmas’ stories of the Yngling. Writer Stan Lee brought these concepts to the world of comic books in 1963, with the X-Men and other mutants using their powers to both fight and commit crimes.

There are, of course, many specific kinds of paranormal powers that have become familiar to readers of science fiction over the years: Telepathy involves communication between minds, and could also be used to influence or control the mind of another person. With telekinesis, the mind is used to influence the outside world, by lifting or moving objects, or even flying. Using the mind to heal another, or to heal one’s self, is another aspect of the mind influencing matter. Precognition involves seeing the future and predicting events that have not yet occurred. Teleportation involves instantaneous transportation to another location. These abilities can range from subtle manifestations, like the twisting of luck or the laws of probability, to the power to control or influence whole populations of people. Stories about paranormal powers often explore the complicated morality of using such powers, and those with enhanced abilities are often portrayed as hiding their powers from people who lack them, either by choice or out of necessity.

Those interested in further reading can find an article on the use of paranormal powers in science fiction here—it’s also full of links to related articles, and to various authors who have used paranormal powers in their stories.

 

The People: No Different Flesh

This collection of short stories begins with a framing narrative, “No Different Flesh.” A human couple, Meris and Mark, hear strange noises during the night, and in the morning find an infant in strange clothing, who can float in the air. They name her Lala and take her in. They also find an object that Mark suggests might be some sort of alien lifeboat. A young man, Tad, who had fallen in with a dangerous crowd, comes to their house to tell them about a hit and run accident he and his friends had been involved in. The injured man, Johannan, is not dead, and is clad in the same kind of mysterious fabric as Lala. They report the incident to the police, and in revenge, the boys responsible for the accident come and destroy a textbook that Mark had been working on. Johannan’s friends use mysterious powers to help reassemble the book so that Mark can meet his deadline, and when it comes time to return Lala to her people, Meris finds she is pregnant. Lala returns to meet the new baby, Tad and the others discover that they share a love of old cars, and Johannan and his friends begin to tell Mark and Meris the stories of their People.

The next tale, “Deluge,” is told from the viewpoint of an aging grandmother, Eva-lee. As the People prepare for Gathering Day, they notice strange signs and discover that their world, Home, will soon be destroyed. They access racial memories, and begin to build starships that will scatter through space in search of new habitable worlds. We see how the people react and adapt to the news, with little Eve having to decide which of her precious dolls will make the trip, and Lytha and Timmy—a young couple in the early stages of love—rebelling at being separated as their families are placed on different ships. In the end, Eva-lee feels that she will soon be Called back to the Presence, and decides to stay behind to be Called along with her homeworld, which allows Lytha and Timmy to travel on the same ship together.

Next up is “Angels Unawares,” the story of Nils and Gail, a young Earth couple in the late 19th Century, traveling to his first job as a mine manager. On the way, they come upon a homestead with a burnt outbuilding. The building is full of dead bodies, bound and murdered. They find a young girl, badly burnt, and treat her. They also find a piece of paper with a Bible verse—Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The next town they travel through is a community of religious fanatics, and one of them, Caleb, admits to having participated in the murder. I remember being struck by how easily these people plucked solitary verses from the Bible to justify the most heinous acts; something I sadly learned as I grew older was all too common. Nils and Gail take the girl in, calling her Marnie and telling people she is their niece. They find that Marnie has strange powers, including the ability to float in the air, read minds, and find minerals. Marnie grows older and stronger, and learns to fit into human society. Caleb, however, comes into town, trying to kill Marnie and finish the job his people started. In defending herself, Marnie accidentally collapses the mine, and the town begins to shrink. She uses her abilities to find a new mine, however, and Nils and Gail’s kindness is rewarded by new prosperity. And in the framing story, we find that Marnie’s real name was Lytha, the girl who was so desperate to be with her love, Timmy.

In the next story, “Troubling of the Water,” we meet another family in the late 19th Century: a farming family dealing with a drought. The story is narrated from the viewpoint of the young son. Objects falling from the sky start a fire, and they soon find a badly burned man, his eyes destroyed by whatever burned him. The boy begins to sense the man’s thoughts, and realizes his name is Timothy. As the man heals, he begins to communicate with the others in the family without words, but the father insists that he start speaking. The drought grows worse, and Timothy claims he can find water for them, and starts to dig. They find bedrock, use explosives to blast it, and water starts to flow in huge quantities. They are barely able to remove their belongings from the home as the water comes rushing up, and have to tie off the house, which floats right off its foundation. In the end, thanks to their trust of their strange visitor, the family has a lush and prosperous farm. Moreover, Timothy finds that there is a woman named Marnie Lytha a few towns over. But after teasing us with a reunion of the separated couple, the framing material takes us to the next story.

“Return” follows a couple of the People, Thann and Debbie (who is pregnant), who return from Earth to one of the worlds the People have come to live on. Debbie misses Earth, however, and begs Thann to travel back so that the baby can be born there. They crash, Thann is killed, and Debbie is taken in by an old human couple, Seth and Glory. In her grief, Debbie treats them horribly, and looks down on them as inferior even though they do their best to care for her despite their own poverty. Debbie has her baby, and during a huge storm, is reunited with members of the People. She realizes that she has behaved horribly, in a rare story where one of the People acts in a way that is less than admirable.

The final story of the volume, “Shadow on the Moon,” takes place in the present of the 1960s. We see the tale unfold through the eyes of a young girl whose brother, Remy, is obsessed with traveling to the moon, and wants to do it openly, revealing the abilities of the People to outsiders. They find an old hermit who is trying to build a spaceship himself. He is doing it for his son, who they soon find was killed in an accident. The old man’s only desire is to bring his son’s body to the moon, so that his dream can be fulfilled. The idea of a bootstrap effort to build a spaceship seems ludicrous at first, but they find that the old man’s son must have had some ties to the People, and that the trip is indeed possible. Remy finds that he can help fulfil the old man’s dream, and his own, and grows in the process. The story is both a sweet tribute to the power of dreams and a tip of the hat to the growing abilities of the human race to travel through space.

 

Final Thoughts

The People stories, while filled with pain and tragedy, are also filled with faith and hope. They have the feeling of parables, and more often than not, charity and hospitality to newcomers and the needy is rewarded in the end. The People have strange and unfamiliar powers, which frighten some, but they invariably use those powers for good. The tales make you feel that our mundane world can be the scene of marvels and wonders, with adventures unfolding somewhere right around the corner. Henderson had a wonderful gift for drawing the reader into the story, and in giving us stories that centered not on the intellect, but on the heart.

And now it’s your turn to comment: Have you read The People: No Different Flesh, or the other tales of the People? Have you read any other works by Zenna Henderson? And if you have, what are your thoughts? Did they give you the same sense of hope and optimism they gave me?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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