It’s not the first time I’ve picked up this novel and read through it, but today was the most recent. An avid sci-fi reader, this was one of the first sci-fi novels I ever picked up and read through as a very young boy. Today, I found it for ¢40 in a used bookstore and vowed to give it a fresh look. The book is filled with some significant cultural ideas and some of them had a lot more impact on an impressionable young boy than they do on an educated adult man.
Phyllis Gotlieb’s Sunburst begins like a lot of young-adult novels still do. The main character as presented immediately, a young and relatable girl with problems lots of other teenagers can imagine themselves sharing. She lives in a world of intense poverty where no one ever really stands out, yet she’s presented as standing out as a fiercely intelligent, curious child, someone truly special.
Without spoiling the plot, this book focuses on a very common SF plot you’d find in the 50s and 60s. After the shock of radiation sickness and the harsh realities that the nuclear age presented around the world, many SF writers were latching onto ideas similar to Sunburst – It’s the early 00s, a society is recovering from a dangerous nuclear accident in the 80s, and like any government presented with such a tragedy, they’re hiding it aggressively.
Our protagonist Shandy lives in a town called Sorrel Park, a midwestern community ravaged by the horrors of a nuclear reactor meltdown. Only 20 years after the accident, hoodlum children with dangerous psionic abilities emerge and quickly create devastating havoc upon the town before the local military police detains them. This is really just a setting for the novel. The cast of characters are all explained through these terms and they function as a plot device to keep the pages turning, but the real message behind the book is less SF-centric and more focused in a misguided bigotry.
These psionically empowered children are explained, not as rare mutants resulting from radiation sickness, but as a natural occurrence. The meat of the novel’s message is that not only these children, but all humans and other animals are gifted with “psi.” It explains herd communication, a “sixth sense,” and functions as a tool for children to communicate before adopting language. The novel’s real premise is to explain these gifts as the result of psychopathic, childish mesomorphs. You get sick with radiation, then have a mesomorph kid? Well, he’s now genetically predisposed to immorality, violence, and telekinetic powers.
Shandy, as it turns out, is another mutant just like the psi-empowered children, but as a radiation-born ectomorph, she’s something entirely different. Shandy is presented to use as a “supernormal,” a human born with a genetic predisposition to moral behavior and immune to the influence of psionic powers, born with a evolutionarily divine purpose to spread immunity through the passing of her genes to children. There are mesomorph psi children who maintain a level of morality and kindness, and 20% of the psi-children are ectomorphs and endomorphs, but these one-offs are never explained, merely alluded to repeatedly as one-offs.
Functionally, it’s a decent SF novel. An exciting read and page turner, this 151-page novel moves you from one flashy orange cover to the next in just a few short hours, but the underlying messages leave a sour taste in the reader’s mouth, rather than a satisfied feeling of completion. To a child, the book might seem full of reasonable answers. As an adult? I feel the sour sting of bigotry, racism, and ignorance in the sociological explanations provided by this outdated novel. It belonged in a different era, brandishing ideals already obsolete in the 60s where it was published.
I am left unsatisfied and underwhelmed.