Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 513, April 5, 2009

"Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper."

Attribute to The Libertarian Entrprise

Most folks who read my science fiction novels probably notice that, unlike Star Trek, Star Wars, or Babylon 5 (to name three examples), I never write about phenomena like telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition. There are reasons for this. Chief among them is that psychic doings make bad writing entirely too easy. Paint yourself into a corner, plotwise? Then have your hero teleport out of it.

Another is that science fiction deals in real possibilities, based on our understanding of the universe, and the way science has let us learn and do more every century. I write about starships because I have reason to believe we'll have them someday. I also think faster- than-light travel will be possible, perhaps even time travel. The most fantastic thing I write about is the possibility that someday we might be free—yeah, I know it's a stretch, but the possibility is there, nonetheless.

However psychic phenomena are an altogether different kettle of gagh. Very early in my life, I realized that, if such power actually existed, there wouldn't be a single politician or religious leader on this planet left alive and standing above his charred and smoking shoetops.

I am not a religious person, either—although it's certainly not the most important issue in my life—for a similar reason. If prayer were a real thing, then the column of prayer extending upward from places like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Belsen would have looked like the base of one of those mega-tornados in Twister, solid as granite, miles in diameter, well capable of knocking any deity off his golden throne.

I mention these two items because I want to make it very clear how much I love and treasure the writings of an author whose stories usually pivoted on the psychic powers of their characters, and to whom the Presence (as God was referred to in these stories) was a good and important thing. Even though I don't believe in either of these two concepts, the author's work was so valuable and positive in my young life that I not only didn't mind them as story elements, I can't see how the stories or characters would have been the same at all without them.

I am writing here about Zenna Henderson, in real life, a grade-school teacher from Arizona who was born about the same time as my father and died in 1983, leaving us all the poorer for her absence. She is best remembered (and properly so) for a wonderful series of short stories she wrote about "The People"—interstellar refugees of the humanoid persuasion whose planet blew up around the middle of the 19th century.

After an arduous "Crossing", they arrived at Earth more or less by chance. Their ancestors had once pursued technological advances the way we do, but later gave it up for a civilization based on various mental abilities. When they needed technology again, to escape their world, they found the design in their archives and built a starship, but their understanding of it was limited. It broke up as it entered Earth's atmosphere, spilling "lifeslips" all over the American southwest.

The stories concern how different groups and isolated individuals fared over the next century. Viewpoint characters are usually children or public school teachers, for one reason or another nearing the ends of their careers. The stories most often bring these characters (and the reader along with them) from loneliness, despair, sometimes even the brink of suicide, back into the light and warmth of new hope and wonder.

And belonging.

Ugh. That all sounds like some kind of a religious tract, doesn't it? But I assure you it isn't, or believe me, the critic that was yours truly in the sixth grade wouldn't have given it an instant's notice.

What I can see now, of course, is that Henderson understood people much better than most observers, and children best of all. Somehow she tapped into all of the things that make growing up—especially if you're a smart, talented, and curious kid—absolutely miserable. She was one of the most honest writers I've ever run into, and conveyed nuances of mood and emotion so very well I'd be envious if I were the type. To this day, I don't know how she did it, I'm only grateful she did.

Henderson was the first author I knew of (I hadn't found Chad Oliver yet) to employ southwestern locations. She wrote authentically and convincingly of the birds and vegetation characteristic of the region and even the smells of manzanita and sage in the air that I, myself, knew so well. She wrote about weathered old buildings, the color and texture of the soil, looming mountains, and sudden storms that sweep over them. Being far away from home at the time, reading her stories magically took me back for little visits, any time I wanted.

I discovered Henderson's stories the same year—sixth grade—that I discovered Robert Heinlein's novels. Not only did her stories become important to me as an unhappy post-adolescent kid (but I repeat myself) and future writer, but there's an odd personal connection, as well.

In sixth grade, I had one of my most memorable teachers, a lady named Lois V. Henderson. Miss Henderson seemed to me to be somewhere between 30 and 40 years of age, and sort of hardy and hearty, like one of my farm aunts back home in Colorado. (We were in Newfoundland, at Pepperrell Air Force Base at the time.) She recognized the kind of mind I had and—when she wasn't telling me to be quiet (I had a problem about that, even then), she was encouraging me to learn and think and feel and do all of the things I needed to feed my growing intellect.

There was a particular feeling about Miss Henderson that seemed to radiate into the space around her that I won't even try to describe except to say that, when you dream about somebody, you don't really see them, you feel their presence, what a mystic might call their "aura". Miss Henderson's was unmistakably her own. She clearly had her own life, her own joys and problems. Once, when we were supposed to be resting, with our heads on our desks, I noticed that she was quietly weeping. I never learned why, of course, but that became part of her personality as I perceived it.

Years later, in my early 20s, I wrote to Zenna Henderson, care of her publisher (it was the first time I'd ever done anything like that) to describe Lois Henderson and ask if the two might actually be the same. Among other things, both had taught at schools on American bases overseas. I also tried, very haltingly, because I was no mystic, to describe that feeling I had about personality "auras", because, as I explained, it seemed to me that hers and my old teacher's were identical.

The famous author wrote back almost immediately—I wish I still had the letter—saying she understood perfectly what I meant, and, that although she wasn't my Miss Henderson, she was flattered that I might think she was. I was impressed all over again by her gracious reply.

In 1972, a made-for-TV movie, The People, was adapted from "Pottage", one of Henderson's stories, starring Kim Darby and William Shatner.

The subject of Zenna Henderson comes up because I was randomly perusing the Web the other day, when I happened upon a book I hadn't known existed, a complete collection of all her "The People" stories, including one that had never been published. The compendium* had come out in 1995 and was now out of print, but my wife bought me a copy from The stories, so far, are just as wonderful as I remembered.

A word of warning to the politically correct: these stories are set in the 1950s in the southwestern United States, where people often left their front doors unlocked, smoked tobacco from time to time, the women occasionally wore dresses (sometimes to square dances), and the men—even including the local family doctor—hunted mule deer in the mountains with scoped rifles, and brought the carcasses home to eat. If any of that offends you, maybe you should give these stories a miss.

I often read to my wife at night before we go to sleep. Over the past 30 years, I've read every one of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories to her, at least twice. Now, I can hardly wait to finish the Kathy Reichs mystery novel I'm currently reading to her (Cross Bones, and a very fine mystery it is) so I can start reading to her about the People.

And go "home" once again.

* Ingathering, the complete People stories of Zenna Henderson, edited by Mark and Priscilla Olson, and published 1995 by the NESFA Press.
Just before press time, we learned the book's also available from

Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas was recently completed and is presently looking for a literary home.

Neil is presently working on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Roswell, Texas, with Rex F. "Baloo" May.

The stunning 185-page full-color graphic-novelized version of The Probability Broach, which features the art of Scott Bieser and was published by BigHead Press has recently won a Special Prometheus Award. It may be had through the publisher, or at


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