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The Wonder
J.D. Beresford
University of Nebraska Press, 297 pages

The Wonder
J.D. Beresford
John Davys Beresford (1873-1947), the son of an English clergyman, was crippled by polio in his youth. He is best remembered for his early science fiction novels, The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; a.k.a. The Wonder, 1917 USA) and Goslings (1913; a.k.a. A World of Women, 1913 USA), and his later utopian novel What Dreams May Come... (1941). Some of his shorter genre works were collected in Nineteen Impressions (1918) and Signs and Wonders (1921).

ISFDB Bibliography
University of Nebraska Press
Ayer Press HC facsimile edition
Bibliography of J.D. Beresford
Bio/Bibliography of J.D. Beresford (text in Russian)

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

What you have in The Wonder (a.k.a. The Hampdenshire Wonder) is one of those early science fiction classics which has aged remarkably well. This is, to some extent, because it is a story centred on people rather than technology, but also because, regardless of its Edwardian trappings, it portrays so well the position of the gifted (or in this case superhuman) child as an outsider to the society around him. W.H. Rhodes' "The Telescopic Eye" (1876) and J.H. Rosny, aîné's "Un autre monde" (1895) had introduced the concept of children with superhuman powers -- telescopic and extra-spectral vision, respectively. In the latter story, the young boy's ability allowed him to see life forms unseen by others and he was pegged insane and shunned. However, The Hampdenshire Wonder, first published in Britain in 1911, was the first novel to deal fully with the sociological implications of a vastly superior human amongst us. Since then, as Jack L. Chalker points out in his introduction, numerous genre titles have appeared, from the humorous or relatively non-threatening superhuman children in novels like J.A. Mitchell's Drowsy (1917), and Wilmar H. Shiras' Children of the Atom (1953), to increasingly more paranoid accounts of "outsider" supermen threatening humanity, e.g. Georges Lebas' Jean Arlog, le premier surhomme (1921), Philip Wylie's Gladiator (1930), Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1936), A.E. Van Vogt's Slan (1940) and Norvell Page's But Without Horns (1940), to name but a few.

One of the ways that The Wonder stands out is that it avoids the sensationalism and paranoia of much of the later works. It's young hero, Victor Stott, while a giant-headed genius, is, unlike his father the cricket superstar, physically weak and awkward. This sort of a character is very likely strongly influenced by the author's crippling childhood polio. At first, the strange child that neither speaks nor cries, but is able to control others with his gaze, is believed to be an idiot. But it soon becomes apparent that Victor has the ability to memorize and synthesize material from a number of sources. Once he has had access to a huge library, he is able to form theories of human progress and argue philosophical points which leave the greatest minds of his era far behind. In the same village of Hampdenshire lives a hydrocephalic idiot who sees in his and Victor's bulbous heads a point in common. The idiot, immune to Victor's mind-control, becomes a clinging vine, and ends up causing/witnessing Victor's accidental drowning death.

The Wonder also stands out for the sober non-sensationalistic portrayal of those immediately affected by Victor. His father, hoping for a strapping boy who would outdo his father on the cricket pitch, has difficulty coming to terms with the son he does produce. The priest who introduces Victor to learning, and soon realizes what he has released on the world, doesn't go into a frenzy of blaming Satan or some similar cause, but remains fairly calm, if concerned. Even the village idiot is an interesting element, in that only he can bring certain aspects of life to Victor, however much the latter may resent them. The elements of companionship and the concept of play, as basic as they are to humanity, even to an idiot, are both alien to Victor, and are ultimately the cause of his demise.

While the very British settings and attitudes of the characters may require a bit of getting used to for American readers, reading The Wonder is a certainly a worthy investment of your time. It is all that the later books like Slan and Odd John are, without the hype and panic, but with much of the humanity and intelligence that it's successors lost.

Copyright © 2000 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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