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Literature / The People

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A series of short stories, written by Zenna Henderson, from the 1950s through the 1970s.

The People are a race of human looking Space Elves who have evolved beyond the need for all that technology, until their home world is threatened by a tectonic disaster that will make it uninhabitable. They dust off their old designs for starships, and build enough to evacuate their world, scattering out across the galaxy in the hope that some of them will find new worlds to colonize. One of their ships finds its way to Earth, in 1890, but its inexperienced crew botches the entry into Earth's atmosphere, and it crashes, scattering survivors in escape pods, many of them children, all over the southwestern United States.


The People are, by and large, Actual Pacifists, with real Psychic Powers such as telekinesis, so many of their initial confrontations with humans do not turn out well for them, with many of the survivors running afoul of religious fundamentalists who take their psychic abilities to be witchcraft. Those People who survive their initial confrontations with the people of Earth do so by going into hiding, making it more difficult for them to find each other.

The stories are set in two main time periods: the late nineteenth century, and the mid twentieth. The nineteenth century stories deal with crash survivors, and the twentieth century stories deal with their children and grandchildren, and their continuing efforts to reunite.

Henderson once explained that the People began as "a weird group [of] refugees from a Transylvania-type country" who had used magic to cross the Atlantic Ocean." But when she found these people too "unpleasant" to write about, she made them benign aliens from another planet. Henderson said, "I think one of the appeals of the People is that they are a possible forgotten side of the coin that seems always to flip to evil, violence, and cruelty."


The People stories originally ran in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Two collections of People stories were released by Henderson: Pilgrimage: The Story of The People (Doubleday, 1961; Avon paperback, 1967), and The People: No Different Flesh (Doubleday, 1967; Avon paperback, 1968) which contained all the stories that she had written up to that point. A final volume, Ingathering (NESFA, 1995), which contained all of the People stories was published after Henderson's death.

The stories were adapted into a 1972 Made-for-TV Movie, produced by Francis Ford Coppola, and starring Kim Darby and William Shatner. It used the short story "Pottage" for its main plot, and imported characters and situations from many of the other stories to flesh it out.


This series contains examples of:

  • Aliens Among Us: The People who survive the initial crash, and their first encounters with humans, continue to survive on Earth by trying to blend in with the indigenous population.
  • Author Appeal: Henderson was a primary school teacher, and so are many of the protagonists of her stories.
  • Blessed with Suck: Being a Sensitive, Bethie Merrill feels the pain of everyone around her, and can't shut any of it out. Being able to shut it out or distance oneself from it usually goes along with it, but Bethie has "only half the Gift". To make matters worse, she was born with the Gift, instead of acquiring it in her early teens as normal.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: The religion of the People bears many similarities to Christianity. They say "the Presence, the Name and the Power", and they make "The Sign". In the unpublished "Tell Me A Story," set a few months after the crash, a young People woman who can barely speak English enthuses that the earth people have a book that is a lot like their own sacred writings, and even has "Our Brother" in it. She then launches into Psalm 139, "Though I take the wings of the morning..." indicating they've got a similar scripture.
  • Escape Pod: The survivors of the crash were the ones who made it into the pods.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Believing his wife is the last of the People, Bruce Merrill in "Gilead" is adamantly opposed to his children experimenting or even asking questions about their innate abilities, hoping they will lose interest. He even gets angry with his son for Remembering a bit of poetry from his long-dead grandmother. He's actually less unsympathetic than he appears, but is afraid they'd do too much around other people if they knew. This doesn't make things any easier on Bethie. In "Pottage", an entire community, founded after the witch-burnings, is based on the repression and denial of their abilities, to the point that playground equipment is forbidden and even laughing is suspect.
  • Flight: "Lifting", levitation, is an innate ability, although children acquire it at different ages.
  • Framing Device: The two collections put together by Henderson, Pilgrimage, and No Different Flesh, have framing stories in which stories about the history of The People are being told.
  • Genetic Memory: The People have access to the knowledge and memories of dead ancestors, called Remembering. To Assemble is to organize and narrate those memories as a story.
  • Innocent Aliens: The survivors start out this way, but they quickly learn that many humans aren't to be trusted.
  • Psychic Powers: The People have a wide variety of them: Telekinesis, Telepathy, and Empathy among them. Precognition is very rare.
  • Space Elves: Tending to the Enlightened Mystic Race variety.
  • Wainscot Society: The People largely preserve their own culture while living among humans.


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