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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 Book 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.
  • As the Good Book Says...: In "Angels Unawares", set shortly after the crash, a group of the People run afoul of a fanatical religious sect who are fond of quoting Biblical chapter and verse as justification for their actions, including Exodus 22:18 ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live") as justification for murdering all of the People they can get their hands on. Nils, a human who comes into the middle of the conflict, counters with Exodus 22:21: "Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."
  • 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.
  • Brick Joke: In "Troubling of the Water", Timmy is badly injured after arriving on Earth and communicates by telepathically connecting with Barney, the teenage son of his rescuers, who can translate to spoken English. Barney's strict father insists that Timmy must speak out loud. The first words Timmy speaks in English are "I'm thirsty. I want a drink please." He says the same thing at the end of the story after recovering consciousness from using his Gifts to dig out a new artesian well to save his host family's drought-stricken farm.
  • The Call Put Me on Hold: "Shadow on the Moon" has Remy, who apparently has no Gift. While all the People have abilities such as levitation and telepathy, The Gift is a specialized power that usually awakens at ten or twelve, and Remy is seventeen. He has no idea that his ability to visualize in three dimensions from an abstract blueprint or diagram is his Gift, because I Thought Everyone Could Do That. He's also the first one to have this Gift; they don't even have a name for it.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: The People came to this planet from the Home in the Crossing, and their social unit is the Group, led by the Old Ones. They Quest for Lost Ones, and when they find them, those are Our Own. Human beings are Outsiders. Occasional words of their language are scattered through the stories (for instance, when discussing plants like koomatka, panthus, flahmen or failova, or animals like toola, that existed on the Home which have no Earth equivalents), but those key concepts are only ever given their translated, capitalized names.
  • 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 "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. The People don't exactly worship "The Presence": it simply exist as a force in all their lives that they deeply revere and which unites them all. They have "Meetings" where they say "We are met together in Thy Name", evoking Matthew 18:20, and their All Saints' celebration is "The Festival". "Gathering Day" occurs around when Easter would be, but only involves picking flowers that bloom just that one day every year and are then made into festive foods. They also identify certain Bible verses as similar or even identical to their own teachings. It's implied that the People are a race of humans who never experienced the Biblical Fall and that all humans once were (or could be) like them.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: The disaster that engulfed the original home of the People resulted in the planet tearing itself apart, leaving only "a band of dust against the stars".
  • Escape Pod: The survivors of the crash were the ones who made it into the "life slips".
  • 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, and when Peter starts skulking off into the woods for secret practice sessions, a school bully spreads dirty rumors (he gets what's coming to him, though).
    • 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.
  • Fostering for Profit: In "Captivity", Francher is put in a foster home after his mother dies, but Mrs. McVey, the woman who's supposed to be looking after him, spends a minimum on housing and feeding him, and keeps the rest of the fostering allowance for herself. It's noted that his status as an outsider in the community isn't helped by the fact that he goes to school in ratty old clothes because she won't buy new clothes for him. One of the teachers persuades Mrs. McVey to at least buy him a suitable outfit for a school outing to see an orchestra, which leads to dramatic consequences when it's discovered that she paid for the outfit by stealing Francher's own money (which he'd been saving up for a musical instrument) because she'd already spent the month's clothing allowance on clothes for herself. Francher's friend Twyla discloses all of the above in a "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    Some day I'll probably be old and fat and ugly, but heaven save me from being old and fat and ugly and a thief!
  • 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. The mechanism isn't entirely genetic, but is mediated in some way by the telepathic connection that all the People share, including those who have gone on to the next life.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: In "Gilead", Peter and Bethie (Bethie in particular) are afraid the People will reject them when they learn their father was an Earth human. In the event, the People are happy to welcome more family members and intrigued by the first confirmation that Earth humans and People can interbreed.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Peter and Bethie, introduced in "Gilead", are the children of a mother who was one of the People and an Earth-human father.
  • High Turnover Rate: In "Ararat", the central problem is that the one-room school in Cougar Canyon, the small town where most of the People live, hasn't been able to keep any teacher for more than a year. It's not a bad gig, really, it's just that trained teachers are necessarily Outsiders and spending so much time around very young People who haven't entirely got the hang of keeping their abilities hidden means that sooner or later each teacher runs up against something their minds can't cope with. Karen wants to become a teacher so they won't have to depend on Outsiders, several of whom are now in insane asylums.
  • Homeworld Evacuation: The evacuation of the Home, and the events leading up to it, are depicted in "Deluge".
  • Human Aliens: The People are physically indistinguishable from Earth humans. They have the same physiology, breathe the same air, eat the same kinds of food, can be treated successfully with the same medicines, and can even interbreed to produce healthy children. In "Deluge", 'Chell and Eva-lee joke around about "what if it's a water world and we all become fish?" but this is based on the fact that if necessary they can "change some to match their environment."
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: In "Pottage," a secret group of the People have been living in fear, suppressing their own powers and those of their children after a group of humans previously attacked their town and burned many of them alive as witches.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Very few Earthlings who encounter the People don't long to be one of them—not so much for the magical powers, but for the sense of belonging.
  • Innocent Aliens: The survivors start out this way, but they quickly learn that many humans aren't to be trusted.
  • Interrupted Suicide: The framing story of Pilgrimage begins with a depressed woman being intercepted by one of the People as she's about to throw herself off a bridge.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Some of the People are able to edit memories, which most often comes up when an Outsider has discovered their secret. Given their principles, it's not something they'll do unilaterally just to protect themselves, but rather something they'll offer the Outsider if the Outsider thinks that they'll have trouble keeping the secret or that knowing the People exist will make them more unhappy than having a gap in their memory.
  • Love Floats: In "Captivity", when Francher and Twyla dance together for the first time, Francher inadvertently levitates them both.
  • Malicious Slander: Several of the stories have instances of vicious small-town gossip make life difficult for the protagonists. In "Captivity", a charming scene where Twyla and Francher leave the school dance and dance outside (because Francher is ashamed of not having a suitable outfit and his Gift makes him especially sensitive to the poorly-played music) is closely followed by the town becoming a hotbed of gossip about what they were 'really' doing together out there. The school teacher who saw the whole thing is revolted by the evil speculations.
    It was like pigsty muck clotting an Easter dress.
  • The Masquerade: The People largely maintain a Masquerade, but they're pretty liberal about breaking it when necessary, relying on a combination of gratitude and "no one will ever believe you."
  • A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read: In "Captivity", Francher recalls that his mother — one of the People who had to make her own way after being separated from the rest of her Group — made a living doing a mind-reading act in a traveling carnival, and that sometimes she would become terribly distressed from the things she saw in people's minds.
  • Mundane Utility: Under ordinary circumstances, this is how the People use their powers. There's a very strong belief that their gifts were given to them for the purpose of spreading joy, and that it's actually celebrating the Presence to use their abilities for fun.
  • No Sympathy: In the connecting narrative in Pilgrimage, the sorter Karen treats the severely depressed, suicidal earthwoman Lea this way, verbally slapping her around, wondering aloud if she is "worth saving." Miriam, who is not a sorter, chides her for being so rough on Lea. Hearing stories of the People, their sufferings and sacrifices and ultimate redemption as they find others like themselves, somehow cures Lea of her agnosticism, which is implied to have caused her mental state.
  • One-Steve Limit: Broken by Jareb Curtis, who befriends a group of the People in the 19th century in "That Boy", and Dr. Curtis, who befriends a group of the People in the 20th century in "Pottage", raising the possibility that two separate generations of the same family independently had run-ins with the People. But, since the stories were published a decade apart, it's never definitely established whether there's any connection (and for that matter, Jareb's mother remarries at the end of "That Boy", so his descendants may be Lamberts instead of Curtises).
  • Pastoral Science Fiction: The stories are mostly set in the rural American Southwest, and deal with human-level problems, not big fights against evil forces.
  • Patchwork Story: Pilgrimage and No Different Flesh each collect a set of short stories with a newly-written Framing Device providing a context for who's telling the stories and why.
  • Psychic Powers: The People have a wide variety of them: Telekinesis, Telepathy, and Empathy among them. There's a basic set that all of the People have (including telekinesis, levitation, and telepathic speech), and then some have additional Gifts. Precognition is very rare.
  • Reed Richards Is Useless: The question of why the People never use their powers on a large scale to help humanity is discussed and justified in several stories, including "Jordan". There are both philosophical and practical reasons given. On a philosophical level, they believe it would be unhealthy to suddenly insert their advanced knowledge and culture, and that it's better to subtly encourage humanity to grow better in its own way and in its own time. On a practical level, there really aren't enough of them to do anything on a large scale: the People's ability to detect truth could theoretically reform international diplomacy, or their ability to immediately and precisely diagnose physical ailments could revolutionize medicine, but at any given time there are only two or three people in the entire world with each of these Gifts, not enough to do all the work without getting swamped and burned out.
  • Space Elves: Tending to the Enlightened Mystic Race variety.
  • Take Our Word for It: In "No Different Flesh", Mark is working on an important book about a cutting-edge field of science. Meris, the viewpoint character, says she's never been able to make head nor tail of it no matter how many times Mark explains, so the story contains no details nor even a general idea of what area of science it's in, even during a scene where some of the People are helping him compile it and discussing the contents with him. (They also find errors in the book and don't tell him, out of a kind of Alien Non-Interference Clause.
  • Tongue-Tied: In "Wilderness", Severeid Swanson accidentally stumbles on the People's secret, and they place a compulsion on him to prevent him talking about it to anyone but them. Later, he describes what he saw to someone else, inadvertently revealing that that person must be People, too. It turns out that she is not. She is an earthwoman who has similar gifts.
  • Wainscot Society: The People largely preserve their own culture while living among humans.
  • Walk on Water: Seems to be a popular pastime. Back on Home, an elderly widow remembers doing it with her husband, and her granddaughter has been doing the same thing on another lake with her fiancé. When earthwoman Meris finds and takes in little Lala, at one point the child stands on a fast-running creek wanting to take Meris to her crashed lifeship. It's not the only time Henderson implies that Jesus was one of Them.
  • We Have Become Complacent: "Deluge", the story depicting the disaster that engulfed the Home, shows that the People had become intellectually complacent, ceasing to study the world around them because their Gifts were sufficient to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. The result was that when the disaster came, they had no way of discovering what had caused it or how it might be avoided, and only barely enough time to recreate the technology required to get them off the planet before it was destroyed.