If you intend to sample the writing of only one Mormon science fiction writer, you should read Orson Scott Card. Specifically, read Ender's Game, Although it is certainly not his "most Mormon" work, and may not be his best novel (a hotly debated point), it is unquestionably his most widely read. If you are going to read only two Mormon SF writers, the second should be Zenna Henderson, and the book should be Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson. Not only is it her best book, it is the only one in print.
Ingathering is the complete collection of Zenna Henderson's famous "People" stories. These stories are about an alien race known only as "The People" whose members appear human but possess various psychic powers. Among their gifts (each is born with a different set, from among a small number of possibilities) are the ability to fly, levitate objects, read minds, heal, and (in rare individuals) see the future. The People fled their dying planet and a handful of them made their way to Earth, where problems during their arrival scattered them into different groups, and sometimes separate, orphaned individuals. Eventually they set up two small communities in the isolated deserts and canyons of Arizona, where they remained largely apart from the people of Earth, fearing what would happen if the world knew about aliens living in their midst.
Most of Henderson's People stories were originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction during the 1950's and 60's. Six stories were gathered together and published, with additional Canterbury-esque bridging material by Henderson, as Pilgrimage: the Book of the People. Later, The People: No Different Flesh was published with six other stories, and more bridging material. The stories and bridging material in these two collections are so interrelated that each could be considered a novel in its own right. Ingathering is an omnibus publication of both collections, plus one never-before-published story, an introduction by the editor, and an illuminating short essay by Henderson about her creation. The volume also includes a wonderful timeline for all the stories, which take place between about 1900 and 1970.
I place Henderson's Ingathering second on a suggested reading list of "Mormon SF" with all due deference to numerous fine writers whose background and writing might place their work under this umbrella. Among possible choices, there may be better known writers, certainly more prolific writers, and even a few more talented writers than Zenna Henderson. Wolverton, Bell, Kemp, Thornley, F. Raymond Jones and others are certainly all worthy of your attention. I hate to displace Samuel Taylor's Heaven Knows Why! Perhaps I could move it to the top of some other list, as it may be speculative fiction, but isn't science fiction.
There is such a wealth of literature to choose from, and yet, in reading Ingathering you will encounter something rare and unusual, and exceptionally worthwhile. The current generation of writers, as varied as they are, nevertheless evince certain similar sensibilities, not the least of which is their modernity. Through Ingathering, you can cross over into a another time, and encounter a far different range of experiences.
Not only is Henderson the best known woman among Mormon SF writers, Ingathering is distinctly feminine, without being politically "Feminist." The main characters in most of these stories are strong, intelligent females. Among the People, gender equality is a given. Both men and women sit on the council of Elders which leads each Group of People. Henderson's women are often outspoken, sometimes a little rebellious, but they also cherish their roles as sisters, mothers, and wives. Henderson isn't a mouthpiece for any particular contemporary ideology. Readers tempted to "score" these stories on any kind of liberal/conservative or progressive/traditional scale may find themselves thwarted by an outlook which is internally cohesive but wholly apart from such dichotomies.
Another reason that Henderson stands out is that, perhaps uniquely among science fiction writers, she represents Mormon literature's "Lost Generation," rather than the aforementioned nationally prominent "Faithful Realists" or locally prominent "Home Literature" writers (Lund, Heimerdinger, Rowley, etc.). In many literary matters, Henderson reflects experience from the Mormon heartland, but European and East Coast style. She wrote exclusively for a national audience, was apparently uninterested in the institutional Church and has never been prominently known as a Mormon. Paradoxically, Ingathering is more overtly religious, and in many ways "more Mormon" than the science fiction of writers who have been very public proponents of their faith, such as Taylor, Card, and Jones.
By reading Ingathering you will also encounter the Mormon-authored stories which have had nearly unparalleled influence on the science fiction genre as a whole. Henderson was one of the first successful openly female SF writers. Many of the genre's most successful contemporary writers, from Kathy Tyers to Anne McCaffrey to Lois McMaster Bujold, specifically mention Henderson as an early influence. Even Orson Scott Card's early conception of science fiction was profoundly influenced by the People stories, although he was unaware that Henderson shared his religious/ethnic heritage. Henderson was one of only two Mormons included in the list of 200 writers in A Reader's Guide to Science Fiction, published by Avon Books in 1979. Henderson is fondly remembered today by many SF fans. Although there were dozens of printings of her books by major national publishers, the out-of-print collections of her stories are difficult to find in used book stores. I've talked to a number of fans and I believe this is because those who own these books generally hang on to them, or pass them down to children, and when copies are on used book store shelves they are quickly snatched up. Ingathering, which is currently available, is published by the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA), an all volunteer, fan-based organization, which is in itself a testament to the passion readers feel for these stories.
Henderson's influence extends beyond the printed page. The People, a made-for-television movie (staring none other than William Shatner), was based on these stories. Beyond that, the Disney movies Escape From Witch Mountain and Return to Witch Mountain are based on later children's books that almost certainly were influenced by her work. And the themes and motifs found in the People stories (some of which she merely furthered, but some of which she originated) can be seen even today in such widely consumed media as the television show Roswell.
Finally, I recommend Ingathering not only because it is different in content and perspective than Card and kin, but also because it is universal in appeal. Down to its last word, these stories will delight readers of all sensibilities, young or adult, religious or not, Mormon or otherwise, consumers of "literary" or "popular" writing. Ingathering should engage fans of Evenson's Altmann's Tongue as thoroughly as it does those who thrill to Heimerdinger's Nephites. Such statements will surely seem like hyperbole. They are not.
Henderson's People stories have such wide appeal partly because of the time in which they were written, as well as the profession of the writer. Henderson was a schoolteacher, comfortable with communicating in language appropriate for young people in Mormon- and Catholic- colonized Arizona where she lived and worked. She also published her work in the SF magazines during the 1950's and 60's, a time during which a certain classical decorum was expected in SF, and vulgar language was not. The more contemporary writings of even such devout Latter-day Saints as Card, Wolverton and M. Franklin Thatcher (a Mormon bishop) contain PG-13 and even R-rated words, violence and sensuality, albeit within "broadly appropriate" and clearly moral fiction. That such content, regardless of context, is of concern to a segment of readers is evidenced by the marked popularity of genre-like but Latter-day Saint-safe reading material, by authors such as Chris Heimerdinger, Dan Yates and Robert Marcum. Ingathering contains not one word or sentence that couldn't be read to a middle school classroom or over the pulpit to even the most easily offended congregation.
On the other hand, Ingathering will not offend those afraid of anything they perceive as cloying, dishonest, apologetic or intentionally "faith-promoting." There are a few stories within the collection suffused with a level of niceness and rightness that might invite a sneer from cynical readers. But anyone who reads on will realize that Henderson, while always hopeful, clearly knows the full range of human emotion. The People stories are just that -- stories. Each is psychologically believable and honest. There is much that is inspiring about these stories, but there are no morality plays, parables or agendas here.
In fact, there are not even any traditional "villains" in these stories. There are a small number of despicable people (such as Mrs. McVey--in the Hugo-nominated story "Captivity"--who steals the money her foster son worked to earn). But genuinely unpleasant people are minor characters. Like Card, Henderson seems generally bored by the predictability and sameness of people who are simply evil or self-serving. In Ingathering most conflicts arise within individuals, between groups in which both sides have conflicting but generally noble goals, or between Man and Nature (or perhaps Providence). One of the most common problems faced by the main characters is trying to figure out where they fit into both the tight-knit community of the People and the broader culture of the Earth. It's a theme that will resonate with anybody from a highly distinctive culture, and Henderson doesn't force an "either-or" mentality or require that one side be the "bad guys." Indeed, the ability, even need, for the People and the natives of Earth to learn from each other is a central theme that runs through the collection.
Many readers will appreciate the positive spiritual undertone of these stories. Henderson makes no case for any established orthodoxy, but the People, despite all their diversity, have two things in common: a belief in the importance of looking out for those within their peculiar community, and a knowledge that goes beyond belief in the reality and imminence of the Power, the Presence and the Name. The religious beliefs of the People are never called "religious" or "beliefs," but they form an important, understated motivational subtext and source of strength for this fictional yet familiar alien culture. That the stories are never really about, or even hinge on, religious beliefs should appease readers disinterested in such subjects. But Henderson's apparent unwillingness to even question certain tenets of the worldview of the People marks her as thoroughly pre-modern. Although there are disbelievers in her stories, there doesn't seem to be any disbelief. Even agnosticism is given little credence. The People (and their author, judging from these and other stories) are theologically traditional, if not necessarily orthodox. That the small communities of People are likely surrogates for Henderson's experiences in congregations and small Arizona towns makes these stories that much more convincing, because they about an alien culture which Henderson has actually lived in.
Henderson's use of language will please English teachers. The faith-and-community-oriented elements and absence of offensive material will please certain readers, while the deep human understanding, lyrical stylistic achievement and literary excellence will please others. But such advantages are simply icing on the cake. For general readers, and for the many people who have first encountered these stories while young, the People stories are interesting and imaginative character-driven tales with convincingly-described, fun-to-envision powers. Perhaps most appealing, they are stories about young people who feel different and find a place to fit in and be completely accepted. In this, the "People" stories have an appeal similar to the immensely popular "X-Men."
With all there is to recommend these stories, if a reader is still turned off by them, it may be due an inability to accept their basic premise: that there is a place for these misfits who feel and truly are different. There is a community which will accept them, in which they can grow and develop their talents among people who look out for each other, people who truly care, people who are not perfect, but are good. Literary critics have noted that a hallmark of Card's fiction is his depiction of near-utopian societies, something which works for him because he really believes in such things. The same can be said for Henderson. For many authors, the premise of the People stories could have been disastrous. But Henderson makes these stories work because she has seen these very human yet very wonderful communities, if not entirely in real life, then in her idealized visions of what her small towns or congregations could be.
Yet, as much as Henderson made me believe in her stories, one has to admit that many of them are resolved similarly, and perhaps too conveniently. The stories are often resolved when the troubled characters finds and joins the rest of the People. Popular Latter-day Saint writers were once criticized for too frequently making every story a conversion story that ended with "And then she was baptized and lived happily ever after." The truth is that Weyland and others actually did this far less often than is supposed. But a similar charge could accurately be leveled against Henderson's People stories.
Henderson is widely known for her hopeful stories with happy endings. Henderson's SF forbearers, and to a lesser extent her contemporaries, effused optimism in the ability of human ingenuity and scientific advancement to cleverly and happily solve any Problem that should face Mankind. In the People stories, problems are usually overcome with even simpler, some would say more far-fetched, tools than technology: acceptance into the community of the People. Fortunately, other important things happen along the way in each story, and not all stories end this way. These similarities might be explained as explorational variations within a repeated plot motif, but they are bound to bother some readers.
Henderson is neither a Polyanna nor an uncritical thinker, and she doesn't think that "baptism" into the ranks of the People will cure all ills. This is illustrated by one of the most significant stories in the collection: "Pottage." This story is very similar to "Ararat" -- even more similar than usual for the People stories. Both "Pottage" and "Ararat" feature determined and idealistic teachers coming to teach in a tiny out-of-the-way town inhabited, unbeknownst to them, entirely by People. In both villages the teachers come to realize that they are in a place in which the people are rather different -- they have superhuman powers, a closed culture, and a mysterious past. But whereas the teacher in "Ararat" finds in Cougar Canyon a community of uncommon warmth and beauty, where she can be accepted despite her differences, the teacher in "Pottage" finds the village of Bendo to be an oppressively sad, dysfunctional place. Rather than being saved by acceptance into the fold, the teacher in "Pottage" becomes the hero, by connecting Bendo to the thriving community in Cougar Canyon. The Cougar Canyon People and the Bendo People had previously been unaware of each other's existence.
These two stories provide an excellent counterpoint to each other. Although both communities were made up of People with ostensibly identical cultures, histories, beliefs, and powers, one place was alive and the other dead. The contrast between these two stories reveal Henderson's depth of understanding of human communities. Clearly she believed there was more to a successful community than simply being the right species, race, ideology, or denomination. "Pottage" makes it clear that Henderson was familiar not only with flawed people, but also flawed communities, probably including some she had lived in.
But for the most part, even when individuals are in turmoil, a community of People is a happy place to be. It is fortunate then that Ingathering opens with the "Lea" bridging material, because although Lea's tale connects six stories with bright happy endings, it does so through the eyes of a character who truly knows despair and despondency. Henderson's stories reveal hope, but then also know hopelessness and at times they plunge the reader into that hopelessness. In fact, Ingathering opens with the suicide attempt of Lea, the main character of the plot frame for the first collection. Lea's jump off a bridge is halted by one of the People, who then drags her to a series of testimony meetings in which members of the community recount their stories. Lea's reluctance to relinquish loneliness and misery in the face of the total acceptance and warmth offered by the People provide appropriate emotional balance and continued tension.
One of the joys of reading the People stories is that Henderson writes from a palette of genuine human feeling and experience that is broader than what one generally finds within genre fiction. Cynicism, doubt, hatred, fear, prejudice and their ilk are all there. One also finds "positive" emotions more challenging for some writers to portray, including optimism, hope, contrition, familial love, loyalty to tradition, and even belief, faith, and submission. Henderson's richly described emotional landscapes leave no doubt that she herself has encountered these human extremes, the good and the bad, if not in herself, then in her students or neighbors or other people around her.
One of the strengths of the People stories is the degree to which they draw you in and make you believe that they describe uncommonly real people in real places. There is also Henderson's style, which is unusual, often filled with fresh and convincing metaphor and imagery, and always purposeful, never merely "experimental." The mesas outside every window seem somehow taller and flatter; the cacti are lonelier; the inner thoughts of the characters are stormier, or more breathtakingly placid and inviting. Her carefully crafted sentences evoke the schoolteachers and the People who populate her stories, in their schoolrooms and genteel communities.
With her level of detail and love of place, Henderson's settings seem phenomenonally real. The open secret to the power of Henderson's People stories is that she wrote exactly what and where she knew. The desert and canyon communities of Arizona are not some imagined place like Lusitania or Anee. They exist, and these stories merely translate the author's affection for these environs to the printed page.
No writer engaged in world-building can hope to create a world as convincing and accurate and cohesive as the one found in the People stories, because Henderson's world is real. I recall this world myself, from my many childhood visits to aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents in places such as Snowflake, Eager, and Flagstaff. Perhaps my own experiences make me a biased reviewer. But where Henderson triggers nostalgia in me, I believe she must stir the same sense of wonder in every reader that I also feel when reading her stories. She opens my eyes to a rural desert beauty I never so fully appreciated. With Henderson's vivid descriptions of rural Arizona and its inhabitants, the People stories are set in a science fictional setting as alien and enchanting as anything from the mind of McCaffrey or Niven.
In truth, Henderson's People stories, and her body of work as a whole, indicate she wasn't much a "world builder." The material within Ingathering set on another world, particularly "Deluge," set on the home planet of the People prior to its destruction, is not a convincing or thorough example of milieu creation. It seems like a world glimpsed through a glass darkly. There is no real attempt to carefully consider the world scientifically, politically, economically, etc. This other world provides backdrop for emotional, human-oriented drama. It doesn't exist for itself. Nothing in Henderson's other stories indicate she was particularly concerned with creating detailed speculative milieus, which is an all-too-often overly central aspect of the science fiction genre.
Another science fiction staple that Ingathering has in short supply is science. Some of Henderson's non-People stories indicate a familiarity with the science of her day and some ability to write about it, but Ingathering has barely enough to make it science fiction rather than fantasy. Henderson makes no attempt to explain the physics, chemistry or biology behind the superhuman abilities of the People, or the destruction of their planet, or much of anything else for that matter. In "No Different Flesh," Meris is asked about the science text book her husband has been writing for the past year, and she doesn't even know his field of research. The same story spends pages talking about the wonderful properties of a fabric used to make a baby outfit from the home planet. This is characteristic of how the People stories treat science. Human issues are far more important, which may disappoint a few technologically-obsessed readers, but gives the material wider appeal.
Her convincingly real characters are Henderson's greatest strength, even surpassing her achievement with place. While all writers base characters on people they know, Henderson at times seems to have only written about real people. Of course the alien People are not real. But she seems to make few missteps; I can only recall one character that I didn't believe in (the Russian cosmonaut in "The Indelible Kind").
Henderson lived not only in Arizona, but also in Paris and Connecticut, and worked in Japanese relocation camps. She can't be accused of ignorance or myopia. But in the characters and settings of the People stories, she not only refuses to write what she doesn't know, she chooses to only write about what she knows best. The result is that her stories capture a far greater range of real diversity than much of the planet-encompassing but emotionally shallow "multicultural" SF. In each of the People stories, nearly all of the characters are from only one town or one People settlement. Half of Henderson's People stories actually focus on main characters from within a single family--a refreshing rarity within orphan-filled SF. Henderson shows us the diversity within a marriage, or among siblings, where people think very different thoughts and have very different reactions and aspirations, despite coming from an identical culture. This proves very interesting, and allows for more satisfying character studies than yet another exploration of how Alien Race X is different.
The People stories are about individuals who have strong ties to their local communities, or are adrift and become a part of a community. This contrasts with so much of contemporary science fiction, which is unbelievably peppered with politically correct smatterings of iconoclasts from Diverse Cultures and Races from around the world. Henderson is uninterested in meeting quotas or perpetuating stereotypes. Even the alien People are really a reflection of the author's own culture. On the surface, the People are fascinating because they have superhuman powers. But what makes the People truly compelling is not their differences, but how similar they are to us.
Zenna Henderson's People stories will not transport you to intriguing alien vistas or startling futures. They do not predict the outcome of the latest scientific discoveries or technological advances. They are really about a place not so far away, a time not so long ago, and a people not so different from our own. The world of the People is close to our own, yet going there was an undeniably enjoyable experience. Perhaps this was because of the beauty of the prose, or the emotional power of the stories. Or perhaps I enjoyed Henderson's world because while there I could glimpse myself, and my people, not as we are, but as we could be.
I can write about what I consider to be the strengths of these stories, and I can list intellectual reasons I think others should read them. But all the analysis and description and praise in the world can not convey the singular, ineffable way these stories make me feel. I remember how I felt, and that is why I recommend these stories.