Young People Read Old SFF

Child of All Ages

P. J. Plauger

Young People Read Old SFF

4 Apr, 2022

This month’s example of Hugo-nominated classic science fiction is P. J. Plauger’s Child of All Ages”. When the story was published, P. J. Plauger seemed on the brink of being a major voice in SF. By 1976, Plauger edged out Alan Brennert, Suzy McKee Charnas, Felix C. Gotschalk, Brenda Pearce, and John Varley for the Astounding (then known as the Campbell). Child of All Ages earned both a Nebula nomination and a Hugo nomination (losing both to Fritz Leiber’s Catch That Zeppelin!”).

As it happens, I recently reviewed an anthology containing Child of All Ages”. Unfortunately, my comments on the story were less than helpful. No worries! The same story was also featured in both Carr and del Rey’s Best SF annual anthologies for the relevant year. I own both. Neither had anything useful to say on this matter. Some days, there are no short cuts.

Child of All Ages” is a riff on that popular idea, the immortal living unseen among us. See de Camp’s acceptable The Gnarly Man”, Bester’s execrable The Computer Connection, and Turner’s Australian Vaneglory. To be honest, when I reread Child of All Ages, I was underwhelmed but at least I had fond memories of reading the story for the first time. My young people cannot see that rosy glow of nostalgia surrounding this particular finalist so what will they make of it? 


It’s rather cynical. And at what point do we hit lead characters in short stories not being cardboard cutouts? I’m sure it’s possible to both give someone a character and illustrate your science principle; this is very didactic– and it joins in the valorization of childhood that’s such an endemic part of our culture. Look, wouldn’t you want to be an immortal child? Isn’t that the best thing?” This comes down very hard on the idea that childhood is the best thing. (And also did every story in this era have to include a deeply uncomfortable sex thing? It’s pretty much outright stated by the text that the only possible reason you might want to grow up is sex and hormones, and… no, ick.)


This was… fine? It feels weirdly minor, especially because P. J. Pauger had just won the totally-not-Hugo for Best New Writer. Best New Writer winners presumably get the honor because they’re new and distinguishable voices in the field. Say what you want about Pournelle, but he quickly proved himself an innovative (and influential, in his own right) talent. Meanwhile, I’m… not sure what Pauger’s deal is. His body of fiction is small, so it’s like writing SFF was a side gig for him, for a bit.

Child of All Ages” feels way older than it is (ironic), mostly feeling like it could’ve been published in 1945 and not 1975. The prose is very technical, very straightforward; it’s not like I was confused at any point. I suspect Plauger has L. Sprague de Camp as a major influence, and I’m not just saying that because Child of All Ages” kinda reminds me of de Camp’s The Gnarly Man.” De Camp had a sense of humor about him though, which I didn’t get from this. Actually, it seems like Melissa is in a shitty situation, and only continues to live because her life isn’t ALL bad, even though she’s a drifter who can’t form long-term relationships.

Really, there are quite a few person is given immortality” plots out there, and a lot of the time the lesson is that immortality will alienate you from the rest of society. Same applies here. Nothing special, but it’s not the worst thing.


This is one of those stories where I can’t help but wonder if the author came up with a punning title and built the story around it (particularly as the end scene seems to be almost completely divorced from the rest). It is combining two of the core tropes of SF, hyper-intelligent children and lonely immortals. I personally enjoy both of these but I didn’t find much interesting in this piece.

It is mainly conversations with Melissa where she explains her ideas and background. But I don’t feel like they reveal much about her and often seem slightly confused. For example, she says she likes remaining young because it allows her time to do what she wants to do, but then also says that until recently all children did was work in low paid and dangerous jobs or starve. And we are expected to believe with how incredibly dangerous her life was over these centuries that the only thing she did was lose a finger? I am willing to put this down as she is just not completely honest or has a selective memory after all these centuries. But, if that is the case, then it makes it less interesting because it is hard to determine if anything she said is real, she could indeed be just a slightly late bloomer with an odd genetic structure who is highly intelligent as she suggests at the end.

There is a strange sense of grumpiness about everything pervading the story. I am not sure if we are meant to be reading a kind of ennui from Melissa influencing this, or if it is just Pauger’s predilection (I have not read any other works by him so cannot make a judgement).

Also, it continues to have the weird sexual stuff and casual racism of many of these 70s stories, disappointingly. I will be glad when we are past this particular phase.

Overall, it is pretty forgettable. In fact, I read it a couple of weeks ago and then had to come back to it, only being able to remember that it was about an immortal child and the odd ending.


I spent the first part of the review very exasperated about the whole story. The ending seems to imply that Melissa was actually telling the truth, but before that there is absolutely nothing to back up her claims, and I just couldn’t get over the fact that apparently all three of the adults just believed her immediately. Not one of them appeared to have any doubt whatsoever that she was telling the truth.

As someone who is asexual, the whole discussion equating adulthood with experiencing sexual attraction made me angry, but it is hardly surprising considering that’s something I still see in stories published now.

I just didn’t particularly enjoy this. Even attempting to ignore the casual racism and the creepy old man trying to convince a girl to grow up to have sex, I’m not sure what is the point of the story. That everything and everyone is terrible? For a story that was mostly Melissa talking about her life, we barely know anything about her except that bad things keep happening to her and everyone dies.


1975 seems to be a weak year. Looking at the Hugo and Nebula lists for Best Short Story, I had literally only read Leiber’s Catch That Zeppelin!”, which had won both.


Looking back I was surprised to see this turn up in all the year’s best SF collections, so must have struck a chord.

Here is all Wollheim had to say on it:

Not even sure what he means by this?

Whilst Del Rey just repeats Bova’s introduction:


The thing is, children are discriminated against by most societies” is not a wrong statement; it’s just that this story has absolutely nothing to do with it.


Yeah exactly. If anything, the story is more about the changing role of Children, and Melissa states she likes being a child and would rather not grow up, kind of implying the opposite point.


I completely forgot about that statement by the time I reached the end of the story. It’s so disconnected from the rest of it.


Wonder what Terry Carr had to say about it. 

This was in ALL of the year’s best anthologies, and I’m not sure why.

It’s telling though, that this has not been reprinted (not counting ebooks) since the 90s.