Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, September 27, 2019


The Diploids by Katherine MacLean (1963)

Science fiction author Katherine MacLean died September 1 at age 94.  She began writing in the late 1940s and her first published story appeared in the October 1949 issue of John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction.  It was an earlier story submitted to Campbell, however, that raised editorial eyebrows.  When "Incommunicado" was submitted (and sold) in 1947, Campbell's assistant Cheyney Stanton was convinced that Katherine MacLean was a pseudonym for a trained engineer.  Campbell was soon convinced that Katherine's father, an engineer and inventor, was the true author of the story and tried to get him to admit it.  When that failed, he returned the story, suggesting a few edits, not knowing if he would ever see the story again .  Eventually the story was published in the June 1950 issue of Astounding, receiving the cover illustration.

Although Campbell probably had no bias against female authors of science fiction and was merely looking for the best possible story (best, according to his viewpoint) for the magazine, Katherine MacLean became a prime example of a woman trying to make it in a male-dominated environment.  Her work never came off as "woman's fiction," "feminine," or "girly."  She told a story and she told it well.  Although her interests lay in the "soft" sciences, her work successfully merged the social sciences with the hard science that was so popular in the field then (and now).  MacLean was a major influence on the field as it moved onto newer territory in the 1960s.  And she did not try to hide her sex through a pseudonym or through initials.

MacLean worked as a lab techician at a food science company in the late Forties while working on her bachelor's degree in psychology (she would eventually go on for her masters in psychology).  A promotion to lab manager and, later, her work as a hospital technician severely cut into her writing and her output seriously declined beginning in the mid-Fifties.  Always interested in various aspects of psychology, she was one of several SF authors to be swept up in the L. Ron Hubbard Dianetics craze in the 1950s -- which could easily have been another factor in the diminishing of her output (quantity-wise, not quality-wise). When her first collection, The Diploids, appeared, she was compared to Ray Bradbury, Clifford D. Simak, Rod Serling, and Isaac Asimov.  MacLean's writing has been lauded by such authors and editors as Damon Knight, Brian Aldiss, and Theodore Sturgeon.

Samuel R. Delany started a campaign to have her named a SF Grand Master.  Katherine MacLean did become a Grand Master Emeritus via the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2003.  She has received the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award by the Cordwainer Smith Foundation in 2001.    Her story "The Missing Man" won a Nebula Award in 1971.  Although her output was small -- four novels (including an expansion of "The Missing Man" and one fix-up) and less than fifty stories.  Her work has been nominated for many awards and has been reprinted in major anthologies.  The majority of her stories appeared in either Astounding or Galaxy.

MacLean was married three times:  to Charles Dye, with whom she collaborated in a number of stories, to SF/fantasy writer David  Mason, and to Carl West, with whom she wrote her last novel.

The Diploids contains eight stories from early in MacLean's career and is a great exemplar of the power and versatility of MacLean's talent.

  • "The Diploids" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1953; a 1973 reprint of the collection titles the story "The Diploids -- Die, Freak" and mysteriously added the title "Six Fingers" to its copyright page)  In the not too distant future, patent attorney Paul Breden has a dissatified client trying to kill him, calling him a "diploid" his term for something not human.  Paul's physical make-up is certainly unusual:  he has six fingers on each hand and a number of other physical anomolies, including a third eye at the back of his head (!).  Paul begins to wonder if he is an alien from Mars or somewhere else; his close friend thinks he might be a survivor of a race of near-humans from the long ago past.  The truth is stranger -- and more startling -- than either of those options.
  • "Defense Mechanism" (Astounding Science Fiction, October 1949; reprinted in Groff Conklin's Big Book of Science Fiction, in Judith Merril's Beyond the Bariers of Time and Space, in Damon Knight, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph Olander's First Voyages, in Isaac Asimov and Martin h. Greenberg's The Great Science Fiction Stories, Volume 11 (1949), and in Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, and Jenny-Lynn Waugh's 100 Science Fiction Stories)  MacLean's first published story.  A clever tale of hidden telepathic talents.
  • "The Pyramid in the Desert" (originally "And Be Merry..." from Astounding Science Fiction, February 1950; reprinted in Groff Conklin's Omnibus of Science Fiction, in Damon Knight's Towards Infinity, and in Carol Pohl and Frederik Pohl's Science Fiction:  The Great Years, Volume II.)  A lab scientist uses a dangerous rejuvenation method to experiment on herself and succeeds in becoming immortal.  But now she is almost crippled  by the thought of accidental death and must now reconcile her fear.  In the story, MacLean posits a theory on the effects of radiation on the body that has later proven to be correct.
  • "The Snowball Effect"  (Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1952: reprinted in H. L. Gold's Second Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction, Brian W. Aldiss' Penguin Science Fiction, Damon Knight's Science Fiction Inventions, George Hay's The Edward De Bono Science Fiction Collection, Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison's Decade: The 1950s, Isaac Asimov and J. O. Jeppson's Laughing Space, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh's Science Fiction A to Z, Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg's The Great SF Stories #14 (1952), Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell's The Ascent of Wonder, Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer's The Big Book of Science Fiction, and Hank Davis' If This Goes On...)  A sociology professer experiment on a small town sewing circle to prove his theories on the dynamic growth of organizations.  He succeeds far more than he had expected.  This story was adapted for the X Minus One radio program.
  • "Incommunicado" (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1950; reprinted Groff Conklin's Six Great Short Novels of Science Fiction and in 1985's Analog:  The Best of Science Fiction)  Space station workers begin to develop a rapport with the station's computer.  Mixing a musical theme with cybertechnology, MacLean created an emotional story that predicted much of the development of personal computers -- an astounding (forgive the pun) exercise in scientific reasoning.
  • "Feedback" (Astounding Science Fiction, July 1951; reprinted in Groff Conklin's Crossroads in Time and in Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph Olander's Science Fiction of the Fifties)  In an ever-narrowing world of conformity, talking of individuality is considered subversive.
  • "Games" (Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1953; reprinted in Groff Conklin's Operation Future, in Roger Elwwod and Vic Ghidalia's Young Demons, and in Vonda N. McIntyre's Nebula Awards Showcase 2004)  Make-believe becomes real as a boy becomes characters in his fantasy world.
  • "Pictures Don't Lie" (Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1951; reprinted in Groff Conklin's Invaders of Earth, in Edmund Crispin's Best SF, in G. H. Doherty's Aspects of Science Fiction, in Robert Silverberg's Invaders from Space, in Richard Lunn's Space Ships & Gumshoes, in Thomas E. Sanders' Speculations, in Tom Boardman, Jr.'s Science Fiction, in Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg's The Great Science Fiction Stories #13 (1951), in Peter Crowther's Tales in Space, in Garyn G. Roberts' The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and in Hank Davis' Worst Contact)  An alien ship makes radio contact before landing on Earth.  the story has been adapted for radio, television, and an EC comic book.
This collection should have cemented Katherine MacLean forever as one of the very greats in the field.  Although not completely forgotten, her work has been unfairly relegated to minor status, perhaps in part due to her sporadic output and perhaps in part that her shyness did  not allow her a presence among the active science fiction fans of her day.  Just as her Nebula award-winning story was titled "The Missing Man," MacLean's standing in the science fiction pantheon should be titled "The Missing Woman."

A retrospective of her work is sadly overdue.

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