Contagion by Katherine MacLean

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean appeared in the very first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction in October of 1950. MacLean was in great company because the first issue also contained stories by Clifford Simak, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Fredric Brown, and Isaac Asimov. If you follow the link above you can read “Contagion” online, as well as the whole first issue of Galaxy. You can also listen to “Contagion” on YouTube from a LibriVox.org recording.

“Contagion” has been reprinted often, most notably in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951 edited by Bleiler and Dikty, Women of Wonder (1975) and the expanded Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s (1995) both edited by Pamela Sargent, and most recently in The Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek and published by the prestigious Library of America.

I just read “Contagion” in the Bleiler/Dikty volume as part of my project to read all the best-SF-of-the-year annuals in order starting with 1939. The story was not in The Great SF Stories 12 (1950) edited by Asimov and Greenberg. I wondered why. “Contagion” is not a great story, but it is a lot of fun, and is notable for a number of reasons. Back in 1950, there were damn few women SF writers, so Katherine MacLean stands out. But more importantly, MacLean deals with an idea that I’ve seldom seen other SF writers concern themselves with – can humans landing on other worlds survive their microscopic infections?

Kim Stanley Robinson dealt with this idea in Aurora just a few years ago. but at the moment these two examples are the only ones I can recall. Most SF yarns have their characters worry if they can breathe the air, drink the water, or eat the plants and animals.  However, most humans on Earth, if they were transported to a jungle in South America or Africa, would be at great risk of getting an infection. Why assume other planets are any less dangerous? KSM suggested it might be impossible to colonize any other world with an evolved biology, and I think he’s right. Visiting any other world with life might risk countless forms of dangerous infections like Ebola.

Little is known about Katherine MacLean. She seems to have been into hard science fiction and mostly wrote for Astounding/Analog, but that does include a lot of Psi-stories. I haven’t been able to find out much about her. She only produced three novels and three collections.

The Diploids by Katherine MacLeanThere are many benefits to my reading project. Not only do I get to watch science fiction evolve year by year, but I get to read a huge variety of stories by many authors I’ve never read before or even know about. There was an interview with Katherine MacLean in the July 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books I’d love to read. If anyone has a copy and could send me a scan it would be appreciated. I’m guessing that interview did help Andrew Liptak write “The Fantastic Foresight of Katherine MacLean” at Kirkus Review. That piece has the most information about MacLean I can currently find.

Joachim Boaz reviews her most famous book, Missing Man published in 1975 but based on her Nebula Award-winning 1971 story of the same name. Boaz rated it 5/5 (Near Masterpiece) which I’ve seldom seen him do. He says it’s one of the best sci-fi novels about telepathy ever. (Makes me want to buy a copy.)

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What makes “Contagion” so much fun to me is MacLean’s female perspective. The story is told in the third-person but follows June Walton closely. She is part of a team of human explorers landing on Minos that discover it had already been settled by human colonists when they come across a man named Patrick Mead in the jungle. Mead is a head taller than all the space explorers, is red-headed, wears only a loincloth, and has tremendous sexual magnetism. It’s fun as a male reader follow June as she observes Patrick’s impact on her fellow crew members, especially the women. June’s husband Max pales in comparison to Patrick and June feels bad she’s so attracted to the redheaded stranger.

Eventually, Patrick infects all the male space travelers even though they have been extremely careful to avoid infections. They wear spacesuits and use many decontamination methods. Patrick gives the men the “melting disease.” The women eventually save most of the men with antibodies from Patrick, but all the men go through a transformation and end up looking like Patrick – tall, muscular, and redheaded. The women in the crew are freaked out at first but quickly decided that their husbands and boyfriends easily reveal their personalities even though they all look the same. (I don’t know why but many SF writers have a thing for redheads.)  But here’s the kicker. Patrick’s sister shows up and the space explorers realize she will infect the women in the spaceship and they will all end up looking like her. Patrick’s sister is quite a beauty, but all the Earth women refuse to lose their individual looks. Several say they’d rather die. But do they have a choice?

I wondered if MacLean was having fun with all the male science fiction readers of 1950. I’m sure they were just as geeky then as they are today. MacLean has her spacewomen claiming they love their brainy guys, but they go nuts over Patrick. But what is she saying about women in general by having the spacewomen preferring death to all looking alike?

Is MacLean satirizing women’s vanity, or is it another dig at men? Maybe, MacLean is saying women don’t all want to be redheaded sex goddesses, which like I said, is a common ideal in science fiction magazine stories written by men.

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I’m not sure it’s politically correct to say female writers have a uniquely different perspective than male writers, but it seems like MacLean does so here, and is specifically targetting that belief in her story. Most older Sci-Fi tales avoided sex and gender issues and usually presented the most common stereotypes. Science fiction writers sometimes would have a hot woman in the spaceship that all the guys went nuts over, but I can’t remember them ever writing a story with a spaceship where the women crew members all going nuts over a hot guy. First of all, very few stories had spaceships where half the crew were women.

In “Contagion” Katherine MacLean anticipates a future in 1950 that’s more like what’s hinted at in Star Trek of 1966, although half the U.S.S. Enterprise’s command crew was not female. In her story, there is great equality males and females, and everyone is a scientist.

Maybe I should reconsider my assessment of “Contagion” being just a light-weight fun story. Now that I think about it, maybe MacLean was saying a lot more than I thought on my first reading. That’s another thing I’m learning from this reading project. Most great stories need 2-4 readings before I can discern all their great attributes.

James Wallace Harris

4 thoughts on ““Contagion” by Katherine MacLean

  1. Have you read MacLean’s novel “Missing Man”? I’m unsure if I have, but I did read the original Nebula-winning novella from 1971, “The Missing Man” back when it came out. Apparently the main theme of the story is telepathy but what stuck with me all these years was her description of a society fragmented into subcultures based on everything from ethnicity to hobbies (think Society for Creative Anachronism).

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    1. No, I haven’t. But when I was studying her I read about it and it sounded intriguing. Your comment made me snag the $2.99 Kindle copy at Amazon. Thanks. Don’t know when I’ll get to read it though. But I love subcultures.

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  2. I wonder if SF itself can still be considered a distinctive subculture in the way it once was? Anyway, reading anthropological SF from authors like Chad Oliver was partly responsible for my interest in such topics. Thinking about “The Missing Man” reminded me of another couple of classic stories with somewhat related themes:

    “Cloak of Anarchy” by Larry Niven
    Neo-Los Angeles subcultures mix it up in libertarian hell
    http://www.larryniven.net/stories/cloak_of_anarchy.shtml

    “The Sources of the Nile” by Avram Davidson
    aka “where DO popular fashions and trends really spring from?”
    https://freeonlineread.net/book-reader/the-avram-davidson-treasury

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