Monday, February 22, 2010

"A Condition of Beauty"

"A Condition of Beauty" was the first John D MacDonald science fiction story I ever read. I found a copy of it in a used book store back around 1975 when I was buying up and reading all of the JDM novels. It was included in an odd kind of digest-sized anthology called Great Science Fiction Stories, a 1966 collection that was neither magazine nor paperback but some sort of combination of the two. It was edited by Jim Hendryx, Jr., carried the designation "Number 3" on the cover, so it was obviously part of a series, and was notable for the fact that it included the original magazine pulp art with the stories. I was only dimly aware at the time that MacDonald had written science fiction, so it was a kind of surprise, and after I finished reading it I recall thinking, "So that's where Rod Serling stole the idea for "Eye of the Beholder!"

Of course Serling could have been inspired by any number of similar science fiction tales for his iconic 1960 Twilight Zone episode, but I didn't know any better at the time, and I seriously doubt if JDM himself came up with the idea of monsters-turn-out-to-be-human as a surprise ending. Besides, given his title it isn't really much of a surprise, and even if the title didn't clue the reader, the artwork that was featured at the beginning in the September 1949 issue of Startling Stories would have told the reader exactly what was going on.

The story opens in a dark, dank prison cell far away on some unnamed planet. Inside the unlighted cell are Pol and an elderly man simply known as "the old one." In an adjoining cell sits Lae, a female. These three are monsters, deformed beings shut away from the normal creatures of this civilization. When Pol was born his mother hid him in the woods, where he lived for many years until he was finally caught and imprisoned. While he was free he visited "the temple" and saw pictures of other monsters such as he. He knows what he is but has trouble coming to grips with it. "In darkness it is hard to accept. I feel like a man. I think as a man does. It is odd to be monstrous. It is something one wished to forget." Pol has managed to make a small opening in the wall between the two cells and is able to speak with Lae without seeing her. She has grown despondent and has stopped eating. Pol tells her, "I hear your voice and in my mind I see you as a woman, a normal woman. A woman such as my mother... It is easy to forget that you are [a monster] in this eternal darkness." She makes him put his hand through the opening to feel her arm. "He did so, felt the horror within him as his fingers told him that her arm was strong, solid, thick."

Cut to a spaceship, Patrol Eleven of Planet Census Group Fifty-One, out among the planets counting humans. They are on their way home and have only one distant, uninhabited planet to go. But a cursory inspection of their scan reveals something unusual, and despite their desire to return to their families, they move in closer to investigate. There they see a "vast ship sprawled against a gentle wooded slope," it's metal sides "still bright and untarnished." Since nothing was supposed to be here, they run the image through their historical reference books and discover that it is the remains of the Victrix, the tenth ship to leave Earth one hundred and ten generations ago. They land to investigate but have to don suits to go outside, as the oxygen is too thin and the gravity too weak. What they see makes two members of the landing party literally throw up...

You can see where this is going, but the real fun of the story is learning how things got the way they are, then going back and re-reading the brief 3,000 words to see all the clues the author left in the opening paragraphs.

MacDonald did not include this story in his science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, which tells me he probably didn't think much of it after almost thirty years. It's certainly not deep or profound, but it is enjoyable and well written. As far as I can tell it was only anthologized that once in 1966, and while copies of this book/magazine aren't always easy to find, one does show up for sale now and then.

Update (2/4/2015)

As you can read in the comments below, I was wrong in implying that the Virgil Finlay illustration used in the anthology was the artwork from the story's original publication. Eric was kind enough to scan and send me a copy of that illustration. While it doesn't come close to the quality of any of Finlay's work, it is just as much of a spoiler as is the radient female from the anthology.


  1. Was the Finlay picture used to illustrate the story in the version you have? I've got the original issue, and it has a different illustration by a different artist. It doesn't QUITE give away the story since we also see a mutant as well as the humans in it. The editor's tag line doesn't help, though.

    A beautiful Finlay illo you have up there, in any case!

    1. That gorgeous illustration comes from the reprint in GREAT SCIENCE FICTION STORIES. I always assumed it was the original art, so thanks for clearing that up Eric.