Pessimism is not a trait one usually associates with the works of John D MacDonald. His early fiction usually featured happy endings (MacDonald called them "glib") and, no matter how bleakly they began, were for the most part ultimately redemptive. For every "Miranda" or "The Reference Room" there are scores of criminals-caught and guy-gets-girl tales. And even though one can see the influence of Cornell Woolrich in MacDonald's very early pulp writings, he was never as dark as that author, at least by the time the stories were wrapped up. His science fiction is invariably positive, but "Flaw" is a notable exception.
Published in the January 1949 issue of Startling Stories, "Flaw" runs a brief 3,200 words and was buried inside without a cover blurb. One of the more notable science fiction pulps, Startling Stories was launched in 1939 as a companion magazine to Thrilling Wonder Stories, and ran until 1955, managing to outlive the majority of other popular fiction magazines of the times. It was geared to a younger audience than most of the other s-f pulps, but still managed to publish a lot of credible work, and it "discovered" a few name authors, such as Frank Herbert and Jack Vance. Always leading with a novel, the remainder of the magazine was filled with three or four shorter works. Except for their re-publication of Wine of the Dreamers in 1950, the eight published works MacDonald sold to Startling Stories were short pieces.
According to Martin H. Greenberg in his brief intro to the story in Other Times, Other Worlds, "Flaw" was "a rather bold story for its time because it challenged several rules of formula science fiction..." with both its pessimism and its ending, which I won't reveal here. It takes place in 1964, four years after the "atomic drive" enabling space travel was developed, and is told in the first person by one Carol Adlar. The opening paragraph immediately lets the reader know that they will not be reading a typical science fiction story:
"I rather imagine that I am quite mad. Nothing spectacular, you understand. Nothing calling for restraint, or shock therapy. I can live on, dangerous to no one but myself."
Carol begins recalling Johnny, her astronaut fiancé, who she met when he was a test pilot back in 1959. Right away we learn that Johnny left for space three years ago, and that he isn't coming back. She remembers when she first met him in this wonderfully evocative paragraph:
"Johnny Pritchard. I figured him out, I thought. A good-looking boy with dark hair and a careless grin and a swagger. That's all I saw in the beginning. The hot sun blazed down on the rocks and the evenings were cool and clear."
Carol resists Johnny's advances, but after a date where he spends the evening talking about his dreams of traveling into space, Carol falls for him and his vision:
"There have always been people like Johnny and me. For a thousand years mankind has looked at the stars and thought of reaching them. The stars were to be the new frontier, the new worlds on which mankind could expand and find the full promise of the human soul... All persons in love have dreams. This was ours. Johnny would be at the controls of one of the first interplanetary rockets. He would return to me and then we would become one of the first couples to become colonists for the new world."
They exchange rings and decide to put off marriage until after Johnny returns. But Carol makes it plain that he isn't coming back, even though everyone else is still hopefully expecting the return of the Destiny II. An 18-month voyage has turned into three years, and still they wait. But not Carol. She knows something they don't, not only about Johnny, but about outer space and rocket travel, and the "flaw" in their science.
The first person narration in "Flaw" is as bleak as anything you'll read by Jim Thompson, and one wonders how it ended up in a magazine geared to younger readers. MacDonald rarely used a female narrator, and he seems somehow liberated by it here, especially in the open lyricism of the prose he uses. You will rarely find lines like "The heart is ever cautious," or "I saw it with my mind, but not with my heart," in a John D MacDonald story, but it works wonderfully within the context. The story reads like a kind of a tone poem or, if you like, a dirge. Still, it is beautifully written and holds up well, despite the fact that it presents interplanetary space travel in 1960.
In MacDonald's deconstructionist Afterword to Other Times, Other Worlds, he strongly echoes "Flaw" when he writes about how the science of 1978 (when the anthology was published) makes impossible most of the science fiction ever written. "The merciless mathematics of Einstein and Fitzgerald lock us into our own planetary system forever. We are not going out to the stars. It is not only cruel to hold out such a hope for mankind, but even in entertainment fiction, it is counterproductive to the races of man." It's hard to imagine that the person who wrote those sentences was the same author who gave us Wine of the Dreamers, but by 1978 MacDonald had long since given up on science fiction. And as "Flaw" demonstrates, it wasn't necessarily a new notion.
But it was somewhat unique, as Martin H Greenberg points out, even among the other 52 works of science fiction by MacDonald. A year after it appeared in Startling Stories "Flaw" was included in an anthology titled The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1950 and, of course, it eventually became one of the stories in Other Times, Other Worlds.