Friday, February 12, 2010

"The Hunted"

"The Hunted" is a John D MacDonald science fiction short story, originally published in the July 1949 issue of Super Science Stories. It's MacDonald's "The Most Dangerous Game" knockoff, the "man-as-prey" plot device used by nearly every pulp writer at least once, inspired by Richard Connell's iconic 1924 tale published Collier's. MacDonald moves the setting to the future and makes the hunters aliens, but it's still the same plot, even retaining the three day reward device originally used by Connell. Coming in at around 5,000 words, JDM tells the tale with great energy and suspense and ends it with a bit of a twist.

"The Hunted" is told in the third person, which is the only way it could be told in the world MacDonald created. We are on future Earth, time uncertain, a world that has been attacked, devastated and is now run by an alien race. Mankind has been reduced to a near animal-like existence, kept in pens and used for manual labor. After several generations the race has lost all memory of their culture, and only the strong survive. Earth's cities have been destroyed and are surrounded by a force field to keep strays out -- or, as we shall see, in. A conversation between two alien bros' -- stark white beings with multifaceted eyes and childlike hands -- give us all the background we need:

Thome: "It seems odd that the first of us to come here found these creatures repulsive. I have become quite fond of them."

Riss: "In a way it is sad." [Pointing to the skyline of a ruined Chicago off in the distance.] They were far enough advanced to have built their crude cities, even to release a fractional part of the power of the atom. Who can tell what their destiny might have been?"

Thome: "You are too imaginative. They are too wild to have continued to live with the atomic power in their grasp. We saved them from themselves."

Riss: " Maybe you are right. And then again, in the last eighty years of breeding, while we strove for ferocity and cunning, we may have bred out of the race some leavening factor which would have enabled them to overcome their innate murderous instincts."

Thome: "This group will make good sport..."

Thome and Riss are admiring their new collection of humans, and make particular note of one, named Peter. "He was well over six feet tall, heavily muscled, his tan skin marked with the white scar tissue of many wounds. His blue eyes seemed to flare with the instinct to kill as he looked at the two outside the fence." Peter is the alpha male, a fierce, humorless warrior who kills a few of his fellow humans for laughing at him, and who engages in a fierce fight with the reigning neighborhood bully before snapping his neck. But the aliens have plans for Peter, as well as for several of his compatriots, and the plan is The Hunt. Twenty humans, including Peter, are immobilized and transported to the streets of ruined Chicago, awakened and given their instructions by a human servant of the aliens:

"You are in the city. You are free. You cannot leave the city, because on one side is vast water and on the edges of the city are the areas of pain. But the city is large. There are many places to hide. The masters will come to hunt you down and kill you. If you can, you are permitted to kill first. There will be no punishment... In an hour the masters will come. Many of them. They will leave the city at dusk. They will return at dawn. If any of you last for three days without being found and killed, you will then be recaptured and sent to the pens where there are women."

Peter's superior strength gives him an initial advantage as he climbs to the top of a ruined skyscraper, and he manages to kill two aliens and commandeer their vehicle, a kind of floating chariot. Then his ingenuity takes over as he outwits and out races several of the hunters, eventually escaping the city with several of them hot on his tail.
Even though several of the aliens have been killed in the three day hunt, Riss loves what he is doing and has a grudging admiration for Peter:

"A good beast to hunt, my friend. A dangerous beast. The best kind. Better than the fire lizards of Venus or the winged snakes of Callisto. The beast called man is the best of all."

Hey, when you're better than the fire lizards of Venus, you are good!

But Peter is good, and like Rainsford in "The Most Dangerous Game" he manages to outwit his hunters at nearly every turn. MacDonald writes a different kind of ending, though, a bit more hopeful and interesting, and with strong echoes of the disdain for cities he expresses in "Trojan Horse Laugh," which was written at the same time. And as derivative as it is, "The Hunted" is a well-written and exciting story, one where the author's skill at characterization is forced to take a back seat to plot and action.

As far as I've been able to determine, "The Hunted" has been anthologized only once, way back in 1952 in a neat little collection called Beyond the End of Time, edited by Frederik Pohl. MacDonald's story is included alongside several very good, sometimes iconic science fiction tales, such as Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come the Soft Rains," Arthur C. Clarke's "Rescue Party," Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain" and the amazing "The Little Black Bag" by C. M. Kornbluth. It's not always easy to find a copy, but they are out there if you look hard enough, and are willing to pay a bit more than you would for the average used book.

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