Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Death Quotient"

"Death Quotient" is a John D MacDonald science fiction novella that was originally published in the April 1949 issue of Super Science Stories. It appeared alongside two other MacDonald stories, "All Our Yesterdays" and "Delusion Drive" and as was the custom at the time, the latter two tales were printed under "house names." God forbid that someone should see JDM's name more than once in the same issue. It was simpler, I suppose, to trick the reader.

Thanks to the recent eBook publication of Death Quotient and Other Stories, all three are available again for the first time in 60 years.

The setting for "Death Quotient" is near-future Earth, probably the late 1950's or early Sixties. It's year three of World War III and the two sides are at a kind of stalemate, although "the invader" has managed to secure a beachhead on American soil. MacDonald sets the background nicely in a few brief, early paragraphs:

"The atomic bomb had proven to be an almost perfect weapon during the first two weeks of the war. Millions had died. But human courage and resources had rendered obsolete the vast, white flare, the mushroom cloud.

"In the first weeks of war, every center of industrial production in the United States had been wiped out, along with an estimated forty-five million people.But from the secret launching stations that were undamaged, the retaliatory rockets had smashed the vast resources of the potential invader.

"There followed a lull of almost a year, while each participant licked wounds, decentralized, made a national inventory of tools and resources, and established new production facilities in deep places in the earth.

"Having suffered the least damage, the invader was able to equip a fleet and, after almost crippling losses, establish a beachhead on the New England coast. Six months later the expanded beachhead reached to within eighteen miles of where the city of Albany had once stood, and north to the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.

"And for a year and a half the lines had remained practically static. It was vicious war, without principal, without mercy. Due to the decentralization of facilities and the use of vast underground defensive networks, the usefulness of the atomic bomb had become much like that of a sledge hammer for driving a tack...

"For a year and a half it had been a war of knife and pistol and bare hands...

"In the end, both sides had learned that the weapon which would win would be brave men, armed with portable weapons, who could kill other brave men at close quarters."

Second Lieutenant Martin Rhode, stationed somewhere in the Chemung Valley, is the hero of this tale. He's been detached from his usual job of conducting surreptitious raids behind enemy lines in order to lead a truck convoy of much needed supplies to a point near the town of Oneonta. But halfway down Route 17 in the dead of night, the convoy is stopped by "a perfectly straight bolt of lightning, thicker than any lightning flash ... ever seen, driving straight down from the cloudless heavens to bury itself in the earth with a thick, chunking noise that seemed to shake the road." With the huge hole directly in the middle of the road, Martin orders the convoy to go around it while he investigates. The hole is two hundred feet in diameter and the cut along the side looks as if it were sliced cleanly with a knife. He climbs down to find that the path takes a sharp right turn parallel with the ground surface. Then, toward the end of the tunnel, he sees light.

Meanwhile, outside troops have arrived and have discovered an invisible wall surrounding the hole, reaching up into the sky as high as any of their aircraft can climb. It is invulnerable to any attempt to penetrate it. A weird, hypersonic noise emanates from the area causing severe depression to anyone within earshot. The military believes the hole is the work of some new enemy weapon and begins working to try and penetrate the wall. Rhode is assumed to be dead.

But the enemy is just as perplexed. They have sent ten missiles to try and destroy it, but all of them have crashed into the towering, invisible wall and have been obliterated.

And of course Rhode is not dead. Trapped beneath the surface he discovers a huge metallic thing and two alien beings who immobilize him and who communicate telepathically. Their appearance causes a deep-seated fear in him:

"The thing on the floor was a vast, pulpy, obscene caricature of a man. Naked and gray. Eyes with faceted prisms protruding from the face, a tiny furred orifice below the eyes, and a wide lemon-yellow gash that was a mouth. Ten feet tall if standing, he guessed. The arms were oddly jointed and there was something horribly wrong about the hands and fingers, the fingers curling to the outside of where the wrists should be, rather than in toward the body."

They are members of a warrior race, far advanced, who have been fighting the members of another planet for thousands of years. Their ship has crashed on Earth and they are going to use their misfortune to advantage: they plan to lure a number of enemy ships to their location and then destroy them... by blowing up the planet!

Of course there is an obligatory paragraph making all of the necessary comparisons to the violence of humanity:

"In the beginning tribe fights tribe, then city fights city, then nation fights nation, then continent fights continent. That is your present stage. Should you survive this stage, you will find planet fighting planet, then solar system fighting foreign solar system, and at last galaxy warring with galaxy. Who can tell? Possibly beyond that is universe making war with universe, or dimension against dimension. In each step there is always the possibility of mutual extermination, and with that, the peace that living things can find. Only in death is there peace, and death is the final step."

In the end Rhode figures out a way to warn humanity of this collective threat, and mankind reacts accordingly.

Whenever I come across a JDM science fiction story that the author elected not to include in his 1978 anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, I am immediately curious as to why. With "Death Quotient" it's pretty obvious. It's a basic pulp tale, lacking in much depth or sub-text, and the ending is a variation on an old s-f device that probably had whiskers on it even back in 1949. It's been used many times since, most notably (and imaginatively) in the 1963 Outer Limits episode "The Architects of Fear." MacDonald had nothing to be ashamed of in "Death Quotient," and it is an enjoyable read, but he adds little to the vocabulary of science fiction here and the story possesses none of the characteristic JDM "voice."

It's nice to have it available again, but be warned that the eBook version is marred by numerous spelling mistakes, typographical errors and formatting problems. The errors are at times infuriating, especially the lack of the author's characteristic double-spaced scene shifts that cause the reader to have to stop dead in their tracks in order to get their bearings. Had such a sloppy product been released in JDM's lifetime it likely would have been the last eBook he ever authorized.

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