Monday, September 27, 2010

"Final Mission"

"Final Mission" is a John D MacDonald short story that originally appeared in the November 1950 issue of Planet Stories. It was MacDonald's only entry for that science fiction pulp, a magazine that was published for sixteen years and that produced 71 issues. Begun in 1939 as a quarterly, it continued that frequency until the issue MacDonald's story appeared, when it shifted to a bi-monthly. It returned to quarterly publication a year before it ceased publication in 1955. Published by the curiously-named Love Romance Publishing Company, the magazine featured the works of many great science fiction writers, including Leigh Brackett, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Coppel, Philip K. Dick (his very first published story appeared here) and Ray Bradbury, whose Planet Stories works include the very first Martian Chronicles tale ever written, "The Million-Year Picnic." 

Planet Stories specialized in romantic space opera and its covers, although typical of the period, invariably featured beautiful women in some state of distress or aggression. There was usually some kind of ray gun on each cover as well.

A variety of editors served at the helm of Planet Stories over the years, most notable among them the editor who purchased John D MacDonald's story, Jerome Bixby. Bixby, of course, was an science fiction author in his own right, who in addition to being responsible for a handful of Star Trek teleplays (including the great "Mirror, Mirror") was the author of the iconic 1953 short story "It's a Good Life," which later became an equally-iconic episode of the Twilight Zone under the same name. He also co-wrote (with Otto Klement) the story treatment that became the highly successful s-f film Fantastic Voyage.

"Final Mission" is, surprisingly, anything but a space opera. It is a short tale of aging space soldiers living in a society that no longer needs them, and it relates how that society ultimately deals with them. MacDonald wrote "Final Mission" as an epistolary short story, a form he rarely ever used, and the "source material" he uses are quite varied, pushing the boundaries of what defined that form at the time. It opens abruptly with dialogue from a play, then moves to a newspaper editorial, the minutes of a country club meeting, then several back-and-forth memoranda between several high-ranking government officials ending with the "President of the United States of the Hemisphere Alliance." The story ends with around twenty paragraphs of straight prose.

From the play excerpt we learn that we are in a post-space wars Earth, twenty years after a victory that has made life here safe and peaceful. Someone named Cynthia is having a mild argument with her much-younger husband Roger, bemoaning the boring lot of the men who saved Earth. "What are we to do for them?" she asks Roger, pacing around their bedroom. "They were here when we needed them. Tell me, Roger, have we, the living, nothing but boredom to offer those who made this living possible?" When Roger counters that "the world no longer has need for the heroic impulse," Cynthia lapses into a nostalgic reverie about their return from the wars, victorious, when she was only seventeen. "You should have known me when I was seventeen," she tells her husband, who was four at the time. When it becomes evident that Cynthia is reminiscing about one particular space soldier, Roger jealously asks her to tell him which one. "Can't you tell, you stupid man?" she indignantly asks her husband. "Which one looks most like my son?"

The editorial from the "Tampa Times" is titled "Ode to the Maladjusted." From here we learn that society has developed a method to keep the peace, a treatment called "psyching.":

"The other day we wondered what we might be doing were it not for the psyching which has made us such a complacent scribbler of these immortal words... For a moment we thought, with horror, of a neurotic, maladjusted little man, full of sighs and dreams and imagery. And then it struck us that many of the men who have come forward in times of stress have been drawn from just such groups. During the space wars which ended a bare twenty years ago we would have lost, it is certain, were it not for men so maladjusted that violence was their creed, brutality their way of life, danger a necessary drug. Their very lustiness was our margin of victory."
With everyone now psyched, the writer wonders, "who will there be to save the scalp of this scribbler next time?"

The minutes of the annual meeting of the Tamarack Club reveal that the numbers of these old warriors is few, a handful, but they are trouble indeed. They brawl and argue and cause fights on a regular basis, behavior that simply doesn't exist in polite -- or any -- society nowadays. It is voted that the soldiers' honorary memberships be revoked, but there is just one problem: no one is willing to be the one to give them the news.

With everyone in the world "psyched," how is it that these ex-soldiers are still behaving so twentieth century? From the memo we see next, written by the Section Chief of the Psyching Section to her boss, the "Chief, Psyching Subsection, Federal Bureau of Adult Adjustment, Department of the Interior, Septagon Building, New Washington, Nevada, Easthemi," there are "receptivity ranges" for the treatment and thirteen of the old warriors are out of that range. They can't be psyched, their full pay and benefits are a drain on the government's budget, their attitude is "scornful, facetious and uncooperative," so something must be done. The Subsection Chief has a suggestion, which we see by reproductions of subsequent memos, going all the way up to the President...

The epistolary form is not an easy one to pull off, although it is probably more manageable in a simple short story like "Final Mission" than it is in a novel. The most successful examples in novel form are genre pieces, works such as Stephen King's Carrie, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein or, especially, Bram Stoker's Dracula, although Alice Walker managed to pull it off nicely in her novel The Color Purple. MacDonald used it sparingly, peppering short stories of otherwise straight prose with the occasional official report or newspaper story. His one notable use of the device for an entire story was for a work he penned late in his career and had published in Playboy and, subsequently S*E*V*E*N: the excellent "Dear Old Friend."

"Final Mission" has never been anthologized.

1 comment:

  1. Jerome Bixby's issues of PLANET STORIES were essentially on par with any sf magazine being published at that time, a notion that tends to amuse those who haven't read them. The earliest issues, particularly, were rather weak (Leigh Brackett, more even than Bradbury, tended to elevate any issue she was in, as did Charles Harness...but even the Bixby issues could be cursed by the leaden prose of Stanley Mullen and a few others, none I think quite as bad). Love Romances Publishing because most of the initial offers were romance-fiction pulps...PLANET was their last surviving title.