Conventional wisdom avows that John D MacDonald began his science fiction writing with the publication of a short story titled “Cosmetics,” which appeared in the February 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. This occurred a full two years after his first-ever writing was published in 1946 and it began an ever increasing interest in sf by the writer that included two novels and 50 short stories and novellas, peaking in 1949 and pretty much ending in 1953.. In fact, you could look this up. Peter Nicholls, in his indispensable The Science Fiction Encyclopedia says as much, and who wants to argue with an encyclopedia?
But like most conventional wisdom, the facts tell a different story. If one looks outside the insular world of science fiction pulps and digests, the reader discovers that these kinds of tales -- science fiction and fantasy -- interested the author almost from the beginning of his writing career and continued along, albeit at a much slower pace, into the last few years of his life. The first such story, a humorous fantasy titled “Hole in None,” was published in January 1947, not in a pulp but in a slick, Liberty magazine. His next two, a futuristic political tale and a straight up sf story, showed up in Doc Savage and Bluebook respectively. Only then did “Cosmetics” appear. In fact there may be others I am not currently aware of because I haven’t read all of the author’s short work.
After the great gush of sf ended in 1953 MacDonald continued to write these kinds of stories here and there. Everyone is aware of the two later-day tales, “The Legend of Joe Lee” and “The Annex” because they were anthologized in the author’s 1978 sf collection Other Times, Other Worlds. “The Straw Witch,” which was originally published in This Week in 1964, was included in JDM’s 1966 short story collection End of the Tiger and Other Stories. And even readers who are not conversant with MacDonald’s short story output know about the 1962 novel The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything. But between 1953 and 1962 MacDonald wrote two sf-fantasy stories and both of them appeared in that pulp-turned-men’s-magazine Bluebook. The second was a story MacDonald called “Underwater Safari” but was published in 1961 as “A Dark People Thing.” The other was called “Virus H.”
It was published in the magazine’s June 1955 issue and, like much of MacDonald’s short work (but not his sf short work) it is virtually unknown today. It’s not like it was tickling the edges of what one normally defines as science fiction -- like “A Dark People Thing” -- for “Virus H” is straight up science fiction, as far from the reality of 1955 as one could get. But MacDonald had a reason for telling this tale, one beyond the mission of simply telling a good story. “Virus H” has a message, one near and dear to the author’s heart, and one that becomes obvious as the reader learns the dénouement. For this reason I’m going to reveal more of the story than I usually do here, so for those of you who would rather read it first, be forewarned. SPOILER ALERT.
It can't happen to us -- but, brother, it's going to. It has started. Walesville, Ohio, 30 miles from Portsmouth, was the first one. It will take a hell of a while because it's a thorough job. It might not get to you for years. But it's coming.
There were a little over 14 thousand people in Walesville. Plus, of course, those who were caught on their way through.
I've seen it. I don't know when we'll be printing pictures of it. But we probably will. And it will give you a hell of a jolt. I flew over Hiroshima back in September of '45. I covered the Bengal famine in '44 for AP. I once saw a pretty girl jump from a hotel window 23 stories above the concrete sidewalk. But I have seen Walesville. Compared to that, everything else I have ever seen has been like looking into the heart of a daffodil.
The story is told in the first person by an unnamed protagonist, a former newspaper reporter who now works for the federal government as a glorified public relations officer. Three weeks prior to the beginning of the story he was called to the Pentagon and met with an emergency committee called together by the President. It was headed by an Air Force Major General named Klippe and included a couple of brilliant scientists, a United States Senator, a senior CIA official and a Brigadier General whose expertise was strategy. After Klippe reminds everyone that they are all cleared for top secret he begins explaining why they were brought together.
"Briefly, gentlemen, here is the reason why this Emergency Committee has been brought together. A strange phenomenon has occured near Walesville, Ohio. Original reports were not believed. A tongue-in-the-cheek article appeared in the Walesville paper. One of the wire services picked it up, gave it limited coverage. An Air Force officer investigated. He reported to me the day before yesterday, in the evening . I was at the spot at dawn yesterday. I had an audience with the President early yesterday morning. Regulars have been flown there and the area is blocked off. Rigid censorship has been imposed. We all leave for the spot by plane in half an hour...
"I will not attempt to describe it. I will merely say, gentlemen, that it is an area where most of the fundamental laws of nature, as we know them, seem to be suspended and altered in random, unpredictable fashion."
When the committee arrives they witness the phenomenon first hand. In an area of about 2,000 square yards and 50 yards high, there was a subtle distortion, an "odd sheen to the air" in that expanse. Rocks were floating, some of them huge, as was nearly everything else, including leaves, twigs and a dead soldier who had somehow managed to get inside the area. Occasionally the floating matter would fall abruptly, only to gradually be lifted again, like slow-motion peas in boiling water. When attempts had been made to retrieve the floating soldier, the pole that had been inserted into the area came out bent at a 20 degree angle.
After some time of observation the members of the committee revert to form. The Army general assumes it's some kind of weapon and wants to perform all kinds of destructive tests on it, like blasting it with 20-millimeter tracers and sending a tank into it. The scientists are agast and want to spend time performing all sorts of measurements and sample-takings. The reporter even jokes that this was almost like something out of a fifties science fiction movie.
Traditionally we should have had national and international hysteria, scare headlines, and, of course, three practically essential people. You know those people well. The old professor, his beautiful daughter, and the young engineer who has a really wild idea of what to do about things. The idea works, always. Man triumphs.
But that doesn't happen, and our protagonist reveals the truth about the phenomenon, something no one had known at the time.
Not one of us had guessed what it was. We were too used to thinking in terms of tough metallic shells, and big ports that unscrewed soundlessly to permit tentacled you-name-its to emerge.
It was a space ship.
And on their sixth day there it moved. In doing so, it obliterated the highway and the entire city of Walesville, including its 14,000 inhabitants. Everything was reduced to bits no bigger than grains of sand. Realizing that there was some kind of intelligence at work, Klippe and his group resolve to attempt to communicate with it when it appears again, wherever it appears again. And soon enough it does, this time 40 miles outside of Columbus. Communication experts are brought in but their attempts are laughable. "They could just as well have been trying to get an answer from the moon, or a dead tree." Then, after countless attempts spread over many days, the movement inside the area stopped and it became opaque. And a door appeared on one of its sides.
Had I guessed for some wild reason that it would grow a door, I would have thought it in terms of the fantastic -- a door 90 feet high and made of gold or something... But this was just a door. A nice white front door with the usual three-pane window and a brass knob. It even had a mail slot. All that was missing was a house number and a mat saying welcome. It was about three inches ajar. The inference was just too plain. Come on in.
Naturally Klippe wastes no time in walking up and entering the phenomenon. After spending a little over six minutes inside he emerges, marches directly to his tent and blows his brains out. One by one the members of the committee enter and come out either howling mad, weeping like children or, in one case, so indignantly purple that he has an instant heart attack. Then it is the reporter's turn and he (and we) finally learn the true purpose of these aliens' mission.
The title of this science fiction story -- MacDonald’s own, for once -- should, with a little thought, give the game away. The author’s environmentalism began soon after he moved to Florida and began witnessing the rapid despoliation of the local ecology, from the mushrooming of high rise condominiums to attempts to fill in bodies of water, to the air pollution produced by the local orange juice industry. His summer home in upstate New York was as remote as it could possibly be, a cabin in a deeply wooded section of the Adirondacks on the shores of a secluded lake. MacDonald began taking a more activist role in 1960 with the publication of a pseudonymous newspaper column that dealt mainly with what he believed was the ruination of the local environment. He wrote once “Every zoning-buster, anti-planner, and bay-filler is degrading us for the sake of his own pocketbook, be he individual or huge corporation, citing the holy name of progress on his terms. So it should come as no surprise that in 1956 he would write a science fiction story with mankind as the ultimate pathogen.
Despite one’s views on the subject “Virus X” remains a readable cautionary tale, with all of the author’s customary abilities of storytelling and characterization on fine display. The fact that it was not included in Other Times, Other Worlds is unfortunate, but was probably due less to the fact that it was unworthy than to its publication in a non-sf magazine, which may have caused it to slip by the otherwise unwavering vision of editor Martin H. Greenberg. And as far as I can tell, it has never been anthologized or reprinted, which is unfortunate, but par for the course when it comes to most of JDM’s short story output.