Monday, January 18, 2016


The history of science fiction in the postwar period is, primarily, the history of three magazines that published this genre of literature for the masses. Astounding Science Fiction, which had begun publication in 1930, changed personalities under the editorship of John W. Campbell in 1938 with a more adult oriented kind of story, and he carried that editorial viewpoint on into the 1950’s. Under Campbell it was the undisputed leader in publishing serious sf, and was only challenged in 1949 by the emergence of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and then again in 1950 by the new kid on the block, Galaxy Science Fiction. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of what we now call classic science fiction appeared in the pages of these three magazines.

Galaxy began life in October of 1950 and became an almost immediate success. It’s editorial policy, as envisioned by editor H. L. Gold, was to present a more expansive kind of fiction that included more psychology, sociology and satire than generally appeared in other science fiction magazines of the time. The title of Gold’s editorial in the inaugural issue said it all: “For Adults Only”. Gone were the lurid covers featuring "naked maidens, prognathous youths in winter underwear of gold lame, and monsters that can exist only on the nutrients found in India ink and Bristol board." And gone would be the kinds of stories that Gold sought to supplant, which he outlined in a later editorial that still has its laugh-out-loud moments:

Fictional warnings of nuclear and biological destruction, the post-atomic world, reversion to barbarism, mutant children slain because they have only ten toes and fingers instead of twelve, absurdly planned and preposterously successful revolts against dictatorships, problems of survival wearily turned over to women, war between groups, nations, worlds and solar systems.

Flying Saucers, cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians in space, the duel between the good guy and the bad guy alone on an asteroid, the bright revelation that the characters we have been reading about are Adam and Eve or Jesus, the creation of a miniature universe in a laboratory by a scientist whose name turns out to be an anagram of Jehovah, the alien eater of life force in the Andes whose menu consists exclusively of pretty virgins.

In that same editorial he summarized succinctly what he did want: “Science fiction answers in dramatic terms the unstated question: ‘What would happen if --?’"

John D MacDonald had three stories published in Galaxy, his first, “Susceptibility,” in the magazine’s fourth issue. MacDonald’s sf output, which peaked in 1949 with 16 stories, was on the wane by the time Galaxy came along, but the work he provided for the magazine was excellent and it is clear that if he had wanted to continue writing these kinds of stories he could have developed into a real science fiction “name”. But as time has told the tale, he had other things in mind.

The future in "Susceptibility" is one where the people of Earth have colonized the galaxy, setting up cities on uninhabited planets, called Centers, where every imaginable convenience and provision is available. These colonial planets are administered by the Colonial Bureau, and when problems arise the Colonial Adjustment Bureau sends out a Praecursor to investigate. One such “problem” occurred when the populace of a particular planet suffered "emotional degeneration," which caused a superstitious fear of the facilities in the Centers;  they reacted by moving off into the woods. A Praecursor was sent and the colonists were "re-educated."

There is a similar problem on planet Able XII. Seven years prior to the beginning of the story a Praecursor was sent to find out why the field stations and Centers were underutilized, why no "entertainment" was imported, and why the planet was canceled from the tour schedules for lack of business. After investigating, the Praecursor sent his empty ship back to earth, on automatic pilot, with his resignation  fastened to the flight panel. Now another Praecursor has arrived and seeks to interrogate Able XII's leader.

He is directed to a humble cabin deep in the thick woods, miles from the nearest Center. As he approaches undetected, he spots a lone female chopping wood.

Exposure to the rays of the yellow-white sun, half again the size of Sol, had turned her to copper bronze, against which the mane of yellow hair was quite startling. He found that he was taking pleasure in watching the smooth play of muscles in her naked back as she swung the instrument against the tree. Each stroke bit out a chunk of the soft yellowish wood, veined with green. Exertion had put a sheen of perspiration on her shoulders.

The Praecursor is named Sean Malloy and the beautiful “leader” is Deen Thomason. Once Malloy makes himself known he expresses surprise that the planet's "leader" would live in such a primitive environment. "Let's be accurate, Malloy," Deen responds. "This year it happened to be my turn to represent the village at general meetings, and also the turn of my village to supply the chairman for the meeting." Malloy learns that nearly everyone on Able XII lives similarly, some in tiny villages, most in remote settings. The leader issues no orders and the people keep no records, preferring to live a life of manual labor, building their own homes and growing their own food.

This seems incredible to Malloy. Housing has been provided in the various Centers, food can be replicated in an instant, and transport is made available between the various Centers via "tele-tubes." When he is invited to Deen’s cabin he is again surprised to witness her bathe in a nearby stream and eat food pulled up from a garden behind the home. The conversation between the two reveals a vast rift between two different cultures, and Able XII certainly seems like a candidate for re-education. But Deen offers to show Malloy evidence that at least one of the Centers on the planet is occupied and in use. Once they arrive things initially appear normal, but soon Malloy begins to notice oddities that make no sense to him and require explanation…

In Martin H Greenberg’s brief introduction to the story in the JDM science fiction anthology Other Times Other Worlds, he calls “Susceptibility” a story about alienation. I suppose that is true up to a point, but it seems to me the story has a deeper undercurrent, that of the true nature of mankind, hinted at in the tale’s title. Early on when Malloy is secretly watching the topless Deen chopping wood, he does so with a "surprising pleasure," and makes a note to himself to apply for "deep psychological analysis" upon his return home, as "Precursors who became emotionally involved with colonial women suffered a loss of efficiency. It would be wise to have this susceptibility tracked down and eliminated." And it seems that a portion of mankind is always susceptible to a simpler, albeit harder, means of living their lives, free from atrophying convenience and a centralized form of government. In that respect it would seem MacDonald also has a political message here, but if he does it is only obliquely touched on.

“Susceptibility” is an above-average JDM short story, and an above-average JDM science fiction short story, one whose theme would be used by countless authors afterward, and probably before. All three of his Galaxy stories are good ones, and all were included in Other Times, Other Worlds. “Susceptibility” was also anthologized in The First Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction, published in 1952 and edited by Gold himself. Other Times, Other Worlds is out of print and has inexplicably been omitted from the long list of recent JDM eBook reissues, but used copies of the paperback are always available from the usual sources.

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