Monday, March 28, 2016

"Common Denominator"

John D MacDonald’s science fiction received little if any critical attention during his lifetime. Besides the book reviews of his three sf novels -- almost all of which appeared in science fiction magazines -- and Martin H. Greenberg’s introduction to his 1978 short story collection Other Times, Other Worlds, I’m not aware of any serious attempt by anyone to come to terms with the body of this material. Well, there was one attempt, by Edgar Hirshberg in his 1980 biography of the author, but like much of the rest of that effort it is superficial, banal and, in many places, downright feckless. No one could realistically call it “serious.” . In nearly eight pages on the subject Hirshberg discusses the novels and only four short works, all of which were stories collected in Other Times, Other Worlds. He hashes out plots, quotes MacDonald’s Afterwards, and manages -- like he does throughout the book -- to get plot points and other details wrong.

Still, he somehow stumbles onto the truth in his overall assessment of MacDonald’s approach to science fiction, even if it is only partially correct. His second paragraph of the section reads:

What distinguishes MacDonald's science fiction from most of the other work in the same genre is the fact that he is more interested in the human results of the twentieth-century scientific revolution that he is in the revolution itself. He had something to say about the human condition in these stories, and not necessarily about science. What he was writing, then, in a sense, was what Isaac Asimov once termed “Social Science Fiction,” which he defined as “that branch of Literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.”

Since Hirshberg hadn’t bothered to read any of MacDonald’s sf short stories that didn’t make it into Other Times, Other Worlds, it is highly doubtful that he read much other science fiction, certainly not enough to allow him to be able to differentiate MacDonald’s work from that of other authors. And how is “most” science fiction not concerned with the human condition? Pick up any issue of Galaxy, or Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction and that’s pretty much all you will find. And there is plenty of JDM sf that doesn’t fit this mold, from space opera to romance to pulpy horror.

John D MacDonald’s great burst of interest in science fiction, which began in 1947 and peaked in 1949 and 1950, was coming to a very quick  end by 1951, the year he had two stories published in the recently launched sf digest Galaxy. Both tales, “Susceptibility” and “Common Denominator,” take place in a distant future where the people of Earth are exploring and colonizing the galaxy. The central governments of these two futures are nearly identical in their rigid rulemaking and Byzantine bureaucracies, with a separate bureau and agency for every aspect of government, science and social life. In “Susceptibility” the author deals with the Colonial Adjustment Bureau, as the focus of that story is on the colonization of otherwise uninhabited planets.  In “Common Denominator” we deal with three different bureaus, each in a specific pecking order.

The crew of Scout Group Forty has just returned from halfway across the galaxy, where they have encountered and brought back data on Argus Ten, a Class Seven civilization living on three separate planets. Class Sevens are scientifically advanced societies and, as such, pose a potentially high danger to Earth. The crew is quarantined and the data is scrutinized by the Bureau of Stellar Defense to determine any possible threat. It is eventually determined that the people of Argus Ten pose no threat, and indeed seem utterly harmless, if overly placid, creatures. Humanoid in design and appearance, "the bipedal, oxygen-breathing vertebrate with opposing thumbs" could pass anywhere in the universe as human.

The flesh tones were brightly pink, like that of a sunburned human. Cranial hair was uniformly taffy-yellow. The were heavier and more fleshy than humans. Their women had a pronounced Rubens look, a warm, moist, rosy, comfortable look. Everyone remarked on the placidity and contentment of facial expressions, by human standards. The inevitable comparison was made. The Argonauts looked like a race of inn and beer-garden proprietors in the Bavarian Alps. With leather pants to slap, stein lids to click, feathers in Tyrolean hats and peasant skirts on their women, they would represent a culture and a way of life that had been missing from Earth for far too many generations.

With no apparent danger of intermingling, the data is passed on to the Bureau of Stellar Trade and Economy, whose job it is to analyze a possible mercantile relationship with Argus Ten. The first trade group brings back an assortment of both useful and frivolous inventions, along with a group of Argonauts, whose benign, friendly demeanor and amusing accents cause most Earth residents to consider them as pets.

Once all of the data is reviewed by the “important” bureaus, it eventually becomes available to the Bureau of Racial Maturity, an underfunded, poorly-manned and almost forgotten agency within the government, headed by historian-anthropologist- sociologist Dr. Lambert, a "crag-faced, sandy, slow-moving" man whose concern that mankind has advanced too quickly is the bureau's main focus. Lambert hopes that records from alien civilizations will give him an answer to counteract this too-rapid development. After months and months of research he makes some findings that seem to him highly unusual: both war and crime on the alien planet are virtually unknown, and they stopped abruptly eight thousand years ago. Why did this happen? Lambert decides to make a trip to Argus Ten in order to find out…

After much serious analytical narrative, complete with charts and graphs and animated film, the denouement of the story is fairly outrageous, even within its own terms. MacDonald held some interesting beliefs regarding humanity that became more and more absolutist over time, to the point in 1978 he wrote that he believed mankind to be “a virulent infection eroding this green planet even while we use it to sustain our teeming life form.” He explored this belief in his 1955 short story “Virus H,” and even had a Travis McGee soliloquy opining this creed in A Deadly Shade of Gold. His solution in “Common Denominator” seems equally extreme.

The story first appeared in the July 1951 issue of Galaxy and was subsequently anthologized in both the Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction (1952) and Other Times, Other Worlds. Unfortunately that excellent anthology is one of the very few JDM works that has not been digitized for sale as an eBook. Still, this particular story has just become available for sale and an eStory(?) on Amazon for a mere 99-cents. Better yet, one can go to Project Gutenberg and download the story for free. According to the good folks at PG, the story’s copyright has lapsed and is now in the public domain.


  1. Don't forget "The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything..."

  2. Thanks very much for the link to Project Gutenberg.

  3. Sounds like good story. I downloaded the Gutenberg copy.