Short Story Reviews: Phyllis MacLennan’s “A Contract in Karasthan” (1963), “Thus Love Betrays Us” (1972), and “A Day in the Apotheosis of the Welfare State” (1975)

Between 1963 and 1980, American SFF author Phyllis MacLennan (1920-1912) published one novel and seven short stories (bibliography and obituary). She served as a translator and linguist in Military Intelligence during WWII.  As I can find little about her work online, I decided to review three of her SFF short fictions. Perhaps they’ll inspire me to pick up her sole novel Turned Loose on Idra (1970), which I bought in 2014.

Vincent Di Fate’s cover for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 1972

“Thus Love Betrays Us” (1972), 4.5/5 (Very Good): First appeared in the September 1972 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Edward L. Ferman. Read the story here.

Deirdre, a night-less and oppressive world filled with thick mists and layers of moss, had only just been charted and described. To finish the survey, the ship Magus leaves Alex Barthold behind to catalogue its biological features. At first Alex craves the freedom an empty planet promises after the personal friction, lack of privacy, and constant noise on an interstellar ship (129). Soon after its departure, an accident destroys the Magus leaving Barthold alone in his research tent…. and the nightmare that unfolds chills to the bone.

With a mask to protect from fungal spores in the mist, Alex journeys from his dome into the swallowing fog. “FootFinder” luminescence leaves prints to guide him back. His daily research trips become more and more unnerving as the “dream-like atmosphere” and the nagging sensation of an unseen presence just out of sight leaves him with a sense of unreality (131). He starts to question if the Magus or a rescue ship will ever return to the plant. His shelter becomes a trap and he flees into the gloom—and encounters a translucent being with skin “blue-white as watered milk” whose internal organs “pulsed in faint tinges of blue and green” (133).

And soon Alex projects all his desires for companionship on the seemingly friendly being named Sessiné. And Sessiné’s world and rituals, of which Alex cannot help but be a part, are too alien for him to understand.

The jarring collision of stressful first contact with an explorer experiencing a psychological breakdown triggered by a planet’s oppressive environment creates a Molotov cocktail of a story.  As with Philip José Farmer’s disquieting “My Sister’s Brother” (variant title: “Open to Me, My Sister”) (1960), MacLennan suggests that humanity only wants to encounter polyps of one’s self in space. Sessiné’s people are truly alien and a product of the environment in which they dwell.


Robin Mazey and Roye Schell’s cover for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1975

“A Day in the Apotheosis of the Welfare State” (1975), 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average): First appeared in the July 1975 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Edward L. Ferman. Read the story here.

An occasionally smart satire on a well-trod premise: the soul crushing welfare state. Peter works Tech. He pats his computer goodbye and dreads going home… Blocking his path are “the boys”—hordes of uneducated masses supported by the state that refuse to put their brains to use. In cars like “Dodgem toys” (146), “the boys” attempt to block his way home. When he emerges from his hellish commute, his wife bemoans his inability to fit in with her ignorant friends… Fighting the good fight, Peter refuses to stoop down to the tactics of the masses. But the moment he breaks might be just outside his door.

MacLennan flips the script on the trope of the housewife wanting her husband to achieve higher status via promotion and connections. Angie instead wants Peter to blend in with those who refuse to work.

I must confess, I can’t wrap my head around the basic logic of so many of these “evils of the welfare state” premises. So many of us have our souls destroyed by the forces of capitalism (bad pay, extreme work hours, lack of healthcare, dead-end opportunities, etc.). Would a welfare state be more soul destroying? Suggesting that all outlets for our creative juices, productive desires, and our drive to succeed would suddenly be erased by a basic income (the mechanics aren’t spelled out by MacLennan) bewilders. Is not the issue instead “meaningful” work vs. “crushed by the system and I must support my family” labor?

Jacquelyn Blair’s cover for Fantastic Stories of Imagination, July 1963

“A Contract in Karasthan” (1963), 3/5 (Average): Phyllis MacLennan’s first published short story only appeared in the July 1963 issue of Fantastic Stories of Imagination, ed. Cele Goldsmith. Read the story here.

Born enshrouded in a caul, the narrator grows up with what appears gifted to be the “power of second sight” (105). In his head he “sees” another land. A mysterious meeting with a woman who creates an “oasis of stillness” at a crowded gathering (105), yields cryptic clues about a floating island that sends out dreams that “ensnare the souls of those it has marked for its own” (106). He sets off to find Karasthan’s perambulating cartography. As his senses detect its encroaching presence, he must decide whether he will allow himself to be conquered by his dreams.

MacLennan’s first story is an effective fantasy mood piece with a haunting Calvino-esque touch. While the first section fascinates, the second sours ever so slightly with moments of uninventive Orientalism.

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15 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Phyllis MacLennan’s “A Contract in Karasthan” (1963), “Thus Love Betrays Us” (1972), and “A Day in the Apotheosis of the Welfare State” (1975)

  1. Thanks for the heads up! I otherwise wouldn’t have hit her work until reaching the 1973 Worlds Best SF (i’m very slowly working my way, in the midst of the 1968 edition at the mo).

    • I thought of writing this post as it was her birthday. Thankfully, “Thus Love Betrays Us” (1972) is in that collection — far superior to the other two stories I read! I think it would make a fantastic short film.

    • As it’s her birthday today, I randomly selected them from her short bibliography to review. Sometimes you luck out! But as I mentioned to Anthony above, the first story would make a brilliant short film. The world is super unnerving!

            • My own favorites were “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” an Alastair Reynolds story that really couldn’t be done except as animation; “Werewolves,” a Marko Kloos story that was visually amazing; “Three Robots,” amusing Scalzi; and “The Secret War,” adapting David Amendola (who?)’s story. It was a really wrenching watch.
              The only ones I disliked were “Zima Blue,” a story told so many times that I’m flat sick of it, and “Good Hunting,” a Ken Liu story that didn’t translate well to the screen IMO.

            • I encourage you to do that. It’s getting a second season, so if you like it that will be a good cookie to reward yourself with.

  2. “…one novel and seven short stories…” sounds like there is enough there for a solid omnibus/collection. I’ve seen several of these things recently. Of note is “Mari Wolf Resurrected”. Mari Wolf was a fan who was active during the fifties, and who turned out seven interesting short stories. Wolf never really found her own voice, but several of her stories were rather good reads. MacLennan sounds to be in the same camp. If she had written more she might have been a force to be reckoned with, as is, if all of her materials were gathered together we could then more easily judge her talent. This is why small-presses exist.

    • Hello Mark,

      Thanks so much for this comment! I’ve never heard of Mari Wolf and now can’t wait to track down her seven stories. And it’s super cool that a collection of her fiction appeared.

      Do you have a favorite story of Wolf’s that I should read first?

      • I’ve always been interested in women writers, especially those of the early years of sf. They usually had a different take on subjects other than their male counterparts. So, when I saw “Mari Wolf Resurrected: The Complete Short Stories of Mari Wolf” from Resurrected Press, I had to get it. As I said, she didn’t stick around long enough to find her own voice, but my favorites were “Robots of the World! Unite!”, which is a Robert Sheckley-esque look at robot solidarity and unionization; “Homo Inferior” in which a non-esper is looked upon as a menace in a future utopia where all “normals” can read each other’s minds, although, be warned, it has a weak ending. And then there is her hidden gem “The Statue” in which an elderly working couple on Mars just want to go home to Earth to die, but only to find that nobody can go home again. As somebody who has come from a very working-class family, I was charmed by this humanist look at immigration, homesickness, immigrate workers, out-living your contemporaries, and living on the edge as a farmer. Yes, the background is sfnal, but, it was almost mainstream in its approach. All-in-all, a story that promised great things for this author who would then quit the field, and then move on to more respectable fields of endeavors.

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