4/5 (collated rating: Good)
Richard McKenna (1913-1964) spent the majority of his adult career (1931-1953) “not very happily” in the US Navy. He was forced to leave college and join the service due to his lack of opportunities in rural Idaho during the Great Depression. Many of his science fiction stories explore the homosocial world of the military–the comradery through shared trauma and battle, the corrosive effect on those who struggle to fit in, and the destructive culture of machoism. After his military service, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina in English. Only a handful of SF short stories appeared during his lifetime, the majority were published posthumously. McKenna considered SF to be his “training ground” before a planned career in mainstream literature. Right before his early death in 1964, he hit it big with the non-SF novel The Sand Pebbles (1962), which was turned into a famous 1966 movie by the same name.
The stories in the posthumous collection Casey Agonistes and Other Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories (1973) are uniformly strong. If metaphysical/anthropological/social takes on SF intrigue you, this collection might be worth tracking down.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“Casey Agonistes” (1958), 4.5/5 (Very Good): In a hospital tuberculous ward during an undefined military conflict (WWII?), a group of soldiers wait for the inevitable in a purgatorial landscape that most will not escape. The nurses and the doctor take on nicknames—Mama Death, Uncle Death, Pink Waldo, Curly Waldo, etc.—in a world that seems suspended in time. Everyone is waiting. Everyone is slowly dying. Away from the rest “strange guy” named Carnahan, replete with radio earphones, spends his time grinning and chucking “like he was in a private world from the rest of us” (13).
He shares his secret. He can “hypnotize himself to see a great ape” and then “make the ape clown around” (14). And soon our narrator and his palls enter this shared alternate world. The ape, a manifestation of vivacious life, lifts the pallor from a ward painted with memories of death. They latch on to ape and his antics as Mama Death and Uncle Death circulate dispensing sad indications of the end.
A powerful and harrowing fable populated with characters that seem like army friends McKenna might have interacted with in his long military career. The tale also introduces themes that reappear in other stories in the collection: military companionship through trauma and despair and metaphysical/fantastical intrusions into hyper-realistic gritty worlds.
“Hunter, Come Home” (1963), 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): By far my favorite story in the collection, “Hunter, Come Home” creates richly realized world in which the men of Mordin must prove themselves by fighting a beast called the Great Russel. Each man who successfully defeats the creature receives a tattoo on their forehead indicating their status. Two victories–two dots. Those who do not have a tattoo are not considered men regardless of age or experience. An ecological crises, the lack of sufficient Great Russels for the number of citizens who want to test themselves, on the home world creates sociological crises. Rigorous patriarchal society governs Mordin, derived from its history as a “lost Earth-colony that had lapsed to a stone-age technology and fought its way back to gunpowder in a ceaseless war against the fearsome Great Russel dinotheres” (25). The problem: Roy Craig’s family can’t afford the hunt.
So he sets off without a tattoo, an outsider in the machoistic community of brothers, on a dangerous and lucrative attempt to transform a strange unclaimed “phyto planet” into a reserve for the Great Russel (25). With the assistance of Belconti biologists, Craig wages a frontline battle against the native flora of the planet that resists physical attack and biological assault. Despite his experience, Craig is treated as little more than a child. Any positive acknowledgement of his valor, encourages him on his quest to finally fight a great Rusell. He meets a young Midori woman who sees something behind his gruff exterior. And as the war rages on and every new biological weapon yields only momentary success against a flora that quickly adapts, Craig must make a choice: remain with the men of Mordin or leave the planet with the Belconti as this is a fight that cannot be won.
I found “Hunter, Come Home” an incisive allegory of the corrosive nature of the homosocial world of the military where rank trumps everything else. Craig is the perfect vehicle for such a critique. He does not have the background that allows him to rise in Mordin society despite his desire. Yet even then, Craig does not perfectly fit and struggles to find his own way. Midori, fascinated by art and science, offers a window into a far more egalitarian world without stringently prescribed paths and gendered codes of behavior.
“The Secret Place” (1966), 3.5/5 (Good): Previously reviewed in Orbit 1 (1966). I did not reread it. “The Secret Place” won the second ever Nebula Award for Best Short Story. It was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1967. I found “The Secret Place” is an understated story about an unusual wartime (WWII) military expedition—searching for the origin of one “thumb-sized crystal of uranium oxide” (31) in a desert near Barker, Oregon. The narrator soon realizes that a young woman’s imaginative world in which she interacts with her dead brother might hold the key to the origin of the substance. And the narrator will go to rather sinister lengths perpetuating and interacting with her imaginative world in order to acquire it. This might be one of the least-known Nebula award winners.
“Mine Own Ways” (1960), 3.5/5 (Good): Perhaps within the same post-human diaspora universe as “Hunter, Come Home,” “Mine Own Ways” posits an institution, the Institute of Man, who observes hominids on various alien worlds in earlier stages (pre-symbolic thought) of evolution. Walter Cordice, Leo Brumm, and Jim Adries (and their wives) observe the Robadurians from afar. But a catastrophic sequence of events sees them and their wives pulled into a horrific sequence of rituals which seem to be orchestrated by an outsider.
Knight, in his intro to the collection, critiques the “compressed” nature of the first few pages. I agree. Unlike the others in the collection, it was hard slip into the world. But…. what a hellish world it is! This is McKenna at his most nightmarish. And even then, the philosophical underpinning–how did hominids become human and what was the role of ritual in primitive society–remains at the forefront. Like “Hunter, Come Home,” it’s hard not to read “Mine Own Ways” as a commentary on McKenna’s military experience where recruits are subjected to dehumanizing and violent rituals to “make men of boys.” Those that survive the rituals ascribe deep meaning to their own hazing and justify its use on the new batch of recruits.
“Fiddler’s Green” (1967), 4/5 (Good): Patterns emerge in McKenna’s fiction! “Fiddler’s Green” explores similar territory to “Casey Agonistes”–shared mass hallucination. In some ways reminiscent of the influential SF show Lost (2004-2010), a group of sailors adrift without sustenance in a “thin spot in the world” (104) create a mass hallucination of a potential world. Escaping dehydration and starvation, the sailors find themselves in a bizarre undefined landscape–an oasis made manifest. And soon other entities and individuals permeate its edges. I enjoyed this one but found that it lacked the emotional intensity of “Casey Agonistes.”
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