Today I’ve selected two post-apocalyptic visions by female authors. I needed an antidote to the creepy last man/woman stories I’ve been reading recently. Alice Eleanor Jones spins a masterpiece about a housewife attempting to keep the entropy of a crumbling world and an abusive husband at bay. Katherine MacLean imagines a moment where the last representative of the American Empire, after all the rhetoric of progress and exceptionalism came crashing down in a nuclear war, interacts with a persistent and well-meaning native girl.
The links to the stories can be found in the reviews. Both are recommended reads for fans of 50s and 60s science fiction.
Alice Eleanor Jones’ “Created He Them” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher (June 1955). You can read it online here.
Sometimes there are stories that transcend their short length with lasting power. This story has resided within me as if freshly read for weeks. Like some corrosive lozenge of love and hate, “Created He Them” eats you up from the inside.
In a nameless city with crumbling streets and a people that retreat further and further within, Ann patches up her home, fends off the endless cruelties of her brutish husband, and cares for her two young children. Like some archaic code that cannot be followed precisely enough, her husband’s malcontent maps out the fault in her every action. She modulates her call upstairs announcing breakfast for fear of being too loud or quiet. She worries about the noises her children make in the playpen downstairs as “sometimes they got on his nerves and he swore at them” (34). He ridicules her appearances and her judgement. Dismisses her real needs as malignancies of her very being. Under her breath she whispers, “I hate him. I wish he would die” (31).
While Henry is at the laboratory, Ann takes her children out in the stroller. A strange exchange transpires in the decayed urban expanse. Women rush from the dark interiors of their homes and hold the children. They pass Ann food and cigarettes, sleeping pills and chocolate bars. This is a future beset with an encroaching wasteland caused by a nuclear war. The co-op has less and less supplies. The radio proclaims that all is well and that all that is bad is but the machinations of the rumormongers. Looming above all else is the fact that Ann and Henry are but a few couples able to have children. In the moment the neighboring women hold the children a bit of sadness retreats. Fragments of what was momentarily obfuscate the rot that grows and grows. But Ann knows that she must return to the house and the nightmarish interactions with her husband. And the state will take her children at age three to the Center, as they have for all Ann’s children that have come before.
Ann is trapped in her world. And like the 50s housewife who imagined that the American family fortified the nation from the specter of Communism that loomed on the horizon, one must soldier on. And like the 50s housewife convinced by society that the “housewife-mother” was the one form of fulfillment for the woman, Ann knows of no other options. The rituals of household maintenance continue. But at least after yet another fight, when Henry comes upstairs–against her wishes–to the marital bed, there are sleeping pills that will ward off another dark night.
Harrowing. Intense. Highly recommended. I plan on reading the rest of Alice Eleanor Jones’ five published short stories.
Katherine MacLean’s “Interbalance” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed, Robert P. Mills (October 1960). You can read it online here.
In Puerto Rico after a nuclear war (“The Radiation”), a walled-house with a machine gun looms above the surrounding countryside. An old man runs from window to window attempting to sight his rifle on a barefoot girl, “fourteen or fifteen, small, brown and pretty” (64). Blocking his shot is his fifteen-year-old son, “pale complexion” like that of the “North Americans before The Radiation (64).
The girl and the boy, ignorant of the old man’s murderous intent, converse near the gate and attempt to understand the divergent world views they represent. The girl, eager to pair off with the boy, embodies the ideology of the island’s villagers beyond the wall–they believe in repopulating the world as most die young: “Come to the picnic, we will have fun, we will dig, and we will go far out” (65). Preservation of knowledge isn’t the priority. Instead a few specialists keep the skills alive: “when someone here in Puerto needs a problem solved, they measure with a string and make drawings and take the string and the drawings to him. He solves it and they pay him in hens and pigs” (66). Only the basic pragmatic knowledge of every-day survival is necessary. The boy, on the other hand, believes the knowledge of advanced mathematics and science taught to him by his father represents the last bastion of civilization (65). On his lips the slogans ring with every breath–“my father is educating me against the Tide of Advancing Savagery” in order to “be Civilized and Carry on Progress” (65). But his façade falters in conversation with the girl. The world she inhabits appeals and her enjoyment of his company warms his isolated thoughts.
His father screams “hussy” when he sees his son talking to the girl and runs out into the yard with his gun. The boy must make a decision. Or will the “good god of Interbalance” take care of everything (66)?
There are a lot interesting elements within the story. I find it fascinating that the story is set in Puerto Rico, a location that makes it hard to escape a commentary on American Empire post-apocalypse. The father, dressed in the suits of the previous era and ensconced in his walled home, attempts to maintain his distance from the villagers. He represents the colonizer who refuses to forget the power he once held. Narine and her people have found a way to make the best with what they have rather than perpetuating a fleeting dream of resurrecting the past. Unlike so many stories that imagine an isolated cabal preserving the knowledge of the time before the blast, Narine’s people seem to represent a new way through the wasteland.
I’m glad I returned to MacLean’s fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed Missing Man (1975), a mystery within a decentralized and crumbling future New York, and found “Echo” (1970) a solid tale about the utter alienness what we might encounter in our explorations of the cosmos.
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9 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Alice Eleanor Jones’ “Created He Them” (1955) and Katherine MacLean’s “Interbalance” (1960)”
I’ve read three of Jones’s stories, including ‘Created He Them’. ‘Recruiting Officer’ is good, but ‘The Happy Clown’ is somewhat forgettable. Jones also published lots of non-sf stories, mostly in Red Book. They’re very much of their time, the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. It’s a shame she didn’t write more sf, she was very good.
I remember you had read “Recruiting Officer” as you wrote a post for me back in the day. I’ve been intrigued since then but never picked up a copy… https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2017/01/08/guest-post-from-pulp-to-new-wave-space-episode-1941-leslie-perri-recruiting-officer-1955-alice-eleanor-jones-when-i-was-miss-dow-1966-sonya-dorman/
Count me re-interested! Sounds creepy!
I wish she wrote more SF too. It’s bizarre to think that this batch of five stories all came out in 1955. “Created He Them” has an awesome power that most likely would have cropped up again if she had written more SF…
Have you read much MacLean?
Ha! I’d forgotten I’d reviewed one of her stories for you.
As for MacLean, I’ve only read her The Missing Man and I didn’t like it much.
The novella or the novel version? Well, maybe give this one a shot. I found it a somewhat refreshing take after all the intensely creepy male visions of post-apocalyptic sexuality… Although, it too treads on controversial territory (teenage sexual relations as everyone dies young).
The uncredited cover for BEST OF F&SF 5th SERIES looks like early John Schoenherr, who for his first few years in the biz often did R. Powers-influenced work where Powers-like alien, semi-abstract forms were rendered with more concrete detail and three-dimensionality, as if they were real.
See forex this prime (as you note) instance: –
I agree. Unfortunately, I can’t get stuff changed on isfdb.org without more direct evidence (a signature, art seller with artist listed, etc.). I could reach out to his son on twitter….
Tempted by either story? The Jones is quite good. I might have been a bit too generous with the MacLean. Might be a 3.5/5 or 3.75/5 due the unsatisfactory ending.
I’ll take a look at the stories later.
Good good! At least the Jones! I wish she wrote more…
I have messaged Ian Schoenherr on twitter. He isn’t on the platform that frequently but I hope he eventually gets back to me. But yes, it’s unmistakably John Schoenherr’s work.