The following review is the 16th installment of my series searching for “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. And that is okay. I relish the act of literary archaeology.
I decided to return to this all-but-defunct series after I was inspired by a conversation in the comment section of my recent review of John D. MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport” (1950). A friend of the site listed a fascinating range of MacDonald’s short stories and multiple appeared to fit my series on subversive accounts of astronauts and space travel. MacDonald’s “Flaw” (1949) charts the end of the dream of the conquest of space.
As always, feel free to join the conversation and read along with me on the search for the depressed astronaut.
John D. MacDonald’s “The Flaw” first appeared in the January 1949 issue of Startling Stories, ed. Sam Merwin, Jr. You can read it online here.
The Dream Sold to the Legions
Carol Adlar, a government clerk at a rocket station in Arizona, falls in love with both the young astronaut Johnny Pritchard and his dream. Johnny believes the moment that humanity can travel to the stars will be the opportunity to create a new “world with no wars, no disease, no starvation” (84). The scars of the ruined Earth offer lessons to create a better future where the sinful will be able to transcend their timeless tendencies. Carol recounts, after Johnny’s tragic death, that “within a week I had caught his fervor, his sense of dedication” (84). They share the dream. They imagine that they will become “one of the first couples to become colonists for the new world” (84). And against her better judgement, she gives her “heart to a man who soars up at the top of a comet plume” (84).
Destiny I‘s circuit of the moon and safe landing makes heroes of its crew. Carol remembers how “the world was confident, then” (85). A confidence soon to be shattered with Destiny II. Johnny and three others are selected for the crew. The voyage? Circumnavigate Mars and return to Earth. The bulbous nose of Destiny III, under construction in the Arizona rocket yard, promises even greater strides in spreading the seed. And so Destiny II sets off leaving Carol “numb, apathetic, stupefied” (85). She waits in dread. When a strange meteor crashes near the complex, as if under “post-hypnotic” influence she rushes off to peer into its depths. And she sees just enough to know the true fate of Destiny II.
The Lived Experience That Anchors It All
John D. MacDonald (1916-1986), best known for his massive Travis McGee series (1964-1985) and the twice-adapted psychological thriller The Executioners (1957), wrote three SF novels and was a regular in SF magazines in the 40s and 50s (with a handful appearing later). The two SF short stories I’ve read so far reveal a rich vein of well-wrought pessimistic counternarratives of technological and social progress.
MacDonald, married a few years before WWII, served in the Office of Strategic Services in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. It is hard to escape the sense that “Flaw” crystallizes the crumbling post-WWII dream of peace and American moral and political supremacy that MacDonald himself (and perhaps, like Carol in his story, his wife Dorothy) might have possessed. As the 40s progressed and the post-Hiroshima and increasingly bifurcated Cold War map took shape, the collapse of American triumphalism became more and more apparent. Carol and Johnny, from their limited view of the heavens the expanse appears open, inviting them to set off like heroic pioneers. The technology exists! But in their moment of triumph the invisible barriers show themselves.
Beyond the crystallized post-WWII sense that inhabits the pages, “Flaw” also succeeds at a more micro level. The emotional poignancy of Carol’s experience–the passion of her first taste of the dream and how its all wrapped up in her love of Johnny, the long months waiting for his return, and festering knowledge she has of both his fate and that of humanity–rings true. MacDonald adeptly conveys her emotional path waiting for Johnny’s return: “The fourteen months were like one single revolution of a gigantic Ferris wheel. You start at the top of the wheel, and through seven months the wheel carries you slowly down into the darkness and the fear. Then, after you are at your lowest point, the wheel slowly starts to carry you back up into the light” (86). And when she feels the death of the dream, it’s more than a dream of a future with Johnny, it’s the death of a collective transgenerational dream that has propelled us forth for a millennium. She cannot separate the threads. All cause grief.
I suspect some readers will critique the scientific explanation (a contracting rather than expanding universe) of Destiny II‘s failure–all the more apparent to a reader with our current level of knowledge about our solar system. That said, the “scientific” theory serves as the ultimate metaphoric impediment to the narrative of relentless progress.
Recommended. I will be tracking down more of his short fiction.
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