Short Fiction Review: John D. MacDonald’s “Flaw” (1949)

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.

Previously: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “The Hoofer” in Fantastic Universe, ed. Leo Margulies (September 1955). You can read it online here.

Up Next: Alfred Coppel’s “The Hunters” in Fantastic Story Magazine, ed. Samuel Mines (Fall 1952). You can read it online here.

“The Dreamer” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher, Jr. and Francis McComas (April 1952). You can read it online here.

“Double Standard” in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (February 1952). You can read it online here.

3.75/5 (Good)

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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21 thoughts on “Short Fiction Review: John D. MacDonald’s “Flaw” (1949)

  1. Many thanks for this, Joachim! “Subversive accounts of astronauts and space travel” might also include Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (which I haven’t read) and the excellent stories by J.G. Ballard collected in Memories of the Space Age.

    Two of my favourite SF films, Planet of the Apes (the first one) and 2001, also seem to depart from the triumphalist view of space travel of much American SF. Both portray astronauts who are lost, as it were–separate from their moorings, turned into space wanderers (to borrow a term from Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan) rather than space pioneers.

  2. Glad you find the recommendations useful; like I said in the comments to that other post, this is one of MacDonald’s stories that really stuck in my head (although, yes, even with my limited understanding of the underlying principles of astrophysics, the outdated science gave me pause).
    In general, I found MacDonald’s SF prose quite intriguing precisely due to his very grounded pessimism about the future, human progress, etc. which seems to contrast the general tone of so much of the SF I’ve read from that period – which tends to be far more optimistic, if not triumphalist.

    p.s. I also seemed to have worked out my problems with WordPress (for the time being, anyway…)

    • Thank you for the list of MacDonald stories. I’m increasingly finding him someone — along with Pohl’s satires, Kornbluth, et al — who contributed in an intelligent way to that prominent counternarrative you mention.

      As the the science, I know little to nothing about astrophysics and even I found it a bit forced and weird — hence my comment about how the science succeeds due to its metaphoric purposes. I’m currently writing a review of an Aldiss novel similarly populated by bizarre and illogical applications of “science.” The novel still works.

  3. The science really isn’t the point in these stories by an adventure-fiction writer. (I classify thrillers as adventure fiction, and Travis McGee as a thriller series. They don’t obey mystery fiction’s rules.) I was surprised at how much I liked WINE OF THE DREAMERS (review: a couple years back. He was a competent entertainment creator, and that skill ain’t nothin’.

    • The two stories of MacDonald I’ve read so far don’t fit the mold that he’s best known for — “adventure-fiction writer.” They are both moody and not focused on the action. Action tends to be more delusion than anything else…

      I’ve heard positive things about Wine of the Dreamers. I’ll check out your review! (as you know, I still can’t comment on the site for whatever reason)

      • It’s not just you. I can’t comment there either. It’s just slowly rotting… Google never really wanted it and now they will let it disappear. Blogs are so Aughties, TikTok is where it’s at.

        • That’s a shame. WordPress is constantly updated — for good and bad (a few days ago they decreased the default font size in the editing page which annoyed me to no end). And when I’ve needed customer support, it works.

          I dunno about blogs dying…. I read an article recently that suggested that with the slow decrease in engagement on social media and the major websites (for example, I was obsessed with Facebook in college) people are moving more and more to smaller sites. I wish I remembered where I read it. I’ll keep my eyes out and link it when I remember.

          I’ve had my best viewership this year in the history of my website. And that’s building off of last year, which was also a record year.

      • I agree about MacDonald. Calling great novels like “The Executioners (aka Cape Fear)” and “the Damned” simply adventure fiction is missing a whole lot of what these early MacDonald novels are saying.

  4. This is the kind of story that would appear in Startling Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories in the late ’40s/early ’50s. Maybe if it was published a couple years later it could’ve been in Galaxy, but this is some textbook anti-Campbellian SF from that time when Astounding was king.

    • Yup, pairs nicely with Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?” (1952) (in Thrilling Wonder Stories) and more tepid critiques like Anthony Boucher’s “Star Bride” (1951) (in Thrilling Wonder Stories). Both of which I’ve featured in this series.

  5. I noticed that a lot of people discovered that John D. MacDonald wrote SF after reading his crime/mystery stories and novels. While I’m not a Travis McGee fan I do really like most of what he wrote in the early 50’s in all genres. Flaw was a pretty good story and done in a lean style with absolutely no excess fat requiring a little thought by the reader at the end to realize the impact of what Carol was telling us. If anybody is interested “Other Times, Other Worlds” is a collection of 16 of his SF stories from that early period.

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