In past columns, we’ve noted a number of talented women who helped make science fiction. While they’ve often been overlooked, they’ve also been responsible for thematic leaps forward, composing outstanding stories that hold up to the present day. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been coming across one name in particular that fits this description: Katherine MacLean.
Katherine MacLean was born on January 22nd, 1925, in Glen Ridge, N.J. Her father, an engineer and hobbyist inventor, incubated her interest in reading and in the sciences by encouraging her to write questions to scientists and laboratories. Curiosity suited her: At the age of 8, she learned the names of all the bones and muscles from a Build A Man kit she received for Christmas. She also started to recreate the scenes of the stories she had read, battles from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and Pellucidar stories to fiction from H.G. Wells. Her first real introduction to science fiction came two years later, when the family visited the beach on holiday. At a friend's cottage, she came across a tall stack of science-fiction magazines. Fascinated by the covers, she says that she "read it, and I put it back and started reading another. I read at great speed, and in about four hours, I had gone through a foot and a half of these magazines." She was hooked.
By the age of 16, MacLean had a job in a lab, all the while reading science-fiction stories. She would take ideas she got while researching and began to put them into her own writing. Unlike other authors and genre fans at the time, she never joined the conventional fan scene, noting: "I was always too proud to join a fan group and invent how much I worshipped science fiction and write articles to the writers." In the late 1940s, she put her interests to work in a food science laboratory, where she worked as a technician, and eventually attended Barnard College in New York City, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology in 1950. All the while, she began to submit stories to the major genre magazines. In 1947, she finally sold her first, “Incommunicado,” to John W. Campbell Jr. at Astounding Science Fiction.
While the story was sold in 1947, it wouldn’t hit magazine racks until three years later, in the June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s an illustrative example of the casual sexism in the industry: Upon reading the story, Campbell’s assistant, Cheney Stanton, bet his boss that the author was a trained engineer, writing under a pseudonym. After doing some research, Campbell tracked down MacLean’s father, assuming that he was the real author, and tried to get him to admit it. Not getting anywhere, he refused to publish the story, while Stanton realized that Katherine was in fact the real author. He returned her manuscript with some edits, hoping that Campbell would forget about the bet. After a year of editing and tinkering, MacLean returned the manuscript to Astounding, and she began to work with Campbell going through his system of logical exercises and lectures.
While work continued on “Incommunicado,” MacLean sold two additional stories to Astounding. Her first published story was “Defense Mechanism,” published in the October 1949 issue, and was followed a couple of months later in February by “And Be Merry….” In June, “Incommunicado” finally arrived on newsstands, alongside stories from Cleve Cartmill, Isaac Asimov, Frank M. Robinson and A.E. Van Vogt.
MacLean’s next story, “Contagion,” published in October 1950, was her first in H.L. Gold’s Galaxy Science Fiction magazine. The story is about a ship full of colonists who land on an alien world, discovering that humans have already arrived and adapted biologically to the planet. The floodgates were now open: Throughout the decade, MacLean published in a number of publications, including Super Science Stories, Science Fiction Quarterly, Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Future Science Fiction and others. Predominantly, however, her work found its way to either Astounding or Galaxy.
After joining the stable of Campbell’s Astounding authors throughout the 1950s, MacLean was drawn to the Dianetics movement created by L. Ron Hubbard, and along with her own interest in psychotherapy, incorporated similar elements into a number of her stories. At some point, she attended Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., where she earned her MA in psychology. She never entirely ignored the influence of hard science, opting instead to mesh the two together by examining the impact of social sciences in a hard science environment. She often incorporated biological and genetic themes to her stories. While MacLean continued to write during the 50s, she worked as an office manager for a food production company, and eventually moved on to work as a hospital technician, which took up most of her time and led to a decline in her output of fiction after 1954.
She noted in a 2012 interview that she enjoyed writing science fiction to “give incentives by having a hero discover and apply something and get great results.” At the same time, her work is notable for competing in the male-dominated short-fiction market of the 1950s on an even footing. In one notable incident, she entered an electrical engineering convention. When she was stopped for not wearing a badge, she was recognized as “The Katherine MacLean,” whose story “Incommunicado” held a particular interest and influence for the engineers attending the conference.
Her work during the 1950s garnered her attention within the science fiction community: In 1958, she collaborated with fellow author Charles V. De Vet on a novelette, Second Game, which appeared in Astounding Science Fiction’s March issue and was nominated for a Hugo Award the following year. Two years later, she released a short collection of her work, The Diploids and Other Flights of Fancy, through Avon Books, which trumpeted her as: “One of the few women writing science-fiction, Katherine MacLean ranks with such S-F giants as Bradbury, Simak, Serling and Asimov. She is currently working on a full-length novel – science-fiction, of course!”
That novel was co-written with De Vet, and published in 1962. Titled Cosmic Checkmate, it described an alien culture and their particular skill with a chesslike game. MacLean continued to write occasionally, and it wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that she continued to write extensively again, starting with her second novel in 1971, The Man in the Birdcage, published by Ace Books. Her writing reached its critical heights a year later with her novella, The Missing Man, published in the March issue of Analog Science Fiction. In 1972, it won the Nebula Award for Best Novella, and in 1975, she expanded and released the story as a novel, titled Missing Man, which was published by Berkley/Putnam. Like the novella before it, it was well-received, and was nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel alongside Alfred Bester’s The Computer Connection, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and others, ultimately losing to Joe Haldeman’s Military Science Fiction novel The Forever War. The story also placed 21st in the 1976 Locus Poll Award.
Throughout the 1970s, MacLean published a number of short stories, mainly in Analog, but also the revamped Weird Tales magazine, and various anthologies as well. In 1979, she co-wrote her fourth novel, Dark Wing, with Carl West, a dark, dystopian YA novel. In 1981, she published her final novel, Second Game, along with De Vet. For much of the 1980s, she and her new husband, Carl West, wrote together, but published little until the mid-90s, when her novelette The Kidnapping of Baroness 5 appeared in Analog Science Fiction in 1995. It was nominated the following year for a Hugo Award. Her final published story, “Kiss Me,” appeared in Analog two years later and was collected in David Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 3.
In 2003, MacLean earned a special Nebula designation, Special Author Emeritus, and in 2011, she was presented with the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, designed to recognize and draw attention to other fantasy or science fiction authors, joining notable authors such as Olaf Stapleton, Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, William Hope Hodgeson, A. Merrit and others.
In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute writes about MacLean’s work, noting that it’s “neither desirable nor possible to read her stories as ‘women's’ sf.” MacLean’s entry in the publishing world is a stark counter to the claim that women can’t write or keep up in a hard SF environment. Her career remains a notable precursor to the coming New Wave movement that would eventually overtake the conventional Golden Age of Science Fiction in the latter half of the century. Science Fiction Writers, second edition, of the Scribner Writers series, notes that “even after fifty years of science fiction writing, MacLean’s intelligence and wit remained as quirky and as keen as ever.”
MacLean noted in a 2012 interview that once her attention was focused on genetic engineering, she “stopped having a strong motive to write science fiction. That was what I went in for.” At the end of the day, she viewed science fiction as a major teaching tool: “…that’s what kids want. They want to learn to control their environment. That is why they read about pioneers and about fighters in wars. You want to be able to survive in all these situations, and you can’t work up to survive in them if you don’t know about them…it’s better that they should be reading science fiction about the future because that’s what they’re going to grow up into.”
Presently, MacLean lives in Maine, near Portland.