Review: The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean

The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean
Donning (Starblaze Editions), 1980, $4.95 trade paper (237pp) ISBN 0-915442-95-7

“The Trouble with You Earth People” (Amazing, 1968-02, novelette)
“Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, 1958-11, novelette)
“The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl” (Analog, 1975-01, short story)
“Syndrome Johnny” (Galaxy, 1951-07, short story)
“Trouble with Treaties” (Star SF #5, 1959-05, novelette, with Tom Condit)
“The Origin of the Species” (Children of Wonder, 1953-03, short story)
“Collision Orbit” (SF Adventures, 1954-05, short story)
“The Fittest” (Worlds Beyond, 1951-01, short story)
“These Truths” (Royal Publications, 1958, short story)
“Contagion” (Galaxy, 1950-10, novelette)
“Brain Wipe” (Frontiers 2, 1973, short story)
“The Missing Man” (Analog, 1971-03, novella)
“The Carnivore” (Galaxy, 1953-10, short story)

The opening and title story, “The Trouble with You Earth People,” is a first contact tale involving aliens who appear somewhat dog-like (possibly illustrated on the back cover). It tackles human taboos which manifest in suppressed language and suppressed thought which, in the story, result in an inability to fully make contact with the aliens or to understand their science (drawing on Whorf). It’s a delightfully oddball tale which simultaneously feels like a classic Silver Age tale of first contact and a thoroughly New Wave “dangerous vision” with its alien expressing its joy of meeting and desire for understanding by taking off its clothes and telling the thoroughly flustered elderly anthropologist, “You are beautiful. I would fertilize you if I could.”

Themes of repression and the use of animal-like aliens to help construct what are almost beast fables abound. There are bear-like aliens (or teddy-bear-like aliens) on Venus in “The Fittest,” which questions what defines the “fittest” to survive and the lion-like aristocats of “These Truths” which demonstrates that all cats might be brothers and shows how they might be encouraged to be more democratic, not to mention a menagerie of various herbivores whose fears of humanity’s aggression result in a tragically high cost in “The Carnivore.” Among the many stories which feature some element of repression, “Brain Wipe” is one of the more direct, dealing with an abusive father and his son who faces the titular punishment. “Origin of the Species” is more of a superman story and considers what it was like for the Promethean monkeys who were more human than their counterparts and what it would be like for a post-human among today’s humans, including the various kinds of repression it would face.

For one reason or another, while none are bad, these aren’t the strongest stories. “These Truths” has an odd tripartite structure which initially feels like it’s going to be time travel or alternate history (something MacLean rarely or never does), “Brain Wipe” lacks any sort of catharsis or conceptual breakthrough, “Carnivore” is somewhat similar in that regard and suffers from problems such as humans not actually being “carnivores,” and so on. Another of the less successful tales is “The Trouble with Treaties” which, perhaps due to being co-written, feels less like MacLean and aims at humor but doesn’t always hit the mark (though mileage may vary). It involves an aggressive multi-species empire running into a ship full of pacifist psionic humans and their goldfish, parakeets, and cat.

On the other hand, one of the strongest, if not the strongest tale is the second, “Unhuman Sacrifice,” which deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.

(As “Unhuman Sacrifice” is a classic first contact tale, “Contagion” is an example of the classic “lost colony” tale and enjoyable, if less successful. The biology of the drastic effects of the first colonists on the second wave seems far-fetched, to say the least, and there are other issues but it’s a dramatic tale with interesting psychosexual dynamics, replete with irony, and with an interesting Catch-22.)

The third tale, “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl,” is part of MacLean’s four-story “Hills of Space” set. Another example in this collection is “Collision Orbit.” I’m not sure of the precise political philosophy term but both stories depict a sort of anarchist or libertarian frontier society of tin cans (or “barrels”) in the Asteroid Belt in which people are supposed to be quite self-sufficient and non-aggressive but can defend themselves to an extent and depend on their neighbors for even more defense, all done in a sort of ad hoc communal way. The first tale is a very peculiar and funny tale of a Christian mother and her passel of children. When one goes out to make his way in the world and comes back with a sinful girl from a gambling hell as his fiance (fancifully illustrated on the front), relations are strained but, when the thugs from the gambling hell arrive to force her back to work, the family members again band together and demonstrate their resourcefulness. Similarly, when the protagonist of “Collision Orbit” is faced with a gang of robbers on the run who try to take over his establishment, he also shows he’s not to be trifled with.

The fourth tale, “Syndrome Johnny,” anticipates James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” with its biological tale of plague and comes right on the heels of de Camp’s Brazil-centered Viagens stories in depicting a Federated States of America which has more of a Spanish than English flavor. (Incidentally, “The Trouble with Treaties” and “Unhuman Sacrifice” and perhaps others feature “brown” characters who may be of South European, African or other ancestry.) This is also partly a superman tale or “next stage” story and can be interpreted as being extremely tough-minded and cynically realist. Like “Contagion,” it may be a little “super science” more than scientifically realistic, but is still quite interesting.

“The Missing Man” is the largest and most significant chunk of her other series of Rescue Squad tales, which were fixed up into the novel Missing Man (1975). I recall enjoying the novel but, very similarly to Silverberg’s Nightwings, the fixup sort of buries the special excellences of the core novella, regardless of its own merits or that of the other pieces. It tells the tale of the empathic George and the logical Ahmed who are searching for the missing man, Carl Hodges. Hodges is a computer and repair man of a futuristic New York in which there are, for example, underwater Brooklyn and Jersey domes. He has wandered into a “teener” gang’s area and been captured. His knowledge of the city’s weak points is being used by the gang’s clever terrorist leader as a method of extortion/political activism, beginning with the destruction of the Brooklyn Dome. With its overpopulated city and its gangs and activism, it is part of its “turn of the Sixties” era and kin to other stories such as Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room!, but when it describes commuters glued to their portable TVs akin to our “phones” and describes people literally living in “kingdoms” of similar people akin to our metaphorical internet bubbles (while “nonconformists who could not choose a suitable conformity” live in “mixed places”), it seems quite contemporary. Either way, her future city is a brilliant conception, the empathic and half-lost George is an interesting protagonist, the initial stages of the story are well-plotted, the action when George is desperately trying to escape the Jersey Dome is exciting, and the philosophical/technical moments of the later stages are provocative, even if the plot starts to decohere a bit at that point. (Since this is the story I first read in Nebula Award Stories Seven which led me to explore MacLean further, I obviously recommend it, even if it didn’t blow me away the way it did on a first reading.)

As mentioned, some of this collection’s recurring motifs are unconventional social structures (“The Trouble with Treaties,” the Hills of Space stories, “The Missing Man”) and aliens (usually of a familiar animal-sort) almost always in first contact scenarios. One thing that’s remarkable is that only one is a “the world watches as the aliens arrive” sort of tale and they’re all different in their ways, showing creativity in ringing the changes on the type. Another recurring motif is psi powers, which feature in several stories in some way or another (“Trouble with Treaties,” “The Fittest,” “The Missing Man”) but rarely in an especially magical or comic book way. Multiple stories are biologically-focused and deal with evolution and/or next-step supermen (again, not in a comic book way) and deal with the question of what is “fit” and how to survive. Some involve crime and punishment, which ranges from assimilation in “Collision Course” to brain wipes in “Brain Wipe,” along with the kindred subjects of taboo and religion. Perhaps the main impression this group of stories leaves the reader with is that of species struggling against limitations and trying to persist in an effort to become something greater.

I don’t know how her first collection, The Diploids (1962), would fare on re-reading, but I recall it being superb. Based on the recollection of that collection, I would say it was the more essential of the two but The Trouble with You Earth People is still recommended as a whole. Individually, I recommend “Unhuman Sacrifice” and “The Missing Man” and also appreciated the title story, the two “Hills of Space” stories, “Syndrome Johnny” and “Contagion,” while the rest are never less than readable.

(A caveat on the physical book: it is “edited and illustrated by Polly and Kelly Freas” but the interior illustrations are sparse, the book is filled with typos, and the prefaces to the stories are confusing and only one is attributed. I don’t know if the rest are by MacLean, the Freases, or Hank Stine (the one attribution). But it’s a nicely constructed book with durable covers and excellent front and back art and, depending on the story, is one of the few ways or the only way to have it in book form.)

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean

    • Funny you should ask. I don’t see it as different (except in the sense of “not a webzine or for Tangent”) because I have reviewed a couple of books I’ve read this year and this is the third but there is a reason I read this particular title at this particular time. It relates to the “most read authors” posts I’ve made this month and thinking about doing another. While I just took what I got for the other lists, when I realized that reading one more book of hers would get her on the third list (and, based on The Diploids, I wanted her on it) it gave me an excuse to get this book out of the Pile. Trouble was another one of those books I’d gone and gotten in a white heat and then let sit in the Pile for years (as I often do) so I’m extra glad to have finally read it. As far as reviewing it in addition to reading it, I just figured why not – hopefully some folks will be encouraged to track it or something of hers down and get into her.

      Have you read her and/or this book? What do you think of her/it?

      Like

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