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MacLean, Katherine – “Contagion” (1950)

07/10/2012

Opens on an alien world (Minos) with a hunting party consisting of four doctors – one of whom is a woman (the protagonist). This is a novel enough point in 1952 that MacLean proudly emphasizes it a couple of times in the first couple of pages. This is the only time a woman is the main character this year, and MacLean is the only woman author in this volume. Said hunting party is looking for native creatures because “if the animals were like Earth animals, their diseases might be like Earth diseases.” Disease, we quickly learn, is a matter of utmost importance in the universe of the story: “plague planets” had been responsible for the extinction of a number of colonies before stricter measures had been implemented. At this point, “[a]ll legal spaceships were built for safety. No chance was taken of allowing a suspected carrier to bring an infection onboard with him.” This sort of thing pops up throughout the story, and offers some of the most considerate and in-depth reflection on future societal changes in all of these stories thus far.

The hunting party, though, stumbles upon a surprising example of local fauna: a human named Patrick Mead, who is friendly enough even while expressing his surprise at the four of them being “so varied.” Mead’s people are the descendents of a lost colony wiped out by a “melting plague,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and which the patriarch of the Mead family, a geneticist, survived by engineering his DNA to be more like the surrounding wildlife, which also gave his family the ability to eat food produced on the planet.

Like “Forget-Me-Not,” the resolution of this story pales next to the setup: Mead is screened and then permitted onboard the ship, where his “pioneer” physique attracts the attention of the women among the crew, and the jealousy of the men. June, the protagonist, realizes that this is because the men are wasting away, and assumes the melting plague has somehow made it on board. She – what else? – hits the “Medical Emergency” button, which seals off rooms and establishes quarantines, and sprays “Nucleocat Cureall” everywhere to kill off the nonhuman cells. When that doesn’t work, she realizes that the men are being remade into Mead clones by his leucocytes (or something? there was a lot of biology technobabble here). Mead quips that he has a “contagious personality,”  and June realizes this is what he meant by remarking on their variation at the beginning of the story: all the men of the colony are clones of the first male Mead. The story closes with the arrival of the rest of the Mead clan, including the women clones, sparking the realization among the women of the ship that if they want to survive on Minos, they’ll also have to accept the loss of their individuality. Many of them are displeased.

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