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McIntosh, J. T. – “One in Three Hundred” (1953)

06/18/2013

A painful mess of a story; the first of two this year dealing with the anarchy that arises when the population of Earth learns of an impending cosmological catastrophe. In this one, it’s a solar flare, first announced in the “Astronomical Journal” two years prior, but since no one reads the Astronomical Journal, it’s kind of snuck up on everyone. At first it’s expected to wipe out most of the solar system, so no one tries to do anything about it, but when recalibrations show that it will only reach as far as the Earth, the “law of survival becomes Mars At Any Price.” We’re told that two cults pop up: the Sunlovers embrace nude sunbathing, Egyptology, and burn down ice factories (!), while the Troglodytes embrace the cold underground areas of the world. These end up having nothing to do with the story at hand, sadly.

Instead, we follow the misadventures of one Bill Easson, who introduces himself thusly: “a more unremarkable young man it would have been difficult to find. But now, through no fault of my own, I was a god.”

It seems that the plan is to build as many tiny, rickety, ten-person spaceships as possible and launch them all at Mars at the last minute, in the hope that any small fraction of them make it – hence the title. Anyone with any sort of space experience (including, Easson notes with amusement, stewardesses) is given a command, and the assignment of choosing their ten passengers from a randomly-assigned community. McIntosh has some truly bizarre ideas about what this process is supposed to reveal about human nature. To wit:

Men with color prejudices would have to face up to the idea that the catastrophe wasn’t a special dispensation to remove all but pure whites from the human race; some lieutenants whose blood crawled at the thought would pick colored men to go to Mars, knowing that if they didn’t they would never know peace again. Men who hadn’t noticed children for years would realize that there was such a thing as responsibility to young people; the intelligent would discover responsibility for the stupid; and of course all of us were adjusting ourselves to the idea that a baby just out of the womb, a dreamy, clear-skinned boy of eight, a beautiful girl of seventeen, a man in the prime of life and an old toothless woman were all units in the fantastic new numerology we were using.

Note that this is the only mention of race in the story, meaning that presumably Bill picks only white people to accompany him to Mars, despite this authorial insistence that racism would be finished by the catastrophe. The point of the story, anyway, seems to be Easson’s realization that “The more I learned about people, the more likely they were to come off my list,” placing this firmly in the tradition of literature about how small town white folks aren’t as civilized as they think they are. As the day approaches and Easson has not yet revealed his decision, we get riots, murders, attempted kidnappings, attempted sexual assaults, and so on. Throughout, both Easson and the narrative are oddly and casually cruel to his sidekick (girlfriend?), a woman named Pat, as when he is surprised that she knows the word “blasphemous,” (after he insists that he can give people life in the hereafter!). Most tellingly, towards the end, after his other token beautiful woman has disqualified herself by trying to seduce him in an impressively misogynistic scene, and he tells Pat she will be the replacement:

“Pat, you always had a low opinion of yourself. You were quite right. You’re nothing to write home about. Except maybe for your looks. But the sad thing is, other people rate even lower than you. So you go.”

“Lower than me? That’s a pity.”

It bears mentioning that Pat is actually quite useful and resourceful throughout the story. She then gets shot – by a man who had always spurned her undying love, no less – on the way to the helicopter that’s rescuing the ten, and the aforementioned token beautiful woman regains her spot. Easson and his ten blast off in his ship, leaving behind the planet that Easson has only just begun to appreciate (from “What was Earth, anyway? Just a place. Define planets generically, and you had Mars and no loss on the deal that technology couldn’t make up in a hundred years or so,” to “no other planet would ever be made the same as Earth” in a matter of paragraphs).

Later expanded into a novel that you should avoid at all costs.

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