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Katherine MacLean

Katherine Anne MacLean (born January 22, 1925) is an American science fiction author best known for her short stories of the 1950s which examined the impact of technological advances on individuals and society.

Brian Aldiss noted that she could "do the hard stuff magnificently," while Theodore Sturgeon observed that she "generally starts from a base of hard science, or rationalizes psi phenomena with beautifully finished logic." Although her stories have been included in numerous anthologies and a few have had radio and television adaptations, The Diploids and Other Flights of Fancy (1962) is her only collection of short fiction.

Born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, MacLean concentrated on mathematics and science in high school. At the time her earliest stories were being published in 1949-50, she received a B.A. in economics from Barnard College (1950), followed by postgraduate studies in psychology at various universities. Her 1951 marriage to Charles Dye ended in divorce a year later. She married David Mason in 1956. Their son, Christopher Dennis Mason, was born in 1957, and they divorced in 1962.

MacLean taught literature at the University of Maine and creative writing at the Free University of Portland. Over decades, she has continued to write while employed in a wide variety of jobs -- as book reviewer, economic graphanalyst, editor, EKG technician, food analyst, laboratory technician in penicillin research, nurse's aide, office manager and payroll bookkeeper. photographer, pollster, public relations, publicist and store detective.

It was while she worked as a laboratory technician in 1947 that she began writing science fiction. Strongly influenced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory, her fiction has often demonstrated a remarkable foresight in scientific advancements.


MacLean received a Nebula Award in 1971, and she was a Professional Guest of Honor at the first WisCon in 1977. She was honored in 2003 by the Science Fiction Writers of America as an SFWA Author Emeritus.

Short stories and novelettes

  • "Defense Mechanism" (1949). This tale of hidden telepathic abilities was Katherine MacLean's first story to see print when it was published in Astounding Science Fiction (October, 1949).
  • "And Be Merry" (1950). Originally in Astounding Science Fiction (February, 1950), this story was first anthologized in Groff Conklin's Omnibus of Science Fiction (Crown, 1952) and has also been published under the title "The Pyramid in the Desert." In January, 2006, MacLean reflected on the science behind the story:

"And Be Merry" (Eat Drink and Be Merry for Tomorrow We Die) A lab biologist, female, takes advantage of her husband going off on an archeology trip, to use the privacy to experiment on herself for rejuvenation by a severe and dangerous method. Succeeding, she contemplates immortality, finding that safety from accidental death has become so valuable to her that she becomes a coward, cowering from all possible risk, seeing shelter in a hospital, and is only rescued from mindless panic by her husband finding her, realizing the source of her terror and rescuing her from immortality by claiming she has a slow growing tumor in an unreachable part of the body.

Finding she has no chance of evading eventual death, she immediately loses her obsession with safety, becomes interested in biochemistry again, and invents a new theory. (New at the time.) Mutation from background radiation does not just strike the sperm and egg making chromosome changes in the embryo and mutated progeny, it also strikes the chromosomes in each cell of any living creature, damages and mutates them also, and produces cancer. This cannot be prevented. She called it "somatic mutation" and used the new concept of body deterioration by slow radiation damage (age) to underpin her rediscovered recklessness, and be happy.

Even now most biotechs have not fully accepted the implication that every cell in the body can generate an entire copy of the person. But perhaps a copy will be changed and mutated for the worse by exposure to ambient radiation and other mutagens. Perhaps a cell needs to generate a placenta around it to develop into an entire body. Something like that is holding up the biochemists from successfully making copies of individuals from body or blood cells. Not for long! I wrote three more stories with novel genetic ideas before 1953. Some have not been followed up by scientists yet.

  • "Incommunicado" (1950). In this novelette about communication and computers, written by MacLean in 1947, she demonstrated an ability to foresee the future evolution of personal computers. Passages in this story anticipate such latter-day digital configurations as Google Book Search, Google Video Search, PDA devices, podcasting and mp3 players. At a space station operated by a computer, the station's workers begin to unconsciously develop a musical rapport with their computer in a feedback loop. When published in the June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, cover artist Miller contributed one of the more striking Astounding covers of the 1950s, blending an emotional musical performance with cyber technology. The story was reprinted a decade later in Groff Conklin's anthology, Six Great Short Science Fiction Novels (Dell, 1960), followed by MacLean's collection, The Diploids (Avon, 1962). In January, 2006, MacLean recalled the reaction of electronic engineers to the story:

In the 1930s and 1940s, scientists and boys planning to be scientists read Astounding (Analog) with close attention to the hottest most promising ideas and took them up as soon as they could get funded lab space. They did not openly express their gratitude to science fiction, because the funding depended on keeping claim to have originated the ideas they had put so much work into testing and verifying.

A few years after the publication of my first written story, "Incommunicado," written 1947 and published 1950, I was taking a break from two weeks of typing, walking down Fifth Avenue, noticing vaguely that there were no coffee shops, and the storefronts were closed and it was dark. Passed a white granite entrance with signs announcing a convention of electronic engineers, and turned in hoping to find coffee, and a demo of hi-fi advances, and found a deserted desk, with signs announcing that one must sign in with name, industry and invitation number. A bit unwelcoming to a stray writer with no credentials in heavily funded industrial research and no formal invitation. Being stubborn and not wanting to return to the typewriter so early, I hastily looked around for a door to a lecture hall where I could sneak some listening time and get a line on current research, and be out of sight before the desk was reoccupied by the guardian of the gate.

Too late, a man built like a fullback in a business suit was bearing down on me. "I see you don't have your badge. May I have your name? I'll look it up in the registry." He was huge, like John Campbell, the editor of Astounding. Just as intense and tight and unrelaxed. Wearing a formal suit. Behind him, chatting to each other and drifiting closer were two or three other impressive ambitious tense men in business suits. Definitely not the harmless willowy professor type. Industrial researchers were apparently built like Vikings and aggressive.

I became aware I had not showered or even combed my hair since god knows when. I felt sticky, but I bluffed it out, extended my sweaty hand with matching vigor and said. "Katherine MacLean, I came in because I am interested in--"

He interrupted. "Katherine MacLean! Are you that Katherine MacLean?" He gripped my hand and hung on. Who was that Katherine Maclean? Was I being mistaken for someone else?

"Are you the Katherine MacLean who wrote 'Incommunicado'?"

Speechless with relief, I nodded. I would not be arrested or thrown out if they would accept me as a science fiction writer. He kept his grip on my hand and turned around and bellowed to his group of chatting friends, "Guess who I've got here. The little woman who wrote 'Incommunicado'!"

He turned me around and wanted me to shake my sticky hand with all of them. I wiped it on my jacket and stepped back. My hair felt sticky. My face felt sticky. I was ashamed of being so disheveled and unprepared to discuss electronic theory. While they were suggesting coffee and sitting down to talk, I explained I had a hot story on the typewriter and had to get back to it before I lost the train of ideas and escaped. I had not been aware that my playing with communication ideas would attract the attention of prestigious Bell Telephone researchers. I had left radio and wavelength theory to my Dad as one of his hobbies and learned early that I could get a nasty shock from playing with his wiring. I could not account for their enthusiasm. I went back to the typewriter and lost myself in the story again.

The point is, that scientists not only read Astounding-Analog, they were fans of the writers and understood all the Ideas, even the obscure Ideas that were merely hinted at.

  • "Feedback" (1951). A sociological setback occurs when conformity becomes a closed circle, prompting even more conformity; a teacher who speaks in favor of individuality is regarded as subversive. Originally in Astounding Science Fiction (July, 1951).
  • "Syndrome Johnny" (1951). Published before it was even certain that DNA carried genetic information, this story is about a series of engineered retroviral plagues, initially propagated by blood transfusion, that are genetically re-engineering the human race. First published in Galaxy Science Fiction (July, 1951).
  • "Pictures Don't Lie'" (1951). Radio contact with extraterrestrial ship arriving on Earth. Originally in Galaxy Science Fiction (August, 1951), it was adapted to radio, television and comic books. The adaptation on the UK series Out of This World was telecast August 11, 1962. The EC Comics version of this story was "Chewed Out!", illustrated by Joe Orlando for Weird Science 12 (March-April 1952). In expanding the basic premise and adding comedic elements, scripter Al Feldstein established the setting as Blytheville, Arkansas. On several occasions MacLean noted that she ranked EC's interpretation as superior to her own story.
  • "The Snowball Effect" (1952). A sociology professor, challenged to prove his theories of the dynamic growth of organizations, rewrites the rules of a smalltown sewing circle to have "more growth drive than the Roman Empire." He is far more successful than he ever anticipated. Originally in Galaxy Science Fiction (September, 1952).
  • "Games" (1953). A boy becomes the characters in his make-believe games. Originally in Galaxy Science Fiction (March, 1953).
  • "The Diploids" (1953). In this novella, a young lawyer suspects he may be an alien because of certain physical and biochemical abnormalities but discovers that he is a commercial human embryonic cell line, sold for research and illegally grown to maturity. Originally in Thrilling Wonder Stories (April, 1953). Also titled "Six Fingers."
  • "Second Game" (1958). This collaboration by MacLean and Charles V. De Vet, published in Astounding Science Fiction (March, 1958), was nominated for a 1959 Hugo.


  • "The Missing Man" (1971). MacLean was awarded the Nebula Award for this novella, one of a series about a balkanised New York, where an engineer working for the city's disaster planning section has his inside knowledge exploited to cause disasters. First published in Analog (March, 1971), expanded into novel-length as Missing Man (Wildside Press, 1975).


  • For Martin Greenberg's Fantastic Lives: Autobiographical Essays by Notable Science Fiction Writers (Southern Illinois University Press, 1981) she wrote "The Expanding Mind," a memoir of her youth and the impact of science fiction on the mind of a young girl.
  • For Eric Leif Davin's Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965, MacLean supplied him with a detailed description of her negotiations with John W. Campbell in regards to the publication of her earliest stories.


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