Wandering Through the Public Domain #23

A regular exploration of public domain genre work available through Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, and Librivox.

By Colleen McMahon: A Pixel Scroll item on October 11 mentioned a discussion among younger SF readers of a Katherine MacLean story. This led me off to see what kinds of public domain works might be available.

Katherine MacLean (1925-2019) mainly wrote short fiction from the 1940s through the 1970s. She was well respected among the “hard” SF writers for stories that involved real science. Her Wikipedia entry includes a fabulous anecdote in which her science fiction fans help her get into an engineering conference in the 1950s:

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….

“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….”

“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’!”

…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.

“Unhuman Sacrifice”, the story under consideration at Young People Discuss Old SF, is not on Project Gutenberg, but several other stories are available:

Contagion is a stand-alone audiobook at Librivox, and the other stories (except “The Man Who Staked the Stars”) are available in various of the short works collections.

“The Snowball Effect” was adapted for the radio SF series X Minus One. More recently, two Maclean stories were read for the radio show Buxom Blondes with Ray Guns (scroll down for the specific episode). One of the stories, “Carnivore”, is also available through Project Gutenberg and Librivox, but the other story, “Collision Orbit”, doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else.

Fitz James O’Brien (1828-1862) was an early American writer of fantastic fiction who has largely been forgotten, though one of his stories is still frequently anthologized. He is best known for “What Was It?”, the tale of a man who is attacked by a seemingly ghostly presence in the middle of the night. However, the presence turns out to be more of an invisible man — or man-creature — and the main character is able to overpower and capture it. It becomes a local curiosity for several weeks, and then dies, with no one the wiser as to what the creature was or where it came from.

O’Brien was a contemporary of Poe’s, and his stories have a similar tone and style. Like Poe, he was a major influence on later writers, including M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce, and H.G. Wells.

“What is It?” is collected in Famous Modern Ghost Stories, edited by Dorothy Scarborough (Librivox recording). Two more stories, “The Golden Ingot” and “My Wife’s Tempter”, were included in The Lock and Key Library: The most interesting stories of all nations: American. Both were recorded for Librivox as part of another anthology collection, Library of the World’s Best Mystery and Detective Stories, Volume 3, along with two other stories, “The Bohemian” and “A Terrible Night”. 

Another weird tale, The Diamond Lens (Librivox), could be considered proto-science fiction, since it concerns a scientist using a new type of microscope and discovering (and, of course, falling in love with) a tiny woman he finds in a drop of water.

Recent Librivox releases:

  • Short Science Fiction Collection 066 by Various

    Includes stories by Harry Harrison, Frederic Brown, Charles Fontenay, Laurence Janifer, and others.

  • The Raid of Dover: A Romance of the Reign of Women, A.D. 1940 by Douglas Morey Ford (1851-1916)

    Britain is ruled by women who experience invasion and natural disasters. Men eventually figure out a plan to regain power to replace the government.

  • Lion Loose by James H. Schmitz (1911-1981)

    The most dangerous of animals is not the biggest and fiercest—but the one that’s hardest to stop. Add intelligence to that … and you may come to a wrong conclusion as to what the worst menace is….

  • 3 Science Fiction Stories by William Tenn (1920-2010)

    These are three imaginative SF stories by an author I admire a lot, William Tenn. Venus is a Man’s World, (Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1951), Project Hush (Galaxy Science Fiction, 1954) and Of All Possible Worlds (Galaxy, Sept 1956).

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