“Lady Killer” by Chad Oliver
Startling Stories, March 1953
Samuel Mines, ed.
The human race faces extinction—unless Earthmen can find mates on Mars!
Another fun and startling story from Startling Stories! Okay, actually, not that startling, I’m afraid to say. But still pretty good! We have a good bit to talk about today for such a short story.
First things first: This Art.
I’m told that art is by Peter Poulton, who is a new one to me!
The author is also new to me, although he appears to have been noteworthy enough. His SFE writeup says he largely wrote serious sociological science fiction, which is kinda my jam and I’d like to seek out more. This story doesn’t seem to have been one of those, though. It’s a bit sillier. It’s sensible and logical enough in its silliness, not just completely bonkers, but it’s still what it is, which is fun without being too deep about any kind of message that I could discern.
I look at the ISFDB and see that the story’s only appearance is in the pages of this magazine issue, so that’s kind of exciting!
The hero of our tale is a fellow named Douglas Rogers, and he is the titular lady killer. He’s a real woman’s man, a player of games and a winner of hearts, and because of this, he has a mission.
Rogers is on a spaceship to Mars along with a crew of anthropologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, and other kinds of science people, social and physical, because Earth Needs Women. The plan is that if all of the scientists and whatnot can’t explain the situation and convince the Martians to send some women back to Earth, Rogers will just have to seduce them. This is what I meant by silly but at least a little logical. It’s not from out of nowhere that we’ve got a fuckboi on the spaceship.
We first meet Rogers while he’s chilling out on the spaceship, reading a copy of Incredible Tales magazine. It seemed clear to me that our author was doing a bit of silly lampshading here, as Rogers gets berated by the ship’s captain when he tries to explain the plot of The Green Terror from Procyon. The plot of that story, you see, is absolutely impossible and absurd, yells the captain. Much more important to focus on the very real matter at hand: flying blind to Mars to discover whether or not they even have humanoid women that they can bring back to Earth and save the human race.
What happened to all the human women? you may be asking. Well, it turns out that they were all rendered sterile by a worldwide atomic war. Oops.
No explanation is given as to how that works mechanically, which is kind of standard when it comes to stories where a gender is affected by a thing. Stories where a radiation kills all the men off, or all the women go into a coma, or whatever, they so rarely specifically say what about men or women is actually being affected. This is kind of the big thing that I want to talk about today.
See, all this is is a deeply baked-in sort of gender essentialism that asserts that men and women are fundamentally different in some kind of a way that could allow something like that to happen without having to specifically say that it was, for example, a virus that attacked ovaries or a degradation of the Y chromosome. I can’t tell you why that might have been in the past, but what I can tell you is that if you’re writing something today, it won’t fly anymore.
If you’re writing a tale where a gender gets wiped out and you don’t explain how it works, you’re leaving a lot of questions open and basically just reinforcing the weird notion that men and women are some kind of biological polar opposites, as well as the only possibilities of gender expression! If a comet appears that kills off all the women, what happens to the trans women in your world? If they’re unaffected, you’re invalidating trans people, but if they are affected, there’s still a question of why, which might be a valid thing to explore but might also just be lazy writing.
So if you come into it and your story is “all men are wiped out because of a kind of pollen that spreads from the vas deferens,” maybe just drop the word “men” from your plot summary. Turns out some women have vasa deferentia and some men don’t! Also, there are people who are neither of those things who could be affected by your weird space pollen! Think about what you’re saying!
I’m not saying we need to throw out all the old stories that use this kind of trope. I’m saying that going forth, maybe we can stop doing it. That kind of story is already pretty old and tired anyway, but if you’re going to write your story about how the human race is going to die out because it can’t breed anymore or whatever, just avoid the words “man” and “woman” and get a little deeper with your reproductive biology, yeah? It turns out that both sex and gender are enormously complex things unto themselves and in relation to one another, and simplifying them to tell your story is a disservice to the beauty and diversity of that complexity.
NOTE: I am a cis man and am aware that trans issues are outside of my lane. What I know is that trans men are men, trans women are women, nonbinary people are nonbinary people, trans people have always existed, and if you disagree with any of that, I’ll happily show you the door. Any mistakes I’ve made in summarizing the issues with these kinds of gender essentialist science fiction plots are due to my own incompetence, not malice.
Okay, back to the story?
All the women got rendered sterile by the atomic war and now some astronauts are going to Mars to see if maybe Mars has women to breed with.
Like, they don’t even know if Mars is livable, but they decide to spend vast resources to go there and see if it has women.
The ship lands and it does turn out that Mars has a breathable atmosphere, which is, I guess, a good sign for the presence of women. Just a few more hurdles to go!
The first animal life our fellas encounter is something they end up calling The Lump.
It consisted mainly of a globe of featureless jelly, about a foot in diameter and lined with veins. It had four tiny legs almost hidden from view under its round body. It didn’t move.
“It looks like a lump of lard with legs,” one of the men ventured.pg 94
Not long after discovering that little guy, though, the ship comes under attack! Everybody flees back in, thinking perhaps that they’ll need to flee the planet now. The attacking creatures are some kind of lizard people, horrifying to gaze upon.
Rogers realizes pretty quickly that the creatures are, in fact, from the cover of Impossible Tales that he brought with him on this trip. He tells the captain this, and soon after, the creatures disappear. A little while later the ship is attacked again, this time by a giant robot of comical proportions. It looks like a bad movie prop, and causes all of the astronauts to laugh at it. So it disappears, too.
They don’t laugh when the next thing arrives, though. It’s…a lady!
A beautiful lady!
In fact, the most beautiful lady any of them have ever seen! All things to all men!
Rogers doesn’t waste any time getting to know this beautiful lady, who introduces herself as Ayn. (Should I be worried about that name? The Fountainhead came out about a decade before this story, but Atlas Shrugged was still a few years off.)
Ayn explains that Martian women have phenomenal mental powers, capable of reading minds but also sending lifelike projections to those minds. That’s why the men all saw the horrible monsters and silly robot and all that kind of fun.
You know what’s coming, though, right? This is about the point where I figured out how this was all going to end.
She explains that other Martian women have read the minds of the Earthmen and seen their plight and are willing to marry them and come back to Earth with them and so on and so forth. It looks like humanity is saved, maybe?
Somebody says those exact words, to which Ayn replies that no, that is not the case. And then she vanishes. In her place is…THE LUMP. IT WAS THE LUMP ALL ALONG!
END OF STORY!
Not a big shocker of an ending, to be sure, but still kind of funny. This is another case where I wonder if audiences from 1952 would have been more surprised by it. I go back and forth on thinking that. Sure, the genre was pretty new and some of the tropes weren’t set so deeply into stone yet. They hadn’t seen the, uh, three or four episodes of various Star Treks that kind of have this same plot in some form or another (including the pilot of the Original Series).
But at the same time, stories are stories, and people weren’t stupid. I feel like whether or not you’re familiar with specific science fiction tropes, there are elements of storytelling that are universal, and that the direction this story was heading was pretty well telegraphed.
I’m not going to say that it was a lost gem or anything, but I’m still glad that I was able to read it. It wasn’t deep but it got me thinking about some things, things that the author almost certainly did not intend for me to think about, but that’s okay! We can glean a lot from the things the author didn’t intend to say, things about the author perhaps, but also the culture the author came out of. And while it would surprise literally no one to learn that a man in 1952 didn’t have the intricacies of sex and gender on his mind while writing a goofy little story about going to Mars and taking their women, it’s useful to think about how we might do better in our own work and honor the very many ways that people can be themselves.
It just occurred to me that this will be my last post of 2021! If all goes according to play, I’ll be back on January 2. I guess I might have an end-of-year summary post I could toss out there at some point, too, we’ll see. Whatever the case, I hope that you all have wonderful holidays and New Yearses. Take care of yourselves and each other!