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Born in 1925 to Gordon MacLean, a chemical engineer, and Ruth (Crawford) MacLean in New Jersey, Katherine MacLean discovered her love of science and science fiction early. Reportedly by age eight she was already reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells. A few years later, while on vacation, she found a stack of science fiction magazines. As she recalled, she "read it, and I put it back and started reading another. I read at great speed, and in about four hours, I had gone through a foot and a half of these magazines."
While her first story "Incommunicado" was sold to Astounding Science Fiction in 1947, it was three years before it was actually published. Editor Joseph Campbell's assistant, Cheney Stanton, bet Campbell that the story was actually written by a (male) engineer. According to the story, Campbell tracked down MacLean's father and when he denied writing the story, Campbell refused to publish it. Eventually the truth came out and it became her third story published, in June 1950.
MacLean's first stories, both published in Astounding, were "Defense Mechanism" in October 1949 and "And Be Merry…" in February 1950. Her fourth story "Contagion" was published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in October 1950. While most of her work was published in Astounding and Galaxy, she was also published in many of the other science fiction magazines of the day.
Though her stories were set in a hard science environment, MacLean explored the social sciences, biological and genetic concepts in her work. She was also interested in L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement and added elements of it and psychotherapy into some of her stories.
Fellow science fiction writer and critic Damon Knight wrote of MacLean's work, "As a science fiction writer she has few peers; her work is not only technically brilliant but has a rare human warmth and richness."
Her books included collections of her previously published stories, Diploid and Other Flights of Fancy (Avon 1962) and The Trouble with You Earth People (Donning/Starblaze 1980). Her first novel was Cosmic Checkpoint (1962), co-written with Charles V. De Vet. Her first solo novel was The Man in the Bird Cage (1971), followed by Missing Man* (1975) and Dark Wing (1979). Dark Wing, a dark dystopian YA, was co-written with her third husband, science fiction author Carl West. Her last novel Second Game, also co-written with De Vet, was published in 1981. Her final story "Kiss Me" was published in Analog in 1998.
MacLean and co-author De Vet were nominated for a Hugo Award for "Second Game" (Astounding March 1958). She received the Nebula Award for Best Novella for "The Missing Man" (Analog Science Fiction March 1971) which was later expanded into the novel by the same name. The novel was also nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novel. She was again nominated for a 1996 Hugo Award for her novelette "The Kidnapping of Baroness 5" (Analog 1995).
She was also named Special Author Emeritus by the Nebulas in 2003, and presented with the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award in 2011.
Though she had stopped writing science fiction in the late 1990s, it was noted in the Scribner Writers series, Science Fiction Writers, second edition that “even after fifty years of science fiction writing, MacLean’s intelligence and wit remained as quirky and as keen as ever.”
MacLean called science fiction a teaching tool in a 2012 interview. She said, “…that’s what kids want. They want to learn to control their environment. That is why they read about pioneers and about fighters in wars. You want to be able to survive in all these situations, and you can’t work up to survive in them if you don’t know about them…it’s better that they should be reading science fiction about the future because that’s what they’re going to grow up into.”
*Note: I own a copy of Missing Man and HIGHLY recommend it to science fiction fans. I'm long overdue for a reread.
Amazon: Katherine MacLean Author Page
The Gutenberg Project: Books by Katherine MacLean