Missing Man, Katherine MacLean

Missing Man, Katherine MacLean (1975)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Katherine MacLean’s underrated and seldom read novel Missing Man (1975) was expanded from her 1971 Nebula Award winning novella by the same name. I’ve not read the original version so I’m unsure about how much was added, subtracted, or completely re-conceptualized.

The novel version is a finely wrought vision of a future post-disaster Balkanized New York City comprised of innumerable communes, often at war with each other, inhabited by a small number of slightly telepathic people who are able to detect the emotions of others. Archetype individuals, without knowing, project emotions when they are in danger which could at any moment plunge society into intercommune war.

Maclean’s world buildings skills are second to none. She refrains completely from frustrating “info dump lecture moments” which plague sf and instead reveals the world slowly through the actions and observations of her characters. The result is an vibrant and organic world — replete with dystopic threads — which exudes realism.

Katherine MacLean’s prose is admirable. Beautiful sentences populate the pages, “We tasted ethnic food and played strange archaic games and rituals of the reconstructed past” (p 152). It takes a while to get used to the majority of the prose since it’s a first person narrative from the point of view of a character, George Sanford, who’s convinced he’s unintelligent. As with Philip K. Dick’s “chicken headed” characters in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) George, despite his lack of schooling and inability to acquire a regular job due to his frequent mental breakdowns (and lack of focus), has moments of poignant wisdom and almost savant telepathic skill. MacLean’s character building skills are on show — George is a peculiar individual endowed with extraordinary mental gifts, an inability to settle down in any particular role in society, often manipulated by dubious or downright destructive people, yet possessed with an intense loyalty to his friends.

George Sanford aimlessly wanders the streets during the day doing odd jobs, repeatedly trying to use his credit card on soup machines, and spends most nights at the Karmic Brotherhood commune — one of many communes that make up New York City. Eventually he meets up with his childhood friend Ahmed employed by the Rescue Squad which tracks down emoting archetype individuals in danger whose negative emotions drive others to desperate acts. When George and Ahmed were children they both were members of an multiracial UN Brotherhood Gang which sought to protect people and sneak into various culture enclave communes.

Ahmed enlists George Sanford’s help in tracking down a missing girl. George’s “talent” seems to be an odd capacity for guessing right and soon the girl is found. He’s employed as a specialist by the Rescue Squad but lacks all ability and discipline to fill out forms, pass examinations, or adhere to guidelines. However Ahmed’s trust in him is repeatedly vindicated when multiple emoting individuals are easily rescued.

Soon a more nefarious scheme is uncovered after the inflatable dome of an underwater commune of city bureaucrats and their families collapses killing thousands. George discovers that a fifteen-year-old boy poet and historian named Larry is responsible. This boy has access to the workings of the city and plays the various self-serving communes off of each other. In this environment of terror George is increasingly persuaded by the veracity of boy’s message that there’s a government plot by the educated “techs” to persecute and sterilize everyone else…

MacLean’s vision of a decentralized and crumbling future New York replete with an Aztec Commune, Karmic Brotherhood Commune, Arab immigrant enclaves, underwater communes, emoting archetype individuals which threaten to engulf the city in violence and terror, endless carnivals, and roving gangs of children is beautifully realized. Throughout she pairs events with bits of news clips and soundbites. The telepathic abilities possessed by some are a matter of fact — normality — and never expounded on in pseudo-technical terms for pages and pages. George’s character is most powerfully drawn from simple actions and situations — for example his mental breakdowns which occur when he has to fill out paperwork for his position with the Rescue Squad. The characters, the world, and even the plot (the weakest element of the work) combine seamlessly.

Missing Man deserves to be read, discussed, and rediscovered. One of the best sf novels on telepathy you’ll ever read.

Pick up a copy.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.