Young People Read Old SFF

Unhuman Sacrifice

Katherine MacLean

Young People Read Old SFF

11 Oct, 2019

We end our long hiatus with the first of a series of stories drawn from Rediscovery Vol 1: SF by Women 1958-196, edited by Gideon Marcus, A. J. Howells, Janice Marcus, & Erica Frank and available here.

Katherine MacLean (1925 — 2019) was active as a short story writer mainly in the 1950s (although pieces appeared as late as 1997) and as a novelist mainly in the 1970s. Her Second Game saw her a Hugo finalist in 1959; Missing Man won a Nebula in 1972. Rediscovery offers MacLean’s Unhuman Sacrifice”, an uplifting tale of a human missionary convinced he knows best for a community of just-contacted aliens. No doubt it can only end well.

The plan for this phase of Young People was to shift to a conversation-based format, using Slack to facilitate discussion. I then sabotaged this by getting sick the week the reviews came in. Ah, well. Next time it will all work swimmingly.


It’s always fascinating to see how someone from 60 years ago envisions the future of technology. The machine learning translator and bubble veils were interesting concepts I hadn’t seen before. I also loved how MacLean introduced us to a truly alien world where cultural differences and misunderstanding drive the conflict. Both the humans and the aliens are driven by a sort of instinct. The humans are convinced their way of thinking is correct and will happily interfere with the aliens’ ancient traditions without thought to the consequences. Revent Winton is the obvious example, with his attempt to convert the natives to his religion (and failing comically, which is a creative decision I applaud). The other men are more well-meaning but equally — if not more — harmful. MacLean’s choice to include a native POV character shone a light on how ridiculous the humans were acting, and I think ultimately this lead to the ending line of the story.


There’s a lot to like in this story. While the protective wrapping the human character wear might seem a little silly — they’re being Saran-wrapped! — it’s different from the spacesuits you see in every other sci-fi story, and it’s always cool to see unique technologies being postulated. I also liked that we got scenes from Spet’s point of view. Unsurprisingly, the humans are just as alien to him as he is to them. The contrast between Revent Winton’s and Henderson and Charlie’s attitudes toward Spet’s people was interesting. Unlike Winton, Henderson and Charlie are genuinely concerned with the people’s well-being, rather than just making them do things the right” (i.e. human) way. But even their well-intentioned actions cause Spet’s transformation into a non-sapient plant. An argument for a Star Trek-style Prime Directive, perhaps?


I have a bit of the flu so hopefully this will all make sense.

I do feel the story cannot be divorced from colonialism as it is so much about it. By today’s standards I would say it is a bit clumsy in some of the ideas and terminology but a lot better than most of what we get from the 20th century. The decision to allow for a native POV and to make it that the humans also do not appear to be white from the descriptions given means that this is not centered around whiteness. We get a culture clash but not one with simply mindless brutes, noble savages or Montainge’s cannibals, it is complex and interesting.

I also wanted to call out MacLean’s use of language. She has a great voice for both of the perspectives that gives it an easy flow and highlights the difference of cultures. The styles help elevate what could be a very dry read from another writer into something that works incredibly well.


I had a hard time with this one, mostly because I was inclined to put it down as soon as the missionary character made his first appearance. The story handled that better than I expected it would, and I am very glad that we had Spet to give us a native point of view character.

The technology was definitely interesting. The plastic wrapping feels a bit ridiculous, but it was well explained and it was interesting to see how Spet incorporated that into his understanding of the situation.


Okay, the 200-word summary (without having read anyone else’s comments):

In general, I enjoyed Unhuman Sacrifice. I preferred the parts from Spet’s point-of-view, because it felt more alien, and one of the things I like about SFF is the feeling of gradually working out and coming to understand what is happening and what it means. I also liked the idea of the alien biology — I loved Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead when I was younger, and the totally alien lifecycle in that is so similar to this that I wonder whether Card was influenced by MacLean. The anti-colonialist message of Unhuman Sacrifice is clear, and we are clearly meant to see the human characters interfering in a ritual they don’t fully understand as a Bad Thing, but it isn’t so clear to me whether we are meant to see the ritual itself as good, bad, or neutral. I get the impression that we are meant to see it as a good thing, because it saves Spet’s people from a bad” transformation — but that transformation is a natural part of the lifecycle, and the value-system by which it is shown as clearly bad is a human-centric one.


Unhuman sacrifice is a story of colliding worlds and unusual biology. It does a fairly good job of portraying colonialist attitudes, indigenous perspective and the ambiguity that comes from viewing unfamiliar cultures from ground level. It seems to be a critique of the arrogance of colonial perspectives and missionary attitudes. By contrasting the ambiguousness of the situation against the certainty of the missionary, it shows how misguided those attitudes are. On the other hand, it also doesn’t make the indigenous folks out to be people who have solved all of their own problems. Still, just because they don’t have it all figured out, doesn’t mean you know better, and you shouldn’t impose your own view on their culture because it will probably just make things worse.


I enjoyed this story. Reading the story summary ahead of the story, I was expecting a story that was more of a meditation on religious evangelism. I’ve also recently re-read The Sparrow, which may have also primed me to expect more religion rather than colonialism. I do have some lingering questions in my own mind about whether the message was really anti-imperialist/a reflection on colonialism or more of an anti-religion message.


@Kathy The Sparrow was excellent. Have you read the sequel as well?


@Joe I also wondered whether this story influenced Speaker for the Dead. (More thoughts when I’m at a computer this evening.) (edited)


I thought this story had interesting moral complexity; MacLean leaves it open to interpretation whether the way the aliens have developed cultural adaptations to fight against their biology is good” or not. (My knee-jerk reaction as a human is that of course it’s better to remain a sentient being than to become an unthinking plant, but what little we see of the adult aliens through Spet’s perspective does not suggest happy, fulfilling lives.) What’s unambiguously bad is the humans’ attempts to meddle, none of which work out as planned – and it’s interesting to me that MacLean doesn’t make the missionary the (uniquely) bad guy but shows that the engineers’ presumed atheism and rationality can lead them to just as poor ends. (I also appreciated that the engineers kept approvingly citing anthropologists; there’s no divide between hard and soft sciences, here.) The thing that was most jarring to me as a younger reader was how small of a role religion actually played in the story. I feel like in more modern stories, if an author puts a missionary into the story, it’s generally because they have some specific to say about religion. Here, religion is just seen as irrevocably part and parcel of imperialism – it’s a very generic depiction of faith.On a nitpicky note, I found the prose of the human sections awkward, I think because there’s something in how MacLean (or MacLean’s original editors) punctuates dialogue that doesn’t match my modern expectations. The stream-of-conscious Spet sections read much more smoothly to me.


@ambyr I had similar assumptions about the role of the missionary in the story, which is why I was not particularly interested in continuing to read once the character was introduced. The particulars of the missionary’s faith were much less central to the story than I expected.


Yes, I also expected to see a commentary on the evangelist versus rationalist approaches to the alien planet. I was interested to see that MacLean shows both anthropology and missionary zeal as part of the colonial mission — which it was, at least in the former British empire!


Another classic of science fiction which perhaps makes an interesting intertext to the MacLean is Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness: again we get the human arriving on a planet of superficially human aliens with a deeply alien life cycle, who slowly comes to understand how the inhabitants differ from him, and the climactic struggle to survive in a deeply hostile environment…


I’m now trying to unearth old memories from anthropology classes, and anyone who’s studied the history of the field more recently/in depth than I have is welcome to correct me, but modern” anthropological theory started coming into full flower in the 60s, I think; MacLean’s conception of the bounds of the discipline may be very different from mine (but the references in the story are so brief it’s hard to tell).