1953’s One in Three Hundred is the first installment of a J. T. McIntosh trilogy (also called One in Three Hundred).
Nobody on Earth needs to worry about anything bad that might happen after September 18th, because on that date (as predicted by scientists) the Sun is going to become brighter. Not a lot, but enough to boil the Earth’s oceans and kill every living thing on the planet.
Humanity does not intend to give up and accept inevitable death.
There is enough time left to put together a rocket fleet that can send a fraction of humanity to Mars. There’s room to send one person in three hundred. Safety is not assured. Some of the rockets may not make it. A warmer Mars may be marginally habitable … or it may not. But some hope is better than none at all.
If those in power were to fill the ships with themselves and their families, the doomed masses would likely rise against them. The ships would never even get built. It is decided to choose from the masses. Officials are sent out to every community on earth, there to choose the lucky few.
Simville, population 3261, is visited by Lieutenant Bill Easson. Easson has been given complete leeway in how he makes his choices and whom he chooses. Rather than try to pick the best and brightest, he has selected a representative cross-section of the town’s population. All eleven of them.
Making his selection is the easy part of his job. Gathering his choices and getting them to the launch site without letting the unchosen know who has been chosen will be the real challenge. The angry unchosen will see to it that not every candidate will survive.
J. T. McIntosh is another one of those old-time SF authors I would have sworn I had never read. But when I bought the J. T. McIntosh sampler, the title of this book seemed familiar, I sampled the text and realized that I had encountered the book somewhere, sometime. A bit of digging in the ISFDB revealed this cover.
I remembered that.
The odd thing is that I have absolutely no memory of Dwight V. Swain’s The Transposed Man, which makes up the other half of this Ace Double.
Easson spends a lot of time in the company of Pat, the second-prettiest woman in Simville. She’s had lovers; she is considered promiscuous; she is universally despised. Pat herself has so internalized the idea she’s not worth much that it never occurs to her to try to seduce her way onto one of the ships. It’s not that she doesn’t think she could get Easson into bed. It’s just that she confidently expects that Easson would have sex with her and then abandon her1. Despite all this, she’s one of Easson’s more reliable allies.
I’d like to say that it ends well for Pat, but this book was written in the 1950s and of course it doesn’t.
Stories about a handful of the chosen escaping a looming disaster are an SF staple; consider novels like When Worlds Collide, Lot, And All The Stars a Stage. Television offers the execrable Star Lost, the equally awful Firefly [Editor’s note: some of us disagree with you, James], and of course Battlestar Galactica takes place in a setting where cyclic forced exoduses are a fact of life. A recent Godzilla anime features a generation ship deciding to risk a return to the only Earthlike world they know (Earth), which does not end well. Tomlinson’s Ark series is kicked off by the deliberate annihilation of Earth and of course Becky Chambers’ Exodan Fleet fled an Earth they helped poison. Heck, there was even a Simpsons episode in which humanity’s elite is sent off to the stars in an ark.
Authors like drama, and sorting the worthy from the unworthy, the survivors from the doomed, is drama in the highest. Plus, the protagonists get to show their mettle by making the hard choices. In such a well-explored subgenre, the trick is to come up with an original take. McIntosh had the advantage that he was a pioneer in the field, but I think that even if he had not been, his take would have been unusual.
Judging by the demographics of survivors in stories like this, non-whites need not apply for spots in the lifeboats. One in Three Hundred actually tackles this issue (even if Simville itself seems to be a Sundown town). The author seems to think that when push comes to shove, people will overcome their prejudices.
Other lieutenants would have other things to square with their consciences. Men with color prejudices would have to face up to the idea that the catastrophe wasn’t a special dispensation to remove all but pure whites from the human race; some lieutenants whose blood crawled at the thought would pick colored men to go to Mars, knowing that if they didn’t they would never know peace again.
Given what a bleak, detached man Easson is, he sure has a sunny view of humanity’s ability to overcome its flaws.
Easson and his companions have no illusions about their own fitness to choose the best of humanity. Easson at least isn’t making any attempt to select an elite. He considers the idea of even trying absurd and misguided.
“For God’s sake!” I ejaculated, shocked by her lack of understanding. “Do you think that’s what we’re supposed to do? Take all the crowned heads in our thousands of little arks and ignore the rabble? Intellectual or artistic snobbery is no better than social snobbery. If I had Beethoven and Michelangelo and Napoleon and Madame Curie and Shakespeare and Helen of Troy and St. Peter here in Simville, do you think I’d pick them?”
“Wouldn’t you?” She had lost her horror, and in its place was a vast surprise.
“Suppose I did, what would happen to John Doe? Sure, if Simville had a genius, I’d consider him. There aren’t too many geniuses. But when it’s one out of three hundred, we’re not going to blot out the average man and woman by taking only the people who would come out at the head of a competitive examination in something or other. I …”
I didn’t have the eloquence I needed. I knew I was right. I wanted her to see it. But how could I tell her that outstanding people, after all, were only clever dogs that had learned new tricks, and that John Smith was worth quite as much to himself as Shakespeare?
What an unusual perspective in a 1950s lifeboat story!
Easson himself is a pretty unlikable character, but the story as a whole is better than I expected. I’ll definitely be tracking down more of McIntosh’s work.
1: Easson does decline to rescue Pat from what he assumes is merely a garden-variety gang rape. He saves her only after he learns that that the crowd is going to kill her because (unlike Pat) they assume it is possible to sleep one’s way onto a ship. And that Pat has succeeded at this.