Katherine MacLean’s telepathic cop tale set in a future New York is as technologically inventive as it is futuristically imaginative, where every page brims with a fresh take on the futuristic police procedural, along with plenty of nods to classic SF influences. It’s rare to find a forty-year-old SF novel that feels so buoyant, especially considering the depths she chooses to explore. MacLean is a resourceful writer, loyal to the genre style, but she adds a layer of psychological and sociological depth, relevant to the social discourse of her day. Much like Bester and Brunner before her, it’s an exciting, critical read, with her own blend of individualism and progressivism, though misguided at times.
In Missing Man, we meet George Sanford, a hand-to-mouth laborer who moves from commune to commune in search of off-contract work. He runs into his old high school chum, a successful investigative cop, Ahmed, who asks George to assist him in an investigation. When George’s unpracticed empathic abilities solve the case, Ahmed pulls some strings to make him a consultant for the NYPD. Now George has a steady but dangerous job searching out missing persons in the world of New York crime. Will he survive? Will he join the criminal underground? And will he ever get his paycheck if he can’t fill out the paperwork?
Drawing on the work of science fiction writers before her, it’s clear that MacLean is a longtime science fiction fan, but she’s not beholden to the genre by rewriting the stories she loves. Although she makes big nods to her predecessors (she uses grok a lot, among other things), Missing Man goes in a lot of different directions, and she pushes the genre forward with fresh— and often realistic— twists on old ideas: telepathic crime fighting, domed sea boroughs, big brother, communal living, electrotherapy, race wars, and vending machines.
One of the more interesting details of MacLean’s future New York is that of the communes. While young, unskilled labor is shipped out of overcrowded New York, the rest of the city’s inhabitants burrow into a variety of themed communes: the Medieval Commune, the Aztec Empire Commune, the Karmic Brotherhood Commune, the Objectivist Commune, the 1949 Commune (perpetually fifty years behind). With George wandering the city in search of work, food, or missing persons, we get a glimpse of these communes on every block. Like a stroll through today’s New York City, the landscape is vivid and stimulating, always changing, and at times, humorous, at other times, frightening. When fear and claustrophobia causes dome citizens to tamper with their own air pressure balance:
I had been pretending to believe it was another mad bomber. How could I tell the police and the Coast Guard that it was just the residents of the city, mindless with the need to get out, destroying their own air-lock system (92-93).
In addition to those wacky communes and the teetering, claustrophobic atmosphere, MacLean adds a dose of sociological reality to George’s NYC, which is divided into kingdoms based on location and race, some of them familiar: the Black Kingdom, Spanish Harlem, Arab Jordan, the Brooklyn Domed City. The city also swarms with roving bands of childhood gangs, also race-based, except for the UN Brotherhood, of which George and Ahmed were once members. MacLean has an agenda here, and, at times, the commentary on race is squeamish, the progressive note of the day being more akin to a nineties T-shirt slogan (“Not Black. Not White. Human.) that promotes the kind of cultural erasure that’s not acceptable today. There’s also a blackface scene, much like the one in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, that attempts to legitimize blackface by using it as a way to evade arrest— yet another WTFwhitepeople moment that’s incongruous with reality. I suppose white people in the ‘60s and ‘70s never heard of #drivingwhileblack.
I wish I could say these moments are small, but the undercurrents of this squeamishness run the length of the book, not necessarily an accident, and more often with a literary purpose. There are times when it feels like MacLean is deliberately prodding at our sensitivities, rousing our objections with heightened inconsistencies:
“Arabs would naturally want to watch a series that glorified Arabs” (53).
“Just give a girl something she can do for you.” (78).
“Usually girls of the Karmic Brotherhood… thought that trying to be attractive to arouse lust in men was unethical” (126).
The entire novel is peppered with provocative statements like these, adding to the dystopian flavor of novel by illustrating the general belief system of the populace, enhancing ambiguity, and foreshadowing the greater internal conflict that eventually overshadows the inconsequential story plot (or plots, rather). As George encounters his most challenging nemesis, a murderous 15-year-old genius hell bent on destruction, he is seduced by his sociopathic philosophizing: “He was basically an intellectual, even though a young one, and curiosity meant more to him than love or hate” (107). “How come everything that kid said made sense?” (111) he asks himself, eventually convincing himself to join the gang as a double agent, but uncertain of his own loyalties in the ruse.
Just as intriguing is George’s own insecurities, his background giving way to a sense of imposter syndrome in the NYPD and as a sidekick to his nemesis/hero. “It struck me that the way I talked was too simple and stupid compared to the way I thought it when I was seeing it without words” (107). George’s limited reading and speaking skills, as well as his nervous breakdowns during uncontrollable empathic fits, are as inconsistent as his opinions and tend to disintegrate when he loses confidence. Missing Man is as much a character study as it is a study in world building.
A brilliant, fully-realized futuristic scenario that puts other telepathic procedurals to shame in its examination of the psyche, poverty, society, and its cultivation of ambiguity, despite its old-fashioned appeals for squeamish colorblindness. It’s a page-turner from start-to-finish (though a better start would be at chapter 3; never begin at the beginning!), and never fails to entertain, making it an ideal read for the vintage-averse. It’s no surprise this novel was included in the famous 1966 Nebula long-shortlist, and I hope to see it appear on future canon lists.
Highly, highly, highly recommended.
Thanks to Joachim for putting it on my radar!