“The Pyramid in the Desert,” Katherine MacLean, 1950 – (Alternate title: “And Be Merry”) A female scientist conducts “immortality” experiments on herself and develops a paralyzing fear of accidental death. She gradually loses touch with reality and sequesters herself. Her husband, an archeologist, has been away on an expedition; returning, he realizes the source of her fear and orients her by lying to her, maintaining that she has an incurable brain tumor that will kill her in ten or twenty years. Once she realizes that she is going to die, she is able to “recklessly” re-enter the world of the living.
Comments: Read in The Diploids. Strong, sympathetic female scientist as protagonist (however, MacLean is a personal favorite…) MacLean’s comments on the story are below, from Wikipedia:
“In January 2006, MacLean reflected on the science behind the story:
- ‘And Be Merry’ (Eat Drink and Be Merry for Tomorrow We Die) A lab biologist, female, takes advantage of her husband going off on an archeology trip, to use the privacy to experiment on herself for rejuvenation by a severe and dangerous method. Succeeding, she contemplates immortality, finding that safety from accidental death has become so valuable to her that she becomes a coward, cowering from all possible risk, seeing shelter in a hospital, and is only rescued from mindless panic by her husband finding her, realizing the source of her terror and rescuing her from immortality by claiming she has a slow growing tumor in an unreachable part of the body.
- Finding she has no chance of evading eventual death, she immediately loses her obsession with safety, becomes interested in biochemistry again, and invents a new theory. (New at the time.) Mutation from background radiation does not just strike the sperm and egg making chromosome changes in the embryo and mutated progeny, it also strikes the chromosomes in each cell of any living creature, damages and mutates them also, and produces cancer. This cannot be prevented. She called it ‘somatic mutation’ and used the new concept of body deterioration by slow radiation damage (age) to underpin her rediscovered recklessness, and be happy.
- Even now most biotechs have not fully accepted the implication that every cell in the body can generate an entire copy of the person. But perhaps a copy will be changed and mutated for the worse by exposure to ambient radiation and other mutagens. Perhaps a cell needs to generate a placenta around it to develop into an entire body. Something like that is holding up the biochemists from successfully making copies of individuals from body or blood cells. Not for long! I wrote three more stories with novel genetic ideas before 1953. Some have not been followed up by scientists yet.” (Wikipedia)
Author: Wikipedia: “Katherine Anne MacLean (born January 22, 1925) is an American science fiction author best known for her short fiction of the 1950s which examined the impact of technological advances on individuals and society.” MacLean recieved a B.A. in economics from Barnard College, studied psychology at the post-graduate level, and taught literature at the University of Maine and creative writing at the Free University of Portland. “It was while she worked as a laboratory technician in 1947 that she began writing science fiction. Strongly influenced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy‘s General Systems Theory, her fiction has often demonstrated a remarkable foresight in scientific advancements.”