“Unhuman Sacrifice,” Katherine MacLean, 1958 — A missionary and two crewman arrive on an as-of-yet uncolonized planet. The missionary–who thinks he’s been given a great honor–is obnoxious, nearly oafish in his over-eager attempts to open a dialogue with his future converts. The crewmen find the missionary “relentless” even by normal religious standards; they assume his superiors gave him the position to be rid of him. They tolerate him until he begins preaching through a box that only transmits a few words successfully, subjecting the natives to long, loud, nonsensical sermons. Concerned about cultural contamination and the misunderstandings that might occur, they finally convince him to try another strategy.
Meanwhile, a native boy fishing at a nearby river is approached by one of the crewman. The boy assumes that the crewman is a ghost, due to his white skin, and that his strange words mean that the ghost has forgotten how to speak. Fascinated and a little frightened, the boy speculates that the crewman’s moist skin must mean that he died by being drowned in the river. Moved by pity and a sense of responsibility, the boy agrees to teach the crewman to learn to speak again. Due to the boy’s tutelage, during which they spend many happy hours together, the crewman learns about the local culture, which includes a rite of passage ritual in which boys are hung upside down during a flood. Survivors are left elongated and sickly but considered adults; those who fail enter the spirit world.
At the conclusion, a flood bears down on the valley cradling the ship. The natives anticipate the flood and, before leaving, hang their boys from trees and leave them to their fate. The crewmen rescue the boy, as they’ve grown very fond of him, but this delays their return to the ship, which is now half-submerged. They almost make it to the ship, but the preacher–who can’t swim–has lagged behind, and they must both rescue him. They instruct the boy to wait for them on the ramp. The boy is fatalistic; he expects death and fantasizes that the two crewmen are ghosts who have found him unworthy of adulthood. He lets himself sink in the water; when he reaches the bottom, he feels the urge to take hold of his feet. Gradually, he turns into a plant. When the crewmen return, his friend is devastated.
Flash forward: The two crewmen endure an awkward reunion on another ship. They’re civil, but they know they can’t serve together. The memory of the boy’s death has alienated them from each other. The crewman who was closest to the boy still hasn’t recovered; he takes the “plant” with him on all of his trips. The other crewman doesn’t have the heart to tell his former friend that it’s the wrong plant.
Comments: Themes of religion, primitive/civilized, communication Read in A Century of Science Fiction; see the introduction by Damon Knight.
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.”