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McKenna, Richard M

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1913-1964) US author who spent most of his adult career (from 1931 to 1953), not very happily, in the US Navy. After returning to civilian life, he took a BA in literature at the University of North Carolina. His stories intertwined Hard SF themes such as Space Flight and Time Travel with soft sciences, notably Psychology and cultural Anthropology. His debut was "Casey Agonistes" for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in September 1958, although the first story he wrote was "The Fishdollar Affair" (October 1958 If). His efforts to revise "Casey Agonistes" according to the editor's demands are described in his essay "Journey with a Little Man", which was reprinted in Damon Knight's anthology of sf criticism, Turning Points (anth 1977). McKenna was to publish only five more sf stories during his lifetime; another six appeared posthumously. Five of the strongest were assembled in Casey Agonistes and other Fantasy and Science Fiction Stories (coll 1973). The central theme of these tales is the power of mind over environment – either to adapt the existing one or, ultimately, to create something new. In the title story, dying men in a tuberculosis ward create a comforting collective hallucination in the form of a comical ape. "The Secret Place" (in Orbit 1, anth 1966, ed Damon Knight), which won a posthumous Nebula, is about Parallel Worlds which can be reached through the power of the mind, while "Fiddler's Green" (in Orbit 2, anth 1967, ed Damon Knight), perhaps McKenna's most ambitious story, tells of a group of men adrift in a small boat, without food and water, who mentally create a Pocket Universe into which they may escape. In "Hunter, Come Home" (March 1963 F&SF) the creative mind is that of an alien Gaia wakened by human interference with its world's Ecology. The story involves initiation into manhood as well as biochemistry, genetics, and a planet-wide organism with seemingly infinite adaptability. In the uncollected "Bramble Bush" (in Orbit 3, anth 1968, ed Damon Knight), humans encounter Aliens whose brain structure allows them to perceive Time as a physical direction and reach into and change the past, with unsettling results. McKenna considered science fiction to be a training ground. His last major work was a successful non-sf novel drawing on his naval experiences, The Sand Pebbles (1962), filmed in 1966. He died soon after writing the book; even had he lived, it is unlikely that he would have written more sf. Nonetheless, his existing body of work was sufficient to secure him a small, sure position in the sf pantheon. [MJE/LW]

see also: Paranoia; Pastoral; Perception.

Richard Milton McKenna

born Mountain Home, Idaho: 9 May 1913

died Chapel Hill, North Carolina: 1 November 1964


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