Short Reviews – Defense Mechanism, by Katherine MacLean

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Defense Mechanism by Katherine MacLean appeared in the October 1949 issue of Astounding. It can be read here at

Defense Mechanism was tucked behind the book reviews and letters to the editor, so I almost missed it! Considering how influential its writer would go on to be, it’s ironic that her debut could go so easily unnoticed. And as far as stories in Astounding go, this certainly wasn’t the worst.

A writer has an infant/toddler son with empathic telepathy. The father is able to hear his own thoughts and the thoughts of others reflected back from his son. Mother is a bit concerned, particularly since the child is developing slowly, but dad, a bit of an empath himself, went through a similar phase as a late bloomer.

There are quite a lot of literal thinks being thought both at and around characters in this thinky-story. There is, however, an action-packed climax to this thinky-story of many thinks, so it has one-up on at least a couple stories from Astounding I’ve reviewed recently.

Sometimes, the young child makes empathic connection with the rabbits out in the fields outside, and the father enjoys mentally observing/receiving the telepathic impression/connections with his child’s bunny-friend. But father senses something wrong; the rabbit is in distress.

Father goes out to find that a hunter is poaching rabbits; a mental connection that the son relays hits the father like a ton of bricks—the father snaps and kills the hunter, who it turns out was some kind of psychopath.

Defense Mechanism feels oddly familiar. Right down to the rabbit. It’s going to bother me for a while that I can’t remember where I’ve seen it before or why I think I have (empathic telepathy?!). This is the sort of story that would be at home in Thrilling Wonder Stories or Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but that’s not where I’m remembering it from. Yet, I haven’t read any of the many anthologies in which this story has been reprinted.

MacLean would go on to be fairly prolific throughout the 50s and continued writing for many decades, though without the volume of her 50s output. As far as I can tell, she’s still alive and was interviewed as recently as 2013 for the New York Review of Science Fiction.

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