A biochemist, Rose Smollett, accepts a non-human visitor to Earth into her home as a guest. Her policeman husband, Drake, is suspicious and hostile, and her investigation into why leads to the discovery that humans—including her husband—are hosts to a parasitic life-form which is deadly to all the non-human races of the Galaxy.
I do like this story a great deal and consider it one of Asimov’s best from the early 1950’s—or, indeed, his entire career. It starts out cheerfully enough. Rose is comfortable in her career and happily married, if a little surpsied to find herself such after years of spinsterhood. The intrusion of the alien Harg Tholan into her world changes everything, first by raising a series of mysteries and then providing the painful solutions. Along the way, we’re presented with an ideal scientist, systematic and careful in trying to figure things out. On her own Rose manages to come up with a theory about the mysterious Inhibition Death that plagues all races of the galaxy except humans, and her solution is remarkably close. The backroom politics, however, surrounding Tholan’s visit and her husband’s reactions are beyond her, and the most nagging mystery—why did Drake marry her—is the one she manages the least progress on until the story’s end.
As for Drake, Asimov keeps him an enigma. We do see a fair amount of him, but we’re always aware that he isn’t telling us everything, and when we find out exactly what he’s hiding, we can see that Asimov has provided us with clues to his behavior along the way. In the end, he is utterly callous. Not only does he murder Tholan in cold blood, but he abandons Rose without a thought. He is never sympathetic, but because Rose is trying to figure him out, we watch him closely nonetheless.
That leaves Harg Tholan, the alien. Asimov is not known for his aliens, but the Hawkinsites are an interesting bovine derivative, and Asimov plays with biochemistry more than most sf writers bother to do. (A variation of Tholan’s species will make an appearance in “In a Good Cause—” later in 1951.) Tholan himself is as mysterious as Drake, but he is nonetheless a study in contrasts. He is not forthcoming as to what he really wants or why he wants it, and yet he is sympathetic. He seems almost sage-like and clearly, on some level, cares for Rose more than her own husband. His drawn-out death at the story’s climax only serves to heighten the contrast between the empathetic alien and the uncaring Drake.
The science in the story is careful, as is Asimov’s wont, and although he pays lip-service to the John Campbell approach of making humans unique in the galaxy, he does so in a way that would have clearly been unacceptable to Campbell. I do not doubt but that this was deliberate since Asimov was trying at this stage in his career to distance himself from Campbell. (He was concerned about getting a reputation as a Campbell-only author.) The differences between humans and non-humans are sketched out early on, but Asimov makes it simultaneously clear that we’re not being told everything. Rose’s mysteries become our own, and we are with her every step of the way as she doggedly tries to figure out what really distinguishes humans and non-humans.
The ending is also unusual for an Asimov story in its darkness and brutality. Tholan is tortured then killed. Rose learns that the alien races may unite to destroy humanity in sheer self-defense. Worst of all, her happy world is utterly shattered: her husband has abandoned her, and his only reason for marrying her in the first place is proven to be anything but love. Rose herself is shattered and the reader cannot help but feel it intently.
This is definitely Asimov at the top of his form. In a sense, this is simply an elaborate puzzle story, but it’s ultimately a story about emotions and about people. We aren’t simply curious as to how the puzzles will be solved, we care about the impact the solutions will have. Everything is woven together carefully to provide a very strong, if strangely neglected, tale.
There are, by the way, three textual variants to this story because of some of the circumstances surrounding its publication.
The version in Nightfall and Other Stories is naturally the best known, but the obscure anthology Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov reprints the story as it actually appeared in Horace L. Gold’s Galaxy in May 1951. The problem was that the January issue of Galaxy had included a story called “Rule of Three” by Theodore Sturgeon, and “Rule of Three” was built around a very similar concept. (Indeed, Gold had run it with the blurb “OF COURSE YOU’D BE HOST TO GUESTS FROM OUTER SPACE; IT’S COMMON COURTESY. BUT BEING A HOST CAN HAVE A PARTICULARLY NASTY MEANING!”). Even worse, Sturgeon had discussed the story during a talk at a meeting of the Eastern Science Fiction Association on 3 December 1950.
Asimov was in attendance when Sturgeon spoke and realized that “Hostess,” as it stood, was too similar to “Rule of Three” and could not be run in Galaxy. Gold agreed, but he felt that Asimov’s was the better story and wanted to run it anyway. He therefore insisted on changing the parasites in “Hostess” into a new class of infection altogether, mindless pseudo-genes. Strangely, he didn’t insist on changing the story’s title to lessen the implication of parasitism. Gold also changed the heroine’s name from Vera to Rose, because two of Sturgeon’s characters had been Derek and Vera and two of Asimov’s were Vera and Drake. (Besides, Galaxy’s publisher was one Vera Cerutti, and having character after character in the magazine bearing that unusual name would just be weird.) Finally, the last paragraph was replaced with two new ones.
Asimov restored “Hostess” to its pre-Gold form when he reprinted it in Nightfall and Other Stories. He changed the pseudo-genes back into parasites but kept the heroine’s new name. As for the original ending, he didn’t restore it. Rather, he simply trimmed Gold’s two paragraphs. The paragraph they replaced was left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. The original ending ran:
“She had finally learned why Drake had married her.
“She was laughing--- quite loudly---”
Gold’s ending was:
“She had finally learned why Drake had married her.
“Not a conjugal relationship—
The ending found in Nightfall and Other Stories is simply “She had finally learned why Drake had married her.” and is the strongest of the three. Gold’s changes here, unlike the infamous paragraph John Campbell inserted into the ending of “Nightfall,” add nothing whatsoever.
Including the Galaxy version in one of Asimov’s own books is unprecedented. I don’t know of any other case where Asimov’s usual book version of a story differs from its magazine appearance and the magazine version appears in one of Asimov’s collections without comment. Indeed, the only other times Asimov goes with the magazine version of his stories over his preferred text are all part of the Great SF Stories series, where there is historical interest in the magazine version. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I can guess.
Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov was put together by Martin H. Greenberg, not Asimov himself, and Asimov supplied an introduction to the book as a whole but not to each individual item in the book. It may be that Greenberg did all of the editorial work associated with the book, including checking the proofs, or it may be that Asimov (who could be sloppy when it came to proofing his own stories in his own books) simply didn’t read closely enough to notice what had happened.
Now, Greenberg may not have known or might have forgotten that Gold had made changes Asimov found unacceptable. When supplying text for the plubisher of Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov, it was probably easiest to grab it from his copy of the May 1951 Galaxy. (I imagine Greenberg had a rather extensive collection of old sf magazines on hand; I don’t see how he could have mined so many old sf stories otherwise.)
Prior to the rise of the Internet, Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov was probably the easiest way for an Asimov fan to see the magazine version of “Hostess.” Times have changed, however, and getting back issues of the major science fiction magazines is now obscenely straightforward. There may be a doctoral dissertaion in there for some brave soul to track down all of Asimov’s magazine appearances from the 1940’s and 1950’s and catalog and analyze the textual differences between what the magazines published and what Asimov put into his own books.
|Nightfall and Other Stories|
|Complete Stories, The, Vol. 1|
|Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov|