(originally published in Startling Stories, Fall, 1955)
This short story deals with human guilt and the subsequent redemption gained at the hands of an "alien" (i.e. non-indigenous human) psi-therapist. It opens from the viewpoint of the human alien, a young female named Sarith, who finds herself mistakenly transported ("transmitted") from her faraway homeworld to an unknown planet (Earth) in the dead of winter during a snow storm. Dressed for the warmer clime of her intended destination (the planet Chalce, one of the planets of what we call the Alpha Centauri binary system), she nearly freezes to death but is rescued by, and brought to the home of, Lindsey, a human male who is guilt-ridden over the accidental death of his fiance seven years previous, for which he believes himself responsible. Lindsey is now the town drunk and works for his living at a local car wash, where he sees the blood of his deceased fiance on every car he washes. With echoes from Macbeth, he can never wash away the blood, so has lost himself in alcohol. Sarith, on the other hand, desires only to somehow find her galactic bearings and continue her journey to Chalce, where, as a recent psi-therapist graduate of promise, she will begin her professional career and be assigned her first patient. While perusing Lindsey’s small library while he is at work (one of the volumes she spots is an astronomical tome which yields the information she requires to get her bearings and transmit herself to Chalce—how convenient that this work just happens to be in his library, but what the hey—), she happens upon Albert Schweitzer’s Philosophy of Civilization (a double, conveniently auctorial what the hey, that this particular car-wash attendant harbors such eclectic tastes, from astronomy to Schweitzer). She finds Schweitzer a "self-centered savage…running off to a little jungle clearing and playing god to a handful of unwashed aborigines. And believing, actually believing in his heart, that his motivation is spiritual!" Torn between leaving for Chalce immediately or remaining long enough to learn why this primitive human who has saved her life feels such guilt, she stays to probe his mind for the secret he has subconsciously locked away from her. The final scene finds Lindsey at the car wash, scrubbing away more imaginary blood. He looks up to see Sarith walking toward him with "a quality in her eyes that made him think of Christ."
"She took the sponge from his bleeding hands."
" ‘Let me help you,’ she said."
Employing religious and literary references along with classic science-fiction tropes (psi, teleportation, a galactic federation, et al), Robert F. Young manages to successfully re-examine the guilt/redemption theme so universal to the human condition; in this story wedded to a central tenet of major western religious doctrines—through the eyes and mind of an alien. A triumvirate of issues seamlessly welded into a deceptively quiet, simply-told story. A science-fiction formula of extrapolation (on several levels), using a straightforward, traditional story-telling format.
Some, these days, unfortunately believe that traditional story-telling formats are passe, even restrictive to the artiste, and so deplore them out of hand as being constrictive and conservative, even reactionary; rather than being but one of many successful methods of conveying an author’s message.
SFWA awarded its first Grand Master award to Robert Heinlein in 1974. Jack Williamson was honored in 1975 with this prestigious honor. Regarding story-telling, in an interview in the original Tangent (#5, Summer 1976), Jack Williamson offered the following:
"A lot of experimental writers deplore plots. They feel that plotting is sort of a crude, amateurish, primitive device, a restriction even. I like to feel that you can use plot to reveal character, to state theme, to animate setting. In my opinion, this is the most successful way for most writers, and readers."
Note also that in this story the author recasts the Christ/Savior figure as a young woman. A female. Perhaps a first, and in 1955, to boot. Roughly 10 to 15 years before the cultural/social [in large part feminist, for purposes here]/anti-establishment/anti-religious revolution which was just around the explosive historical corner. A story ahead of its time from a feminist perspective, but somehow oddly overlooked, or ignored, in any subsequent feminist reprint collections of which I am aware. My hunch is that, through no one’s conscious fault, the various female editors who edited numerous feminist collections over the intervening years have just not read this particular story. Which is a shame. Lord knows that if they had, the rights to this relatively obscure, but possibly historically groundbreaking story, would have surely been easily available. And probably still are.
On a personal, and quasi-unrelated note: While I remember reading many of Robert F. Young’s stories over the years, it has been a great while, and though I associate his byline with respectability and quality, I honestly can’t remember any titles or storylines. Except for one. Before I divulge the title and tell you a wee bit about it, I must confess that I am a stone-cold sucker for a three-handerchief love story—if honestly told. Yes, it’s true. Call me a closet romantic, and I’ll confess in a New York minute. I don’t care if this short story received praise from readers at the time; I don’t care if reviewers or critics at the time liked it. All I know is that, though I have read other touching love stories in our genre, this one made a personal impression, a unique connection for me—don’t ask why. Given time and re-reading, I could name perhaps a half-dozen others with this same connection. But for now, I present to all of you kindred, die-hard romantics out there Robert F. Young’s "The Dandelion Girl." First published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1961, it involves time travel and a test of true love between a woman and a man. It also happens to feature a strong female character, much as in "Jungle Doctor," though in an obviously different context. I am again in love with science fiction, and what one of its oldest tropes—time-travel—can do to extra-illuminate (for lack of a more poetic term) one of humanity’s deepest, purest, and at the same time most inexplicable and controversial emotions.
["The Dandelion Girl" was first published in The Saturday Evening Post, 1961, and first reprinted in the 7th Annual Edition, The Year’s Best S-F, edited by Judith Merril (Dell, June, 1963).]
As an historical footnote for those interested in such things related to the field, I pass on the following: Ted Dikty (1920-1991) co-edited the very first yearly "Best Of" SF collection in 1949 (1949-54 with E. F. Bleiler, 1955-56 and 1958 by himself), for a total of nine through 1958. I have no clue why there was no volume for 1957. Perhaps someone could enlighten me on this as well.
About Robert F. Young:
Robert F. Young (1915-1986)
First published in Startling Stories, 1953.
Prolific for the next three decades, his best work in F&SF.
"Best remembered for some of the ascerbic short tales of his early career."
The above information on Robert F. Young excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Grolier CD, 1993/1995), edited by Peter Nicholls and John Clute, with appreciation.