I absolutely hate it when I find a story I like and the author turns out to be a great big mystery. Who is he? Did he write anything else? Nobody knows. This is the case with The Hitchhikers by Vernon L. McCain. This little story, which only takes about 15 minutes to read, was published in the November 1954 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction. If magazine was a digest sized magazine that ran mostly bimonthly with a short stint at monthly publication in 1954 to 1955. It was only moderately successful although it did manage to win the Hugo Award for Best Professional Magazine in 1966, 1967, and 1968 mostly due to the hard work of legendary award winning author and editor Frederik Pohl. The magazine did publish some classic Science Fiction in its time including “I have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, “The Coldest Place” by Larry Niven, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (one of my all time favorite SciFi novels). But eventually, in December 1974, If merged with its sister magazine, Galaxy Science Fiction, and faded into the starscape.
The Hitchhikers seems to be the only SciFi story that Vernon L. McCain ever wrote. Or at least the only one that any body knows of. That is too bad because The Hitchhikers is a clever and amusing little story that focuses on the tiny lifeforms known as the Rell. The Rell are a moisture loving race who live on the planet Mars. And that’s very unfortunate because Mars had slowly turned into “a dry, hostile husk”. The few remaining Rell (probably only “mere quadrillions”) had followed the steadily shrinking southern ice cap until only a bare frost covering remained. They were doomed and they knew it.
They only had a few years left (probably only “a mere thousand years more”). Then, one day, the Rell observed a baffling phenomenon: “a patch of flaming red” in the sky. Mars has a visitor and the Rell may have a new chance to survive. The Rell are a different form of sentient life and actually quite amusing. Well, they think they are being strict and disciplined but their reaction to this totally new event in their very long existence is fun. The visitor’s reaction? Read and see. The Hitchhikers is very short, only a little over 4,000 words or about 24 pages. I read it in about 15 minutes. The story shows a little dating in the description of the visitor and ship but not too much. The Hitchhikers actually reads very modern probably thanks to most of the event being seen through Rell eyes. This is a great little story to read if you have a few minutes to spare while catching a few summer rays. It even leaves the ending a bit open so you can enjoying pondering what might happen when the visitor returns home. Frank Kelly Freas did the original sketch accompanying the story in If: Worlds of Science Fiction and he has always been one of my favorite artists – another plus for The Hitchhikers.
The Hitchhikers is available FREE in the Public Domain from Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg. The Internet Archive has two versions: Version #1 is the story by itself. Version #2 includes the entire contents of the November 1954 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction including The Hitch Hikers.