Hostess (short story)
"Hostess" is a science fiction short story by American writer Isaac Asimov. It was first published in the May 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction and reprinted in the 1969 collection Nightfall and Other Stories.
The story involves an alien medical doctor who visits Earth as part of research into the unique fact that only Earth beings age and die. His idea of why this happens is proven true in an unexpected way.
Humanity has spread out into the galaxy and made contact with four other intelligent non-human races. While the other four races share many similarities, humans are unique among the five races in many ways.
Harg Tholan, a medical doctor and researcher from Hawkin's Planet, will be visiting Earth to work at the Jenkins Institute. Rose Smollett, a research biologist at the Institute, offers to host him while he is on Earth. Her husband, Drake, initially reacts to Tholan's presence with thinly disguised disgust. Over dinner on their first night together, Drake begins to quiz Tholan on his need to periodically breathe cyanide and what happens if he doesn't. Drake's displeasure fades and is replaced by intense interest, and he and Tholan discuss matters for hours.
During the conversation, Tholan mentions that he is on earth investigating a disease known as "Inhibition Death". Tholan outlines a number of the unique things about humans; they are the only sentient race to eat meat, they lack any sort of telepathic ability, and to the Smollett's great surprise, they are the only race to grow old and die. Tholan reveals that the other races normally live for centuries, growing throughout. Inhibition death stops the growth, leading to death in a human-like way. He notes that planets closest to Earth suffer the highest rates, which is why he has come to Earth to study the phenomenon of aging in hopes of understanding the disease.
During the conversation, Drake had revealed he was a policeman. This prompts Tholan to ask if he can be given a tour of a Missing Person's Bureau. The alien notes that the telepathy-like links between members of the other races makes the idea of a missing person impossible, and that this, too, is a behavior known only among humans. As such, he is fascinated by the idea, and Drake agrees to take him to a police station the next day.
Drake is actually a member of the World Security Board. That night, he mentions to Rose that Tholan had been asking around about him before the visit, and intimates that he is there to see him, not Rose. Intrigued, and entertaining the possibility Tholan is an imposter, the next day Rose reads some of Tholan's work which causes her to abandon that notion. She begins to consider whether the disease was created on Earth as a form of biological weapon, but rejects it as almost impossible given their almost complete lack of understanding of alien physiology. Considering Drake, she begins to wonder if he married her specifically to meet Tholan, but again rejects the possibility as too wild to consider. Reviewing the entire conversation between Tholan and Drake the previous night, she notes that there is one extremely odd moment, Drake's seemingly overreaction to Tholan's polite mention of what a good hostess she was.
Later that night she mentions her research to Drake. He asks if Tholan has any conclusion about how the disease spreads, and she says he appears mystified. Drake immediately confronts Tholan, demanding he answer questions. Tholan admits that he has come to a conclusion about the cause of the disease, but his methods are repugnant to other Hawkinsites, so he had to keep it secret. He explains that the disease has been on Earth for millions of years, and the higher animals live with it within their DNA,[a] partially immune to its effects but falling prey to its effects over the long term. To spread, the disease controls human behavior, urging men to have wanderlust so they can infect new hosts. He notes that with the development of interstellar travel, almost all missing persons have fled to space to meet aliens.
After admitting he is the only one to have developed this theory, Drake kills him. He says he did this to kill the crazy theory, fearing it would lead to interstellar war. But Rose realizes this is not the case, that he and the Security Board had to have been aware of Thorn's theory already. She notes Drake's reaction to Tholan's use of the term "hostess" and her offhand mention of mosquitos, carriers of disease. Amused to be so transparent, Drake explains that they are indeed aware of the disease, but can do nothing about it - it now lives in a symbiotic relationship, its growth-inhibiting properties preventing cancer from killing everyone. Drake leaves with the body, never to return.
Thinking it over, Rose realizes Drake is lying. The disease cannot inhibit cancer, because children get cancer while still growing, before the disease has expressed itself. This leads her to realize the real action of the disease: there are two forms and they need to mix genes before producing a form that spreads to aliens. This is why Drake married her - the disease was mating before sending him into space to spread the spores.
"Hostess" was adapted for radio in the anthology series X Minus One, first broadcast on December 12, 1956.
- This story was written almost two decades before the discovery of reverse transcriptase, making it particularly forward thinking.