During his four-decade career, John D. MacDonald cranked out dozens of “paperback originals.” Today, he is best remembered for thrillers like The Executioners (filmed twice as Cape Fear, starring Robert Mitchum in 1962, and Robert De Niro in 1991), and, of course, the legendary Travis McGee mysteries.
Among the least-known of MacDonald’s work are a couple of science fiction novels he wrote in the early 1950s, which he described as “two congruent methods of accounting for all the random madness in our known world.”
In other words: what the hell is wrong with people?
First published in 1951, Wine of the Dreamers is set 25 years in the future. The construction of earth’s first interstellar spacecraft is nearing completion. Suddenly, one of the on-site engineers flips out, and begins smashing equipment. He’s quickly subdued, but not before doing a lot of damage. After regaining his senses, the man can offer no reason for his actions, and the doctors can find nothing wrong with him. Someone half-jokingly suggests temporary demonic possession.
To explain what really happened, I’ll have to backtrack to the long-ago time when people from a distant planet came to Earth, and interbred with the people already here. This interstellar hanky-panky resulted in the human race, as it exists today.
The home planet used to send occasional ships to monitor our progress, but a more efficient method was devised, involving a massive machine equipped with hundreds of glass booths. Inside each booth, a person would relax, while the machine instantaneously transferred his (or her) consciousness across the galaxy, into the head of an unsuspecting Earthling. For several hours, the “Watcher,” would control his (or her) host body, gathering firsthand information on how things were going on Earth.
The passing millennia have taken a toll on the Watchers, who’ve become mentally duller with each successive generation. By now, they’ve completely forgotten their original purpose, and regard the consciousness-transfer machine as a virtual reality game, where nothing you experience is real. In this “dream world,” you can rape, murder and blow things up to your heart’s content—after all, no real people are being hurt.
So, you see, whenever some bozo slaughters his entire family (and then himself), it’s not him doing it. It’s some misguided Watcher in a glass booth somewhere.
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But what about the bigger picture? Why are governments always so eager to go to war? Ballroom of the Skies (1952) attempts to answer this question. Set not long after World War III, the global political climate is tenser than ever; a fourth World War seems inevitable. It’s almost as if someone or something is consciously pushing humanity back onto the battlefield.
Diplomatic attaché Dake Lorin has had first-hand experience with this phenomenon: his boss Darwin Branson was on the verge of brokering a lasting peace between the world superpowers—and then, inexplicably, Branson sabotaged the talks.
Convinced of a conspiracy, Lorin investigates, and discovers that someone actually is keeping Earth in a constant state of war—and, once it’s all explained to him, he realizes that’s it’s actually for the greater good of humanity (though not necessarily Earth humanity).
When these two moldy oldies were reissued in the late 1970s, John D. MacDonald acknowledged that modern readers might find them a little “silly,” but also noted that the “stilted dialogue” was “touchingly typical of the genre.” Was he saying that old science fiction was purposely corny?
As intriguing as MacDonald’s “outside influences” theory may be, there’s a much more obvious explanation as to why humanity behaves the way it does.
People are assholes.
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Until next time...
It’s not your fault! Although, it probably is my fault!