As Joachim Boaz reminded us on twitter, February 24 was famed SF artist Richard M. Powers' birthday. By coincidence, just two days earlier, I had purchased at Half-Price Books the 1979 Fawcett paperback edition of John D. MacDonald's 1951 novel Wine of the Dreamers, largely because of the very engaging cover painting by Powers. This piece is becoming one of my favorite things by Powers.
I'd never read anything by MacDonald, who, I guess, is primarily famous for writing mystery novels about a Florida detective who owns a boat. Still, I try to be open to new literary experiences, and so this week I read Wine of the Dreamers.
MacDonald sets his novel some 25 years in the future, in 1975. Society has become more permissive; female promiscuity is the norm, divorce is common, and a drugged soft drink that heightens perceptions is as popular as Coca Cola. The radio news is full of stories of strange crimes - when the perpetrators are apprehended, they claim they have no idea why they were acting so strangely and irresponsibly.
The main characters on Earth are on the staff of a major joint military-civilian project, the construction of a star ship. One of the most dedicated physicists on the project suddenly assaults the security personnel and smashes some delicate equipment, setting the project back four months!
The reader immediately knows, of course, that aliens or some other beings are entering Earth people's minds and causing mischief. MacDonald's Earth characters - heroic scientists, a sexy female psychologist, and duplicitous careerist military men - are pretty boring, so it is fortunate for the reader that the chapters about the alien Watchers are pretty good. These Watchers are human, but small in number, inbred and, for the most part, ignorant and physically feeble. They live in a large building that robotically provides food, and which most of them think is the entire universe. Illiterate and decadent, they kill time by laying down in booths and sending their minds across the galaxy to planets, including Earth, where they temporarily control the inhabitants. Almost all the Watchers think the people they control and the worlds they explore are fictional "dreams" generated by a computer, and so they blithely direct the people they control to commit murder, suicide and all manner of mayhem.
A few Watchers, including a brother and sister who are more robust and brave than the rest and have gone to the unused corridors and learned to read the dusty books there, have an inkling that the people in the "dreams" are real. When the literate Watchers try to contact the Earth scientists and to stop the Watchers from abusing Earthlings, there is trouble both on Earth and in the crazy Watcher society. Eventually the kinds of paradigm shifts we often see in science fiction novels follow.
The whole "aliens taking over peoples' bodies for fun" bit is similar to Robert Silverberg's 1968 story "Passengers," which won a Nebula. MacDonald also includes in the book the technique Silverberg had at the center of his novel The Second Trip - the government can erase the personalities of criminals or the mentally ill and install in their minds fictional memories and "healthy" personalities.
This edition of Wine of the Dreamers includes a 1968 afterword in which MacDonald expresses contempt for science fiction and the science fiction community and brags about how prescient Wine of the Dreamers is. He also claims that mankind's technology has been unable to improve the human condition or make life a more rewarding experience, which seems silly. Thanks to modern sanitation, transportation, and communications technology, life in the West was obviously much better, materially and culturally, in 1968 than in 1868 or 1768.
Even though I found the afterword annoying, Wine of the Dreamers is a moderately good novel and an interesting piece of 1950s SF. If I blunder across Ballroom of the Skies, MacDonald's other 1950s SF novel, for sale for the same price I paid for this one, I will probably buy it.