Friday, March 7, 2014

Two 1948 SF stories by John D. MacDonald

Just last week I read Wine of the Dreamers, a 1950s science fiction novel by popular mystery novelist John D. MacDonald. I thought it had good points and, on balance, was worth reading, and so today I read two of MacDonald's SF short stories, both from 1948.  I found these stories in the 1985 edition of Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction, 5th Series, edited by Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg.  This book includes stories from 1947 and 1948 that Asimov and Greenberg consider "the best" from those years.

I own a copy of this anthology and appreciate the insane cover art by Romas Kukalis.  Every time I look at this cover I try to visualize what I would see if I looked up in the sky while a monster bigger than the Earth was approaching, within 100,000 miles or whatever, and how different the monster would look based on time of day and the position of the sun and the moon.  

This anthology is also interesting because the voluble Isaac Asimov fills it with his opinions. He tries to psychoanalyze famous SF editor John Campbell Jr., he gloats over the victory of the communists in Vietnam, he brags that he was so bright as a child that he made people uneasy, he expresses his amazement that people would want to live in a small town instead of New York City, he lets you know who his favorite SF writer is (Arthur C. Clarke), he complains that the English language is sexist.  If you want insight into the opinions of one of the movers and shakers of the SF world, Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction, 5th Series, can help you fill that need.

"Ring Around the Redhead"

This is a trifling but pleasant story, full of jokes that are not actually funny but are not offensively bad either.  Gore and violent death are important elements in the story, but MacDonald endeavors to maintain a light-hearted tone.  In part the story is a satire of small town life - except for the inventor, everyone in the town is some kind of gossip, drunk, murderer, adulterer, etc.  

An inventor gets his hands on an artifact from another dimension after a government atomic test temporarily opens a gate to some other world.  The artifact is a large ring, like a hula hoop, I guess, and while you can't see through it, you can reach through it into other worlds. Moving the position of the hoop changes which dimension you can access; the number of worlds that can be accessed is practically infinite.

By chance a beautiful redheaded girl comes through the hoop and is stranded on Earth.  By subterfuge a greedy neighbor steals the hoop; this guy uses the hoop to bring valuable jewels to Earth, but in the process causes trouble for an advanced alien civilization.  The aliens kill him, and the inventor gets blamed, and is put on trial.


"A Child is Crying"

This is a very short story that includes the "predict the future via math" element we see in Asimov's Foundation stories (the first of which appeared in 1942), the "I know when you are going to die" element we see in Heinlein's 1939 "Life-Line," and the "psychic kid who is the next stage of human evolution" element I just read in Sturgeon's 1952 Baby is Three.  It is also an anti-nuclear war story.

A child of astonishing intelligence is born.  By age seven he knows more about physics than the top physicists.  He is so smart that he can hypnotize people.  He is so smart he can predict the future by simply examining the present state of things.  But he is totally unemotional, totally lacking in empathy, a mere calculating machine.  He doesn't care when his parents sell him to the Pentagon.  He admits that he has forseen an enemy attack on the United States, but he feels no desire to warn the people or government of the time or place of the attack.

Pentagon staff figure out a way to drug the kid so he is compelled to tell them when the enemy attack will come.  The kid informs them that the attack will occur within two months and a cataclysmic war will result.  All the Pentagon staff people will be killed, but the kid himself, and other super geniuses like him, will survive to build a unified global society.

I'm not sure why Asimov and Greenberg included this story in their book; there is nothing very special about it, the characters, plot and style are just adequate, and its ideas are not deeply explored.  Maybe they liked the idea of a bunch of cold-hearted geniuses inheriting the Earth, the way the story could be interpreted as pessimistic (our diverse and passionate civilization is going to be annihilated and replaced by a soulless one-world government of inhuman calculators with no religion, no art, no love) or optimistic (our stupid corrupt civilization of competing money grubbers and militarists is going to give way to a rational society without fear, superstition, or war.)



John D. MacDonald is a competent writer and these two stories are alright, but not anything special.  Maybe they serve as good examples of the sort of topics and tone you would find in the SF magazines in 1948.        

1 comment:

  1. You're right: the cover art is insane - creepy, almost!