"Induced delusions," the Hedonist said heavily. "The Council has perfected the sensies. Now, they're realies. The Council is going to make the Earth one hundred per cent happy."
"The Unhappy Man" (1955)
Josh Hunt is an overworked business executive, the kind of guy who scrutinizes the paper over breakfast, has a shouting match with the union rep before lunch, gets through the day by having his sexalicious blonde secretary "order a bicarbonate," and at night brings paperwork home, where he ignores his wife and his kids and eases the agony of his ulcer by drinking lots of booze. A new business starts advertising in Josh's town--Hedonics, Inc., a firm that promises to make people happy. Josh signs up for a trial of their service and on his first visit to the Hedonics office the Hedonics people's fire-and-forget medical technology automatically cures him of all his physical ailments in mere seconds. They promise to cure all of his psychological issues in mere minutes on his next visit tomorrow, and, if he signs a long term contract, over the succeeding weeks to cure every problem he has in his life! The Hedonics people's techniques enable them to gauge your personality with such exactitude that they can tell you exactly what to do with your life to achieve happiness, like what job to take, whether you should get married and have children, etc.
Josh smells a rat and while everybody in town signs long term contracts with Hedonics, Inc.--surrendering all their property and future earnings to the Big H in return for having computers solve all their physical, mental, career and life problems--Josh tries to resist and undermine Hedonics, Inc, which he imagines will soon have its tentacles in everybody's life and more or less rule the world. But Josh is defeated--Hedonics, Inc. actually succeeds in making all of its clients happy, and the government is full of Hedonics clients who have no interest in contesting Big H's grip on society.
This story is acceptable; it is a utopian idea story, a sort of wish fulfillment fable for people who hate rough and tumble capitalism and dream that somebody will solve their problems for them, not the sort of SF story I generally favor, a story of realistic speculation or a human drama with compelling characters or an exciting action adventure story. But if you think submitting to the will of eggheads and their infallible machinery can create heaven on Earth, maybe you'll like it more than I did.
"The Naked Sky" (1955)
"The Naked Sky" is more adventure-oriented than "The Unhappy Man;" the opening scene is about a Terran on Venus trying to capture a mysterious alien who is disguised as a human and can move at 200km/h. This scene is followed by exposition about how mankind is terraforming Venus; in fifty or so years the surface of Venus will be comfortable enough that the three million human colonists on that second planet from our sun will be movin' on up out of their underground city and on to a surface much like Earth's.
These colonists haven't heard from the mother world in some fifty years. Now that the colony is in danger from these camouflaged aliens, it is decided that somebody should go to Earth and see what is up--maybe Terra can offer some aid. As on Earth when the first colonists left it, the society on Venus is run on hedonic lines, with happiness the first and foremost goal, and so D'glas, who doesn't enjoy his job driving a combine on the surface, is chosen for the mission. (Their hedonic training enables most of the colonists to relish the boring labor of terraforming Venus, but while he has had the same education as everybody else, D'glas is something of a skeptic and a dissident and not quite in tune with the whole hedonic program.)
On Earth, D'glas, accustomed to living in an underground city and working under thick cloud cover, finds the wide blue sky of Terra unnerving, especially after the stress of the long lonely space flight. He finds that while the city around Earth's space port is deserted, everything is obviously being cleaned and maintained; the automatic amenities--moving sidewalks, vending machines, arcade games--are still operating smoothly. Gunn spends a lot of time describing D'glas's explorations of the abandoned facilities, playing the arcade games and using the vending machines and so forth. Finally he meets a man who promises to take the Venusian to "the Council" who will answer his questions.
The trip to the Council is via an open car subway train, one that, I suppose in keeping with the hedonic philosophy of fun fun fun, is built to function as a roller coaster. Not only does it have the radical ascents and drops of a roller coaster, but, after the big dive, holograms or hypno illusions of fire, seductive women and sinister monsters simulate a descent into Hell--these are the women and monsters Finlay chose as the subjects of his engrossing title page illustration. (Wisely, Finlay in his drawing offers no clue that D'glas is on a roller coaster and the women and demons are mere illusions.) D'glas's guide offers philosophical and psychological commentary about our need for sin and guilt and how you can't appreciate something without having also experienced its opposite. (In related news, D'glas appreciates Venus more after seeing what is going on on Earth.)
Soon after climbing off the coaster at their destination, a young woman comes out of nowhere to throw a rock at D'glas's Virgil; the "man" collapses after a hit to the noggin, and D'glas sees wires through the hole of his "wound"--this guy was a robot, a robot fragile enough that a rock thrown by a young woman can penetrate its artificial skull and render it totally inoperative.
Gunn's decision to have the woman attack with a rock is an inexplicable one, because when D'glas catches up to this hit and run assailant he discovers she has an entire arsenal of firearms and explosives carefully organized in the corner of a ruined library that is her lonely home. Susan claims to be the last real human being left on Earth, and after she has used an X-ray to assure herself D'glas is also human they fall in love--even though their hedonic training has counselled them to avoid making their happiness hostage to another--and have sex.
D'glas gets his mind back on his mission and sneaks away from Susan to investigate this Council he's been hearing about. He discovers that almost the entirety of Earth's human population of five billion are now nearly immortal dreamers, floating in chambers full of amniotic fluid, fed via an umbilical cord while hypno devices fill their minds with super realistic dreams of happiness. (The idea that the logical conclusion of hedonism--or maybe just the wrong kind of hedonism--is to reduce people to babies was foreshadowed in the start of the story when it is brought to our attention that one of the leaders of the Venus colony always has a pacifier in his mouth.)
Captured by robots, D'glas is taken to the telepathic main computer which replaced the human Council that once ruled the Earth and has inherited its title. D'glas and the master computer have a philosophical discussion about what constitutes happiness, the meaning of life, and so forth. The computer claims to be following the mission it was programmed to pursue--make people happy--in the most efficient way possible, but D'glas maintains that a life of easy happiness imposed from without, for people and for a society, is no life at all--true happiness comes from within and is the product of accomplishment, of facing risk and overcoming obstacles to achieve goals. The computer also confirms that the "aliens" that have been appearing on Venus are its scouts, that it is extending to Venus its mission of guaranteeing 100% human happiness by turning everybody into what amounts to a powerless dreaming fetus.
The Council tries to break the resistance of D'glas and Susan, to addict them to its happy hypnotic illusions, but D'glas is a tough nut to crack--he can always tell he's in what we might now call "the Matrix," no matter how awesome the dream fed into his brain. He realizes that anger somehow disrupts the effect of the computer's telepathic powers and tells this to Susan, and they both preserve their free will, flummox the computer with a tough question ("Are you happy?"), make their way to its control room, and reprogram it in such a way that is rendered inert (by ordering it to make itself happy, so that it gives itself pacifying dreams.) Making the computer turn inward in this way consigns to death most of the five billion living fetus-like in those fluid chambers, but, as he and Susan fly off to Venus, D'glas presumably tells himself those people were just clumps of cells and caring for them would interfere with his career of terraforming Venus and paving the way for human conquest of the universe.
Yes, in classic SF fashion, we get a sense of wonder ending--humanity having successfully resisted the temptations of a misguided version of hedonics, the philosophy of hedonics rightly understood will foster the human race's exploration of the entire galaxy.
(If we consider "The Unhappy Man" and "The Naked Sky" together as a unit, which makes sense as they ended up being components of the same novel, maybe we can make Gunn's argument a little more compelling, at least for you college-educated types. Perhaps Josh's bourgeois capitalist world of individualism in which everybody works so hard they lose their families and have to drink a lot of bicarbs and whiskey and sodas to function is the thesis, and the tyrannical collectivist world of extreme Hedonism in which people revert to infancy or the womb is the antithesis, and the interstellar community D'glas and Susan will help create will be a stable and enduring synthesis with a balance of individualism and elite intervention and planning.)
Its action-adventure elements, intellectual elements and literary elements all being sort of mediocre, "The Naked Sky" is merely acceptable, a long filler story. Thank God Virgil Finlay was there to give Startling's readers their 25 cents' worth.
Renamed "The Joy Ride," "The Naked Sky" was included in a 1975 Gunn collection entitled The End of the Dreams. "The Naked Sky" is a much more poetic title, but "The Joy Ride" actually suits the story's plot and themes.
"Name Your Pleasure" (1955)
In fact, the main plot of "Name Your Pleasure" has a lot to do with his relationship with the latest of these women he is training, Beth. Despite hedonic prohibitions on becoming emotionally attached to individuals, he is kind of sweet on this girl who is 33 years younger than he is, and it makes him a little uneasy to cut off their relationship now the time has come for her to marry. After a dozen or so pages that introduce us to the Hedonist and the Earth he inhabits, the action-adventure plot gets going. The Hedonist is called to meet with the ruling Hedonist Council in their skyscraper HQ, and when he hails a helicab he is amazed to see who it is at the controls--Beth, who is too young to rent an aircraft! Beth, it turns out, is some kind of rebel and an adept at deception, forgery and even fighting! And spying! Beth shares some crucial inside information--the Council has it in for our hero! She urges the Hedonist to skip his appointment, but he goes anyway.
At the meeting, the Hedonist realizes his career is over. The Council has perfected a hypno system that gives people superrealistic dreams--now people can be made 100% happy without ever leaving their rooms, as we saw in "The Naked Sky." The Hedonist opposes imposition of such a system, just as in the past he has opposed the Council's sale of neo-heroin and use of the "sensies"--he thinks that happiness isn't something the government can just give to you, but something you have to achieve for yourself, that the government should limit itself to guiding people in their own quest to win happiness, not just give them happiness via drugs or induced delusions. An obstacle to imposition of the new policy, the Council is determined to neutralize him. So, he escapes the skyscraper by climbing out the window of the bathroom, and is saved from lobotomization by the Council or death from a fall of twenty-nine stories by the opportune arrival of Beth in her helicopter. ("Name Your Pleasure" has the strong resourceful woman we are all supposed to be looking for in our fiction, but I guess it doesn't pass the Bolshoi Test because Beth devotes her abilities to preserving the man she loves.)
Beth flies them to the ruins of the old city, where there is a crater from a nuclear weapon detonation, the space port, and the Strip, a sort of red light district with gambling and erotic entertainments. (The crater is visible on the cover of Thrilling Wonder--the explosion in the sky is their chopper, which Beth sent back to New City on automatic control, where it was shot down by the government.) The Hedonist ends up going to a bunch of places D'glas goes to in "The Naked Sky"--I thought those scenes in "The Naked Sky" long and superfluous filler, but I guess Gunn meant them to serve to tie the stories together.
Taking advantage of the semi-anonymity of the Strip (people wear concealing masks like at Carnival), the Hedonist tries to contact other ward rulers to enlist them in a plan of working within the political and legal system to stop the Council's radical hypno illusion agenda and preserve the status quo. But his experience mirrors that of Josh in "The Unhappy Man" when that businessman tried to stop Hedonism, Inc. forty or whatever years ago: the politicians are already in full support of the Council's projected reforms, and the other ward leaders, he learns, are all too scared or too worn out to resist the Council. The sad fact the Hedonist must face is that the classic hedonism he believes in is not a sustainable system--it turns out that our hero is the best Hedonist in the world, the only one who really believes in classic hedonism and practices it! His colleagues at the top of all the other wards are cracking under the stress of being responsible for the happiness of 1,000 people, and welcome giving up their jobs and having their charges hypno-anesthetized--hell, they welcome being hypno-anesthetized themselves, according to one old chum from hedonism college, Lira, who has been a neo-heroine addict for years. (Under collectivist dictatorial hedonism the middle classes are suffering the same fate Josh suffered under individualistic liberal capitalism!)
"Name Your Pleasure" is quite a bit better than "The Unhappy Man" and "The Naked Sky." It is more focused and direct--Gunn's points are more clearly made, both the attack on our 20th-century individualistic society and the argument that true happiness does not come from external shortcuts like drugs and induced dreams. Hedonism's philosophy and techniques are better explained and more interesting. Less encumbered by fat and filler than "The Naked Sky," the plot moves more quickly and satisfyingly. The characters and human drama are also better--Morgan the Hedonist and Beth have sympathetic human motivations and reactions to their environment and situations, and the Hedonist evolves as a character in ways people in the other two stories do not as he realizes the government and philosophy he has served faithfully for so long is terribly flawed and falls in love with Beth. Morgan's escape from the Council's skyscraper with Beth's help is actually a good action scene, complete with fun high tech devices. Unlike "The Unhappy Man" and "The Naked Sky," which are merely tolerable, I can actually recommend "Name Your Pleasure."
"Name Your Pleasure" would be reprinted in the 1974 collection Some Dreams are Nightmares under the title "The Hedonist." This book announces on its cover that it is illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher like that is a big selling point, but when I looked at the scan of the book at the internet archive I was surprised to find that the interior illos are as sterile and lame as the one on the cover.
I skimmed much of the book. Significantly, The Joy Makers does not feel like a fix-up, a bunch of stories that originally were totally distinct and were forced together--to their detriment in many cases--to form an episodic novel like so many A. E. van Vogt novels; the three tales are more like entries in a future history that were always meant to be published together and they actually work better when they appear in concert than individually.
I didn't see any major changes to the text of the story--some typos had been fixed, and some new ones introduced. I did find a new paragraph had been added to "Name Your Pleasure," but it wasn't a big deal, and when Morgan dons a mask in the Strip that makes him look like a drooling imbecile, and his old school chum has on a mask depicting a scared man, Gunn refers to them as "the Idiot" and "Fear" instead of the "The Hedonist" and "Lira," I guess trying to make any symbolism more obvious.
Significantly, The Joy Makers does not feel like a fix-up, a bunch of stories that originally were totally distinct and were forced together--to their detriment in many cases--to form an episodic novel like so many A. E. van Vogt novels; the three tales are more like entries in a future history that were always meant to be published together and actually work better when they appear in concert than individually.
Seeing as the stories are almost identical to their magazine appearances, the hardcover book's ancillary material actually provided me more to chew on than did its presentation of Gunn's texts.
In his Foreword, Isaac Asimov explains the rationale behind the series: because magazines and paperbacks are so fragile, some great SF works, especially ones that are, Asimov says, "too good to be immediately popular" because of their subtlety, risk falling into oblivion. The Classics of Modern Science Fiction series aims to preserve in hardcover just such classics, selected by George Zebrowski and Martin H. Greenberg, that were undervalued when they initially appeared. Asimov doesn't name any authors or books in this foreword--I think the same Foreword appeared in all ten books in the series.
In his Introduction, George Zebrowski, however, names names. He numbers James E. Gunn among a group of SF writers that includes William Tenn, Robert Sheckley, Algis Budrys and Chad Oliver, men he says have bodies of work comparable to those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert but who have not achieved the popularity of those iconic figures.
I'm not really familiar with Herbert and Tenn, so I'll put them to the side, but it seems obvious why Asimov and Clarke the science geniuses and Heinlein and Bradbury, who have distinctive and pleasing writing styles as well as points of view about human life that suggest people are capable of great things as well as dreadful things, are more popular than Sheckley, Budrys and Oliver, who, in my opinion, don't exactly have winning writing styles and who, in my experience, single-mindedly bang away at the same unappealing, somewhat misanthropic, themes again and again.
Zebrowski doesn't exactly contradict my assessment, but certainly puts a rosier spin on things by theorizing that Gunn, Tenn, Sheckley, Budrys and Oliver's relative lack of fame is due partly because their work makes use of irony and offers an "incisive, often comic, view of humanity," and the general public doesn't appreciate irony and misses the point. (Yeah, that's the ticket, people prefer Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury to Robert Sheckely and Chad Oliver because people are dumb!) Zebrowski then quotes the many accolades from critics that The Joy Makers has received over the years, tells us it is "delicious," and predicts that our own society will face the dilemma depicted in the novel, of having to choose between real life and immersive artificial entertainment.
I don't think that The Joy Makers is "delicious," by any means; I think it is just OK. But Asimov's invocation of subtlety and Zebrowski's of irony made me wonder about how "The Unhappy Man" and "Name Your Pleasure," viewed in isolation from "The Naked Sky" as they were in magazine form, certainly seem to be advocating that you surrender your property and autonomy to experts who have been selected for altruism and are equipped with advanced technology--maybe they are in fact a satire of people who advocate such ideas?
Well, either way, the stories that are the component parts of The Joy Makers are acceptable examples of the SF that is about ideas instead of adventure or human drama (Zebrowski dismisses such SF as being "naively heroic" and "sentimental" and directed at "adolescents." Ouch!)
More SF stories from the 1950s next time...if there is a next time!