Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

John D. MacDonald – SF writer?

The late, great John D. MacDonald is perhaps best known as the writer of many well-received psychological and suspense thrillers and, especially, the series of “men’s adventure” novels starring the popular character Travis McGee. But this post has nothing to do with that – if for no other reason than Greg Hatcher is the Junk Shop’s resident expert on that aspect of MacDonald’s body of work.

Nope, here I wanted to briefly touch on the oft-overlooked fact that MacDonald was also quite a prolific writer of science fiction, especially when he was first starting out as a writer. In fact, back in the 1940s and early 1950s, you would have been just as likely to see his name gracing the cover of a science fiction magazine as the cover of a detective or mystery magazine.

He had two stories in that issue of Super Science Stories, by the way, as ‘Peter Reed’ was one of his pseudonyms (the other was John Wade Farrell). Usually he used one of those names if more than one of his stories appeared in a single issue of a magazine.

Last summer, after reading the last few Travis McGee novels, I decided to move on to MacDonald’s science fiction oeuvre. I started out with his copious output for the pulp magazines. He wrote dozens (well over 40) short stories and novellas (which were called ‘novels’ in the pulp magazines; longer short stories were also referred to as ‘novelets’ or ‘novelettes’). Thanks to the Internet Archive, I’ve read most of them, since there are scans of tons of pulp magazines from the ’20s through the ‘50s posted there. (It takes a bit of digging – I used the Internet Speculative Fiction Database for a listing of MacDonald’s short stories, then went to the Internet Archive’s Pulp Magazine rack to track down the individual magazines.)

Thematically, MacDonald was all over the place. His stories ran the gamut of standard science fiction tropes like the development of FTL space travel, colonization of other worlds, alien invasions, technological advancements and their consequences (like apocalyptic wars), mind-reading and thought control, time travel, alternate universes, and everything in between. His writing style varied as well: normally he played it really straight, but a number of his stories have a pleasantly humorous tone.

I found one of his earlier stories, “The Mechanical Answer” (published in the May 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction) particularly interesting, in that it posits the possibility of artificial intelligence, and also anticipates some of the debates on the topic we’re still having today.

Most of his novellas are really good; two in particular that I liked are “Shadow in the Sand” (from the October 1950 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories) and “Hand from the Void” (from the January 1951 issue of Super Science Stories). The first involves a malevolent race from an alternate dimension that sends agents to Earth as a precursor to conquest. I found this one fascinating because MacDonald wove in some interesting political themes, like how authoritarian regimes and empires sustain themselves.

The other dimensional spies basically come to Earth via wormhole (although it’s not called that in the story)

“Hand from the Void” also involves political intrigues, this time by a galactic authority that’s manipulating events on Earth. Among other things, here MacDonald touches on a theme that comes up in several of his stories, i.e., the idea that humankind’s technological development has outpaced its emotional maturity, i.e., human nature is still stuck in the Paleolithic. Both stories really seem relevant to this day.

Otherwise, MacDonald also wrote three SF novels: two published in the early 1950s, Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom of the Skies, and one more in the early 1960s, The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything.

I have them in an omnibus edition, Time and Tomorrow:

I have to say, after reading his contributions to the pulps, I found the first two novels from the early ‘50s a tad disappointing. Neither of them is bad, and the basic premise of both is certainly intriguing. Wine of the Dreamers, set in the 1970s, centers around several people working on a top-secret spaceflight project who realize that they’re being visited in their dreams by humanoid aliens from a distant planet, who also have the ability to take over their bodies. Ballroom of the Skies, also set in the late 20th century, after World War  III (with India and Brazil as the world’s reigning superpowers), starts out well, almost like a spy thriller. The underlying theme of the book is that there’s a rather sinister design behind the seemingly endless sequence of warfare and strife that has beset human history. However, both, but especially the second one, seemed to meander toward the end. I also found the conclusion to Wine of the Dreamers a bit too pat. Personally, I think any of his novellas, like the two I mentioned above, could have been expanded into much better novels than these.

The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything though, is a hoot. Basically, the main character inherits a gold watch from his recently deceased, eccentric uncle, which ends up being a device that can stop time for everybody but the holder. His uncle used it to amass a fortune (most of which he gave away to charities and other worthy causes). It reads more like a caper story than a  science fiction novel. It was even adapted into a made-for-TV movie back in 1980 (which I recall watching), starring Robert Hayes and Pam Dawber – the whole thing’s posted on YouTube (although the picture quality is quite poor; unfortunately, it looks like it never had a later video release, so there’s no digital/DVD edition).

A selection of MacDonald’s SF short stories have been collected in Other Times, Other Worlds, which is a pretty good sampling, although it includes only one of his novellas, “Half-Past Eternity” – which, by the way, is quite good. (It involves a scientist who devises a process that allows a person to exist and function in accelerated time, sort of similar to the plot device in The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything.) This collection also includes a story called “The Annex” which can only be considered SF if you really squint. If anything, it’s more like a horror story, but just barely.

Ultimately, though, MacDonald gained the most fame – rightfully – for his many, more grounded, thrillers and especially the McGee novels. But I think his science fiction is definitely worth a look.


    1. Edo Bosnar

      Yeah, he wrote a *ton* of SF (just like, you know, he wrote a ton of stuff in general). I first noticed his by-line in the contents of certain SF magazines when I was looking for some of Leigh Brackett’s stories a few years ago – but I was still a bit surprised when I found the full listing of his stories at the ISFDB. It’s also impressive that a bunch of them are novellas.

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