Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ballroom of the Skies

Ballroom of the Skies was John D MacDonald's sixth published novel, coming right after Wine of the Dreamers and before The Damned. Like Dreamers (his other early science fiction novel), it originally appeared in hardcover, published by Greenberg in what must have been a fairly limited run. But instead of enjoying a subsequent paperback edition (like Dreamers), it was reprinted in a magazine nearly two years later, included as one of the two novels in the Winter 1953 issue of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books. Then, like Dreamers, it went out of print and remained largely forgotten until both novels were reissued in 1968. As a result I think it's safe to say that, until 1968, Ballroom of the Skies was MacDonald's most obscure novel ever.

The book is usually referred to as a "companion piece" to Wine of the Dreamers, in that both books are JDM's only novels of straight science fiction, they both appeared at about the same time, and they both are built around a similar premise: that mankind's ageless, unsolvable problems are the result of alien influence and control. Hardly a new or unique idea, the "aliens are among us" idea goes back at least as far as 1931's "The Earth-Owners" by Edmond Hamilton and has been popularized most recently in the television series Battlestar Galactica with their "skin jobs." The publication of MacDonald's novels coincided with the cresting of a wave of anti-communism that occurred in the United States in the early 1950's, along with the concurrent fear that our enemies were secretly infiltrating our society, and they looked just like us! This "Paranoid" school of science fiction enjoyed a huge surge of popularity that decade, both in the printed word and in the movies, and it continues today, only slightly abated, with television series such as The Invaders and, more recently, The X-Files.

MacDonald's spin on the idea was that the aliens aren't actually among us but they control us, or some of us, from afar. In both of his novels this control is purely mental, where the outsiders are capable of entering and taking over our minds, enabling them to use our bodies for their nefarious purposes. It is those very purposes that differentiate JDM's two works. In Wine of the Dreamers the controllers are unaware of what they are doing, believing that the dreams they have where they take over other life forms are just that: dreams. In Ballroom there is both purpose and intent: the aliens know exactly what they are doing.

The post-World War III Earth of Ballroom is a different world from the one of 1952, but only by degree. With Europe finally a wasteland, and the United States damaged and out of natural resources, the new world is a reorganized group of aligned nations, with reunited "Pak-India" the world's industrial leader. Coalition nations have formed out of necessity, with the fascist South America (led by Brazil), China and the Middle East (now called Irania) providing the new friction that seems to be leading to a fourth world war. Dake Lorin is an idealistic newspaper columnist who has taken a year off in order to work with another idealist, Darwin Branson, a man who has been asked by the President of the United States to work with the other powers of the world to hammer out some sort of mutual assistance pact. It has taken a full year of "cautious dickering [and] meetings in furtive places" in order to get to where he is at the beginning of the book, nearly done, awaiting only a meeting with the representative from Irania to obtain their final agreement.

As he waits for both Dake and the representative, he is visited by a young couple. In the time it would take to wash his hands they have killed and replaced him with a dronish substitute. They disappear in a flash, "flickering like black flames" from the roofs and ledges of the nearby buildings before vanishing altogether. Dake arrives with the representative and is astounded when Branson basically scuttles the agreement by offering a cynical deal with the Irania government. A disgusted Dake quits and resolves to risk life and limb by publishing a column revealing his work for the past year, showing readers just how close the world came to a lasting peace.

The enervation of society in the United States is wonderfully described by MacDonald early in the novel, where he paints a post-apocalyptic world all too familiar to readers in 2009:

"The war of the seventies had caused a further moral deterioration. Man sought escape in orgy, in soul-deadening drugs, in curious sadisms. Along 165th Street the fleng joints were in full cry. In the mouth of an alley three women, loaded to the gills with prono, were mercilessly beating a Japanese sailor. Giggling couples pushed their way into a dingy triditorium to rent the shoddy private rooms where the three gleaming curved walls were three-dimensional scenes for a life-size, third rate showing of one of the obscene feature shows turned out in the listless Hollywood mill. Censorship restricted such public showings to heterosexual motifs, but further uptown, private triditoriums showed imported specialties that would gag a gnu."

That was written in 1952, and one wonders if his prescience was too kind.

Dake needs to find a newspaper willing to publish his expose, and that won't be easy in this restrictive and censorious new society. He finally finds a run-down rag who will run it as a paid advertisement, but it will cost Dake far more money than he has. He decides to ask his on-again-off-again girlfriend Patrice Togelson for the money, and flies from New York to Philadelphia to meet with her. Patrice is wealthy, a result of a family oil fortune and a hard-headed, pragmatic business sense. Despite her misgivings, she gives Dake the money and he returns to New York to begin typing out his story.

That's when the really strange things begin to happen. He starts hallucinating, imagining that he is suddenly in a cow pasture. Then back in the newspaper office, he starts typing gibberish, later seeing a tiny reproduction of Patrice's face on each key, faces that become smashed and bloodied and cry out in pain as he strikes the keys. After hearing a report on the radio announcing that Darwin Branson has died suddenly, he drives to the morgue to inspect the body, finding strange anomalies. Convinced that the corpse is not Branson, Dake begins questioning his own sanity. Then he meets Karen Voss.

Karen possesses strange, extra-sensory powers that the reader is made aware of, but not Dake. She takes him under her wing and introduces him to her friends. (She is described as having "curiously pale gray eyes," so MacDonald fans know instantly that she's a good guy.) After much more unexplained phenomena, including one that literally drives Patrice to insanity, Dake learns who Karen really is and suddenly finds himself on another world, in training to be able to do what Karen does and ultimately return to Earth.

Brimming with ideas and predictions of the future, Ballroom of the Skies almost chokes to death on its own detail. MacDonald is obviously taken with his future society and writes page after page on its politics and morality. It's tough going early on, and the first half of the book has lost more than one reader I am aware of. Thankfully the story begins humming along nicely once Dake is carted off to God-knows-where (actually a planet called Manarr), and when he returns to Earth MacDonald writes some of the best suspense of his early career. But getting there can take a lot out of the reader.

Writing in the third person allows the author to reveal things that Dake is unaware of, and it is this device that ironically both helps and hinders the narrative. We see bits and pieces of the alien insurgency, explaining the oddities that leave Dake wondering about his own sanity. These scenes often become overly confusing and slow the pace of the story considerably. At one point MacDonald completely departs from both the plot and his own writing style when he offers a brief description of Manarr. It's a wonderfully written paragraph that reads like he's channeling Bradbury, but jarring nonetheless:

"It was a fine summer morning on Manarr. The sun beamed hot on the shallow placid seas, on the green rolling traces of the one-time mountains. The fi-birds dipped over the game fields, teetering on membranous green wings, yelping like the excited children. Picnic day. Picnic day. Everyone was coming, as everyone had always come. Hurrying from the warm pastels of the small houses that dotted the wide plains, hurrying by the food stations, the power boxes. Hooray for picnic day. The smallest ones set their tiny jump-sticks at their widest settings and did crazy clumsy leaps in the warm air, floating, sprawling, nickering. The maidens had practiced the jump-stick formations and groups of them played towering, floating games of leapfrog on the way to the game fields, spreading wide their skirts, swimming through the perfect air of this day... Picnic day. Today there would be water sculpture, and sky dancing, and clowns. Day of laughter, evening of the long songs, night of mating. Time for work tomorrow..."

His depiction of some of the social problems in this new order are insightful, none more so than the plight of "the Negro":

"Though the war of the seventies had done much to alleviate racial tensions in the United States, there had still been small though influential Negro groups who had joyously welcomed the dominance of a dark-skinned race in world affairs. They had soon found, to their dismay, that the Pak-Indians were supremely conscious of being, in truth, an Aryan race, and brought to any dealings with the Negro that vast legacy of hatred from the years of tension in Fiji culminating in the interracial wars."

His ruminations on a has-been United States sounds like something out of today's global warming controversies:

"We had it, he thought, and we threw it away. We ripped our iron and coal and oil out of the warm earth, used our copper and our forests and the rich topsoil, and hurled it all at our enemies, and conquered them, and were left at last with the empty ravaged land."

As he did in Wine of the Dreamers, he presents a newscast depicting current affairs, both as a means of exposition and a way to vent his predictions:

"Massacre in a religious encampment in Iowa. Fire razes abandoned plant of Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Gurkah Air Force takes long-term lease on Drew Field in Florida, in conjunction with the missile launching stations at Cocoa. Maharani kidnap attempt foiled. Skyrocketing murder statistics blamed on prono addiction, yet growers' lobby thwarts legislative control. Bigamy legalized in California after Supreme Court review. Tridi starlet found dead in bed. New North China conscription planned. Brazil develops deadly new virus mutation. New soil deficiency isolated at Kansas lab. Texas again threatens succession..."

MacDonald saves his most savage predictions for his own country, as he envisions a tired, corrupt and jaded former superpower, one where there is no hope for the next generation:

"He felt uneasy riding through the dark streets with money in his wallet. Philadelphia was infested with child gangs. The dissolution and decay of the school system had put them on the streets. They had the utter, unthinking ruthlessness of children in all ages. The guerrilla days had filled the land with weapons. Put an antique zip-gun in the hands of an eleven-year-old child from a prono-saturated home, and you had an entity which thought only in terms of the pleasing clatter of the gun itself, with imagination so undeveloped as yet that the adults who were ripped by the slugs were not creatures capable of feeling pain, but merely exciting symbols of an alien race..."

Sound familiar?

Raymond Carney, an English Professor at Middlebury College, wrote an essay on MacDonald's science fiction novels back in 1980, titled "John MacDonald and the Technologies of Knowledge" and published in the JDM Bibliophile (#26). He called the novels "extraordinary science fiction" and concluded that:

"...MacDonald avoids being trapped by any of the various plots he plots. The success of his writing depends on his ability to deploy and negotiate the intersecting technologies of law, bureaucracy, history, and memory more deftly and humanely than even the best of his readers. The positive value that is affirmed by these novels is nothing very complicated -- it is something very [much] like an almost childish tenderness and affection for particular people and things. The value MacDonald appears to cherish above all else is simply the thoroughly human capacity to love, to play, to inquire, and to explore, in short man's ability by virtue of his mere humanity to resist any inhumane system that would contain or control him."

I think that sums up all of MacDonald's writing, not just his science fiction, and it reached its apogee in the Travis McGee novels.

As I mentioned in my posting on Wine of the Dreamers a few weeks back, the fact that Ballroom of the Skies originally appeared in hardcover allowed MacDonald to enjoy some of the only contemporaneous book reviews he would receive in his early career as a novelist. The Shines report that the book received notices in the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Saturday Review, along with a smattering of science fiction magazines. The reviews were generally favorable, although many of the reviewers definitely understood the novel's shortcomings. Startling Stories pointed out that "the story gallop[s] off in all directions," and the Herald Tribune noted that the "novel is a little less successful than its concept." The Saturday Review correctly said the "material often escapes the author's control," while the St. Louis Dispatch presciently opined "Mr. MacDonald should go back to writing detective novels."

He did, returning only once more to science fiction in 1962 with the breezy, comic novel The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything, a book the author rarely even considered science fiction, but fantasy.

Update (1/19/2015): In March of 2010 I decided to write a piece on MacDonald's January 1951 science fiction novella, "Hand From the Void," a work I had not read before. I discovered that it was, in many respects, an early version of Ballroom of the Skies, a fact that I had never known or heard about. You can read the posting here.

1 comment:

  1. Very happy to now have finished this novel – my 43rd by JDM – after a difficult start and decision at about page 75 to start over from the beginning. I'm glad that I did, and in hindsight find the premise and construction of the story really quite good. MacDonald goes into quite a bit of detail early on regarding the political state of the world, some of which you expect to see resurface later in the novel. But not much of it actually does. As you point out in your post on this novel, many of the predictions are prescient, but MacDonald misses the boat when it comes to the technology of communication, although to be fair, I guess we were still using mostly typewriters and conventional telephones and reading newspapers in the early 80s, when this story seems to take place. The story moves from one of global perspective to the much more private one of Dake Lorin, and becomes more engaging as it does. I appreciate your putting the novel in the context of the Red Scare of the 50s, and it also reminds me of the slightly later 1956 movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." I'm glad to have finished it, and can now move on to the next without a guilty conscious.