Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Wine of the Dreamers

Wine of the Dreamers, John D MacDonald's fourth or fifth published novel (depending how you're counting), has an interesting history. Originally appearing in the May 1950 issue of Startling Stories, it was subsequently published in book form, in late 1951, as a hardcover -- MacDonald's first -- and didn't appear in paperback until May 1953, under the title Planet of the Dreamers. Both versions went through only one edition before disappearing completely. It wasn't until late 1968 that MacDonald's editor Knox Burger convinced him to issue new versions of both Dreamers and MacDonald's other early science fiction novel, Ballroom of the Skies. MacDonald wrote a special Afterward that appeared in both novels, where he justified the idea of the re-releases and admitted (somewhat defensively) that he thought the books had aged rather well.

Both are, in my opinion, excellent novels and excellent science fiction, although I can claim no expertise in the later. I've always preferred Dreamers over Ballroom, simply because I feel the characters are more engaging, the plot is constructed with more care, and the central idea behind the book is more cleverly realized. Both books deal with the same theme, or question: What is the cause of "the wellspring of the random wars and killings that [occupies] men's souls," and, why does mankind stumble and fall so often in its progression to a desired perfection? The answer, according to MacDonald (in both books) is an unknown, ongoing alien intervention. In Ballroom it is for weal, in Dreamers it's for woe.

The setting takes place in two locations: Earth in 1975 (25 years after the novel was written), and on the planet of the Dreamers. Brad Lane is the director of the secret Project Tempo, one of many attempts at building an extraterrestrial spacecraft on Earth. He is assisted by Sharan Inly, Project Assistant in Charge of Psycho-Adjustment. Sharan is necessary because this project, like all others before it, is bedeviled by sudden and inexplicable sabotage, carried out by trusted members of the project team. There is no predicting when this will take place, or who will carry it out, but in each case the person will behave normally, then go nuts and wreck some all-important piece of necessary machinery before reverting back to normal, unable to explain why they did what they did.

On another world many light years away, a race of pale, child-like beings live inside an enclosed world and live to dream. They dream inside of large, tube-like devices which they are permitted to enter upon reaching adulthood. Their dreams all take place in three different and separate settings: a world of entities far more mentally and technologically evolved than they are, a world of near primitive beings, and a world somewhere in between. The dreamers amuse themselves by entering the minds of the people they dream about, take over their minds, and force them to do what they wish. This can be anything from enjoying a good romp in the hay, to savagely annihilating other beings in cold blood. It's all good, because they're only dreams.

There are a few rules, though, and the most important one is this: If any person in the middle world makes any progress in their attempts to go beyond their own planet, they must be stopped.

Raul Kinson is a member of this dreaming society, but he's a bit different than everyone else: more curious, more inquisitive, and built more firmly than the other rather enervated beings there. He begins to explore his walled world, even though it's strictly forbidden, and discovers a huge repository of history, untouched for eons, written by the predecessors of this society. He also learns -- by seeing -- that the world he lives in does indeed extend beyond the walls everyone else accepts as reality. Looking out of a window at the very top of the structure his people live in, he sees what he later learns are rocket ships, several of them, sitting on a vast plain in a nearly dead world.

What if the dreams are not just dreams? He and his sister Leesa break another of their society's rules and attempt to directly communicate with two beings in the middle world. Guess which two?

The Earth of 1975 is cleverly and presciently explained to the reader in the form of a news broadcast played on a (hydrogen) car radio at the beginning of the story. The "Paris Conference" continues apace, with no sign of a breakthrough, and the Pan-Asian delegate is called back to Moscow to receive instructions on the Siberian agreement. The new slot-machine divorce law has just gone into effect in Nevada. The Speaker of the House was reprimanded for shooting fellow delegates with a bubblegum pea shooter. A New Jersey landlady has murdered six of her tenants with a steak tenderizer and is still at large. The new beachwear for women in France is halters-only, and the latest drink craze is Wilkins' Mead, a non-alcoholic, non-habitforming beverage that "cures boredom through a simple process of intensifying ... reception to stimuli... You have never really seen a sunset, enjoyed a kiss, tasted a steak until you have had your handy lip-sized bottle of Wilkins' Mead!"

MacDonald tells this tale with his typical style and suspense, drawing characters who seem real and who act, even for a science fiction story, like real people do. The reader is swept along in a plot with suspense and surprise, and the world of the Dreamers is imaginatively created and becomes strikingly real. In the end, it's less of a story about the future than a tale of people interacting for a better good and their ultimate happiness. It is for this reason, I believe, that this book resonates so well with readers not used to a steady diet of science fiction.

Wine of the Dreamers, probably because of it's genre (and the fact that it came out in hardcover), was the most widely reviewed of MacDonald's early novels. Indeed, it is the only novel written before 1953's Dead Low Tide to receive any contemporaneous reviews, with the exception of Ballroom. Most of the reviews were positive, and he even got a few lines in the New York Times Book Review, which called Dreamers "taught and suspenseful ... [with] real excitement and more depth than most." Many of the science fiction magazines of the time also reviewed it favorably.

That MacDonald felt it necessary to include an Afterward with the 1968 re-release shows a bit of unease on his part at how the books would be viewed after nearly 20 years, and reveals something about why he abandoned writing science fiction years ago:

"Herein there are no bug-eyed monsters, except for the ones forever-resident in the human heart. There are no lovlies being rescued by space explorers from giant insects who talk in clicks and carry disintegrators. No methane atmospheres. Nothing emerging from the evil swamps. Not even a single dutiful robot, harboring either electronic love or the cross-wired circuitry of rebellion. Because of these omissions I may well be responsible, also, for turning off the hard-core aficionado of science fiction who, because these are more about people than things, might also term them 'silly.'"
This upset at least one s-f fan, who wrote in the pages of Yandor, a s-f fan publication, "In the afterword, the author manages to insult science fiction and display a none-too-well founded smugness about his books... the characters are no more and no less cardboard than the characters in the rest of science fiction in those days." Another wrote, in a different fanzine, "It is typical of the poorer, amateurish writing of the time. MacDonald does a great deal to prove his ignorance of modern science fiction... Before he acts as a critic of science fiction, I suggest he read some. I received the impression he quit reading [it] around 1955 and has coasted along until now, when he got out his old book and a soapbox to speak from."

Yet both reviewers recommended reading it.
MacDonald's Afterword was really written for his regular fans, not the readers of science fiction. No better testimony could be given for anyone who enjoys a good story and good writing, no matter what the context.

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