Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Dance of a New World"

"Dance of a New World" was John D MacDonald's fifth published science fiction story, his third to appear in an s-f pulp magazine. Included in the September 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, it's a 5,800-word tale that is s-f in setting only, a story that MacDonald could have written taking place anywhere on Twentieth Century Earth. Plot notwithstanding, the piece is filled with beautifully drawn detail, remarkably prescient in places, that transport the reader thanks to MacDonald's characteristic skill.

Shane Brent is a young man working for the Investigative Section of Central Assignment, a government organization in charge of managing space travel from Earth. He is sitting in the offices of Solaray Plantations on Venus, trying to convince Hiram Lee, a retired space pilot, take on a seven year trip to a newly-discovered planet and to colonize it. At first Shane obfuscates, pretending to plead with Lee to go back to shuttle flights to and from Earth, a job Lee quit doing after the boredom of it nearly drove him crazy. He's trying to determine if Lee still has the psych profile to carry off such a long, possibly dangerous mission. After he reports back to his superiors with his findings, he makes an offer to Lee, who enthusiastically accepts.

Lee has been spending the past few years as a plantation overseer on Venus, where plant life grows with amazing speed, and where the enslaved native race -- called Harid -- do the harvesting. This strange, ant-like people are controlled electronically, but every once in a while one goes berserk, requiring immediate killing, usually at the end of a knife. This is the kind of work that Lee has grown to love, the danger and unpredictability of it keeping him emotionally alive. He will be accompanied on his long-distance trip by a woman, for companionship and eventual mating on the new colony, and it can be someone of his choosing, assuming she passes muster with Central. Lee has a particular young lady in mind, a beautiful blonde dancer who performs nightly at a local club. He's been after her for months, but she won't give him the time of day. He invites Shane to see her perform and to make her the offer.

Shane agrees, and is astounded when he sees the beautiful and mesmerizing Caren Ames perform a strange, dangerous dance before the rough and tumble crowd of human plantation workers. He manages to get her to come to their table after the act, only by then Lee is dead drunk, asleep with his head on the table. Which, actually, is okay with Shane...

The story's fairly predictable, and the characters are stock MacDonald-types: blonde, angular, gray-eyed Shane, and blonde, graceful, beautiful, embittered-but-reformable Caren. It's the future MacDonald creates with its little recognizable details that make "Dance of a New World" such a joy to read.

The Harid are described dispassionately, their fate at the hands of human oppressors told matter-of-factly. Without any effort or drawing attention to itself, MacDonald's prose illustrates a mankind that hasn't changed a bit:

"The Harids, with their ant culture, had put up a suicidal defense until General Brayton had discovered the wave length of the beamed thought waves which directed the thought waves of each colony. Science had devised stronger sending devices than the colony waves and suddenly the Harid were servants. Each foreman carried one of the wave boxes and directed his crew. Central Economics had proven that the use of Harids in the culture -- picking and drying of the herbs -- was cheaper than any mechanical devices which could be set up."

At his hotel, Shane listens to the news from home, a device MacDonald used often in his science fiction to make wry, often deadly accurate predictions:

"Crowds demonstrating in Asia-Block against the new nutrition laws. Project 80, two years out, said to be nearing Planet K. Skirts once again to be midway between knee and hip next season. The first bachelor parenthood case comes up to decide whether a child born of the fertilization of a laboratory ovum can legally inherit. Soon a clear definition of the legal rights of 'Synthetics' would have to be made."

After pushing a couple of buttons in his room to have a fresh Martini poured into his glass (gin button pushed three times, vermouth once):

"Down in the lobby the centralized accounting circuit buzzed and the price of the Martini was neatly stamped on his bill."

In his Afterward to Other Times, Other Worlds, MacDonald claimed that setting this story on Venus "strike[s] a false and strident note" with today's readers, because "we have since learned facts which make the setting impossible." Nonsense. The story is no less enjoyable because its setting is Venus than it is because mankind would never enslave another race (probably!), or that pilots would become bored with monotonous long journeys through space, or that MacDonald's heroes almost always have pale gray eyes. Readers -- at least this reader -- don't care about such things, as long as the writing is good and the author doesn't play any cheap tricks with the narrative. If MacDonald had ever been able to get over such mistaken notions, he might have gone on writing science fiction well into the later periods of his career.


  1. I'm re-reading all of JDM's Science Fiction in order right now. One thing you don't mention: This story is the debut of one of MacDonald's rare early attempts at a serial character. Shane Brent pops back up in the very next issue of ASTOUNDING in "School for the Stars", which is set about a month after this one and continues the preparation for Project Flight 81. Taken together they feel like the first two parts of a much longer story about Flight 81 that never got any further.

    1. Wow, that's a major find, Eric! In all my reading on JDM's work I've never read about anyone picking up on this.

  2. Really? That surprises me; but I suppose the fact that "Dance" has been reprinted several times while "School" apparently never has helped hide it. But I remember, when I first read "School" a few years ago, being struck at how odd the introduction to Shane and Caren felt. Since I hadn't read "Dance" in several years, I didn't make the connection then. But when I picked up OTOW to re-read a couple months the penny dropped. "School" reads much better if you have "Dance" reasonably fresh in your mind.

    Glad I could find something the JDM experts didn't notice; it's always fun when some detail like this comes to light.