Friday, January 8, 2010

"Trojan Horse Laugh"

John D MacDonald's experiments in science fiction occupied a relative brief period of his writing career. If we exclude two oddball tales published in 1947 ("Hole in None" in Liberty and "The Pedans Box" in Bluebook), it began in February 1948 with "Cosmetics," a short story published in Astounding Science Fiction. MacDonald would go on to write nine more s-f stories that year, 16 in 1949 and 14 in 1950 (including "Wine of the Dreamers," which later became his first s-f novel). He produced only seven in 1951, two in 1952 and a single tale in 1953, after which he was basically done with the genre. He has said he enjoyed the freedom science fiction offered, as well as the fact that it was a huge market back when short fiction filled the magazine racks of this country. As a "dabbler" in the trade, he was certainly not alone, as other early writers of s-f -- Kurt Vonnegut, John Jakes and Michael Shaara, to name a few -- later moved on into other fields of writing.
MacDonald published five stories in Astounding Science Fiction, one of the premier s-f pulps of the day, and one of the few that still survives. In began in 1930 under the name Astounding Stories of Super-Science and is published today as Analog Science Fiction and Fact. From 1937 to 1971 it operated under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr, whose influence cannot be overstated, and who was responsible for MacDonald's stories being published there.

"Trojan Horse Laugh" was the fifth and final story, published in August 1949. It is an 18,000 word novella that takes place in the near future and involves science fiction only slightly. It is really an invasion story, with the invaders being humans, not aliens, from either the Soviet Union or China (it is never made clear). It is their method for invading that provides the science fiction. The story has its most obvious antecedent in Robert Heinlein's "Sixth Column," which was originally published in 1941 (in ASF) as "The Day After Tomorrow" and which was reprinted as a hardcover book in 1949. Interestingly, the original idea for "Sixth Column" came from Campbell. Also, when it was originally published in 1941 it appeared under Heinlein's pseudonym, Anson MacDonald.

One imagines that Campbell recognized what he was reading when he received JDM's "Trojan Horse Laugh" and it followed closely the editor's dictum -- as described by David Pringle in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia -- that human ingenuity should always triumph over "all things alien," even if the aliens were fellow human beings. But far from being a copy of Heinlein, "Trojan Horse Laugh" contains a genuinely original premise, and the first half of the novella is the story of how the invasion was engineered, while the remainder concerns the hero's exploits in a guerrilla movement to drive the invaders out of the country.

Happiness, Incorporated is a mysterious new company that has managed to convince the mid-sized city of Daylon (Dayton?) to become a testing ground for its product. In general terms, they sell "happiness," but specifically they have developed a method to iron out the "basic life rhythm" of its clients by adjusting the endocrine systems of people. These 30-day periods contain "up days" and "down days," but mostly in-between, and all occurring at different times in each individual. The company is able to reduce the severity of the ups and downs, and, more importantly, to have these cycles become uniform in everyone, so everyone is happy at the same time, and not happy at the same time. This will allow a family to plan accordingly. More important is the application in industry, where the workforce can now be scheduled for maximum productivity. Centers have been set up in Daylon, and Happiness, Inc is advertising on the radio and in print. The demand becomes enormous and day-long lines form to receive the treatments.

Everyone wants to be happy, right?

Newspaper reporter Joe Morgan was sent to interview the company's founder, Dr. August Lewsto, and came away with both a deeper understanding of the process and an uneasy feeling about the whole thing: "There was something odd about Lewsto, vaguely unsavory, vaguely disquieting." Joe's girlfriend Sadie Barnham has no misgivings, however, and is upset that Joe refuses to have the procedure done. What's more, he is adamant that she refrain as well. Joe is a individualist and tells Sadie, "I don't want any needles stuck in me to make me joyous. I don't want my emotional cycle analyzed and adjusted to match everybody else's cycle. I want to be my own man, all the way."

But Joe is in the minority, and Sadie goes ahead and has the procedure done. As more and more people become Happiness, Inc clients, he begins to notice a different atmosphere in town: "People smile warmly at strangers. There is a hint of laughter in the air, a hint of expectancy... The unadjusted stare bleakly at the smiles... and wonder what has happened to everybody. They begin to feel as though they were left out of something. Joe Morgan walks dourly along the street, rigidly suppressing an urge to glare at every smile."

He returns to the company's offices and speaks with their statistician, the beautiful and severe Alice Pardette. She reports that things are proceeding exactly as they had predicted. Productivity and profits are up in all companies that have bought into the program, while absenteeism and pilferage is down. But the first cycle is not without its problems. "The period of intense joy had been a time of dancing in the street, of song, of an incredible gaiety almost too frantic to be endured. And the slump touched to bitter depths of despair."

The company explains that a few tweaks to the process can correct the problems, but then a strange thing happens. Once half of Daylon has had the procedure, Happiness Inc. closes its doors and moves on to another city. The federal government, liking what it sees, arranges for the program to be made available in every major city in the country. The demand is huge. Then, once New York City reaches over 50 percent, Dr. Lewsto and his team, minus Miss Pardette, secretly leave the country.

The five days at the top of the cycles are becoming more than the cities can manage, each one more frantic than the one before, a "delirium of laughter and song" amid the crash and tinkle of glass. Crowds of euphoric, uncaring people roam the streets, drinking, debauching, and living as if there is no tomorrow. Worse still, it becomes obvious that the happiness is a contagion that spreads to the unaffected in these times of unchecked bliss. Joe finds himself becoming sucked into the chaos, but manages to resist, along with Alice, who has had second thoughts and is now romantically involved with Joe. They do what they can to try and get things under control, but are helpless against the sheer numbers. The cities are spinning out of control and soon there will be no social order at all.

Which, of course, was the plan all along.

"On the morning of explosion, every channel of communication, every form of public conveyance, all lines of supply are severed so cleanly that they might never have existed."

The United States is invaded and is helpless to resist.The occupying army outnumbers what's left of the US armed forces five-to-one. The only hope left is a small provisional government in hiding and bands of unaffected guerrilla fighters in the countryside. Joe and Alice head up one such group, and it is their attempts to bring down the invaders that fill the end of the novella.

As implausible as all of this sounds, MacDonald based Happiness, Incorporated and the work they did on real research being done on human emotional cycles, sometimes referred to as Biorhythms. He describes the science behind the idea with his typical expertise, and it is obvious that he did a lot of research into the subject. The idea of a government blindly and wholeheartedly buying into such a notion may have been somewhat unbelievable, but in 2009 it reads as all too believable. And even if one has trouble with the premise (this is science fiction, after all), MacDonald tells the story with such gusto and enthusiasm that the reader can't help but be swept up in the excitement. The first half of the tale is an intriguing mystery (made a bit less so by the obvious title) and the final chapters are a rip-roaring adventure. In fact, MacDonald saves his best writing for the bleak days of occupied America:

"America in turmoil. Not a man but who, at sometime in his life, had speculated on how the country would behave under the iron heel of an invader. Had the softness of life in this big lush country destroyed the hidden focus of resistance? Where was the heart of the country?
"Gaunt and bearded men, with nothing left but fury, rushed the armored columns with home-made bombs of rags and gasoline. The jacketed bullets smashed them down but always a few got close enough to throw the bomb and die. And black greasy smoke wound up into the fall sky and the blackened hull of a vehicle was towed off onto the shoulder, sentinel of death, monument to valor.

"In the night an absurdly young man wormed on his belly behind the hangers, killed the guard with a knife, crawled into the cockpit of the jet fighter, ripped off into the pink dawn. They climbed after him. He went around in a screaming arc, leveled out twenty feet above the ground, and smashed himself and the alien ship into whining fragments -- but he took with him six of their enormous bombers.

"A destroyer, the last of the fuel almost gone, cut all lights, drifted like a wraith through the night, drifted with the tide into a vast harbor where the enormous supplies of invasion were being unloaded under the floodlights.

"Erupting with all weapons, with the boiling wake of torpedoes, the can fought and smashed its way down the line of freighters, drifting at last, a flaming ruin into one last supply ship, blanketing it in the suicide flame.

"The Invader, taunted and stung from every side, lashes in fury, destroying without cause, forsaking all plans of gentle administration to rule by flame and by the firing squad and with machine guns aimed down the deserted streets of the silent towns."

In the Afterword to his science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, MacDonald answered a hypothetical question about whether or not he would ever return to writing these kinds of stories again. The answer was a qualified "no": "One must be able to sustain one's own belief in order to write believable fiction," he wrote. One gets the impression after reading "Trojan Horse Laugh" that this was the kind of science fiction he could believe in, and the reader never gets the feeling that the author thinks he is writing down to the audience. The same can be said of most of MacDonald's efforts in s-f: the same believable characters, the same grasp of society's intrinsic problems and the same sense of story that carry his ideas along. Whether or not you like science fiction in general, I think you will probably like "Trojan Horse Laugh."

Unfortunately, it is not an easy piece to locate any more. It was anthologized twice, once in 1964 (Dimension Four) and again in 1971 (Tomorrow 1), but neither book seems to be easy to find. Perhaps because of its length, perhaps because it is only marginally science fiction, it was omitted from Other Times, Other Worlds.

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