Friday, April 9, 2010

"Hand from the Void"

"Hand from the Void" is an obscure and long-forgotten John D MacDonald novella that was originally published in the January 1951 issue of Super Science Stories. It's around 20,000-words long and was written toward the end of that huge spurt of science fiction pieces MacDonald produced in 1949 and 1950 (30!) It is a well-written, interesting and thoughtful mystery where the "science fiction" aspect of the story isn't revealed until the final third of the novella. It is all-together a typically well done JDM s-f effort, with one important exception: it's virtually identical to MacDonald's second science fiction novel Ballroom of the Skies. It has the same plot, the same structure, a nearly identical protagonist, several very similar scenes and, for the most part, the same ending. It preceded Ballroom by nearly two years and the debt that novel owes to "Hand from the Void" has, to the best of my knowledge, never been acknowledged.

There are, of course, other cases of MacDonald penning very similar stories. I've already pointed out the similarities between short works such as "Wild, Wonderful Old Man" and "End of the Tiger," and between "I Love You (Occasionally) and "He Knew a Broadway Star," but this is the first time I've spotted a story that is essentially a run-through for a subsequent novel. The closest example of that exercise is the adaptation of his serial "My Brother's Widow" into the novel Area of Suspicion, but that was fully acknowledged, both in the novel itself and by the author himself prior to its publication. Ballroom of the Skies was obviously built upon the framework of "Hand from the Void," but it is a far better work, with its post-war setting being the most dramatic difference. "Hand from the Void" takes place in the here-and-now of 1951 America and has a political aspect MacDonald did away with for the later novel. It is fascinating for both its echoes of the 1948 third-party Dixiecrat incursion as well as for its prescience in mirroring the appeal of Ross Perot in 1992.

Jeff Rayden and Julie O'Reilly are a pair of investigative magazine reporters working for the popular Crux, a periodical boasting a circulation of over two million readers. Jeff is writer and Julie photographer, and together they are on their way to San Ramon, Texas to interview Borden Means, the subject of their next article. Jeff and Julie have been a team for a long time and were once in love, but "too much dough and too much reputation and too many assignments" have soured that relationship and it's begun to color their work. But before the two of them can get into yet another argument about it, a stewardess informs them that their plane is making a special landing in "Dos Almas" to drop the two of them off. When an astounded Jeff asks how such a thing could be possible, he is informed that Mr. Means has arranged it.

Borden Means is a Texas millionaire who been making highly successful political speeches and who has drawn a vast and growing following.

"A muscular bachelor of fifty-two, he had accumulated a fat fortune in Texas oil lands. Now he had given up the accumulation of more money and had purchased network time to lecture America. No, the man had nothing to say, and yet -- in the way he said it... Each time Jeff read the speeches he had felt his heart begin to pound, felt the flush of excitement on his face, felt a rebirth of confidence in himself and in the world. He knew that it was puerile to be aroused by tag words and emotional clich├ęs. Yet all Means had to do was say something about home and mother -- and he took you back to the summer evenings of childhood, the dusk walk to the corner store for ice cream, the murmur of voices on the front porches, the aimless lazy slap of a screen door..."

Still, Jeff is confident that he and Julie will expose him like they had all their other subjects: "Loud little men with egocentric ideas and concentrated lust for power."

Means meets them at the airport and together they are chauffeured to his country home. There they meet his assistant Laura, a blonde haired, blue-eyed woman who bears a striking resemblance to Means chauffer. Means tells them that what he is after is a better world:

"That's rather simple, isn't it? I talk about the things every man wants. We've lost sight of our objective. I help people regain their faith in this world and in a good future for mankind. When enough of them realize, through me, that a better world is attainable, then they will band together to make that world possible."

Jeff and Julie accompany him to his large estate in San Ramon, and along the way Means displays an amazing familiarity with the past work of the pair, remarking that their articles of late have been faltering. When Jeff questions his sincerity Means lectures him in a booming voice that was like "the toll of a distant bell," and makes the hair on the back of Jeff's neck stand up. Means is scheduled to speak that evening in San Ramos and the crowds are overflowing into the streets. When he walks upon the stage the crowd erupts into wild applause that is cut short when Means raises both of his arms. In dead silence and with rapt attention the throngs listen as Means speaks of love and hope and promise and a better tomorrow. Julie is mesmerized and tears stream down her cheeks, and even skeptical Jeff is swept along.

"It was as if Means spoke as with some new tongue that reached directly into his mind. It played with emotions rather than with the intellect. The great voice rose and fell, more delicate at times than a violin, and suddenly as powerful as the northern seas... At the end Jeff was on his feet with all the others, screaming his approval, yelling out his eternal dedication to Borden Means and all he stood for or wanted to stand for."

Yet once the speech is over Jeff manages to disengage himself from the spell. Back in his hotel, he finds that his editor from Crux has come to town, and he makes it clear to the pair that their piece on Means is to be complementary. When Jeff objects he is summarily fired. Julie stays on and will work directly with Means, maintaining an office at his estate.

The next scene is almost a mirror image of one used in Ballroom of the Skies, as Jeff negotiates with the editor of a sleazy magazine to publish his expose of Means. No other periodical will touch it, as Means' popularity is spreading like wildfire. Jeff has done a bit of investigating and has uncovered many strange things about the man. The plane that he and Julie flew to San Ramos in has no record of an unscheduled stop at Dos Almas. None of the people or crew on board have any memory of the stop, but recall the duo landing with the rest of the passengers. Then he discovers that there is no such place as Dos Almas. He has dug deeply into the life of Borden Means and has discovered an unremarkable loner who has been focused solely on making money. He made it big in oil and has no time for women, booze, gambling or even friends. It's the picture of a "sour, greedy, tight-fisted man [who] snapped everybody's heads off, bullied his employees [and] chiseled whenever he could get away with it.... All of a sudden he turns into a guy so warm and human it makes your heart bleed. Why?"

Yet interviews with any former employee or business relation yields only the fondest of memories. Even copies of old newspapers in libraries carry the altered version of Means' past. With Means' popularity growing by the hour, a movement to have him installed as president is begun. Money is pouring in from every part of the country and buttons that read simply MEANS are worn by more and more people, their expressions one of "concealed exaltation." Jeff returns to San Ramos and confronts Means with his discoveries and is dismissed, but not before Means declares:

"They are listening to me! They hear me! We shall have a peaceful and unified world. Violence will die. Man will live with man in peace and security. There is talk of my being president. I shall not settle for that. I shall be President of the United and Federated States of the World!"

Jeff manages to see Julie and they drive into town together, where Julie breaks down and tells him of all the strange things she has witnessed in the house. She speaks the words every self-satisfied male loves to hear from a woman: "Oh Jeff, how right you were! How desperately and incredibly right!" She relates an incident where she walked in on Means unannounced, only to find him sitting bolt upright at his desk, his face "empty, empty, empty. Dead. Dead forever, since the beginning of time. He wasn't breathing!" then he suddenly came to life and was his normal self.

Jeff: "A robot! By God, a robot!"

Julie: "No Jeff. It's something worse than that. Worse!"

Jeff: "What's worse than that?"

Julie: "The walking dead, Jeff. He's dead, Jeff, and somehow they use him."

To reveal any more at this point would spoil the story, and assuming anyone ever gets the chance to locate a copy I'll leave it here. From this point forward the plot pretty much parallels Ballroom of the Skies, in both its structure and scene. The forces behind Means are basically the same as the ones causing havoc on Ballroom Earth, and the protagonists are given the same sort of choices and, ultimately, responsibilities that Dake Lorin is given. Then "the real work begins."

The author's original title for "Hand from the Void" was "The Decoy," a reference that is made clear later in the narrative. There are echoes of other MacDonald science fiction works here, including control of the masses in "Trojan Horse Laugh" and of man uniting against a common enemy featured in "Death Quotient." The author always wrote far better science fiction when he was able to place the story in a familiar and recognizable setting, and it helps that the s-f portions of "Hand from the Void" come in the final third of the book -- up until then it's just a case of a lot of mysterious things happening that could mean either a deranged protagonist or an unreliable narrator. In any case, it's a fun story that ultimately deals with a lot of weighty issues toward the end, even if it does lack suspense or any real violence.

"Hand from the Void has appeared in no anthology that I am aware of, but would make a good choice for inclusion in the next JDM s-f eBook, should there be one.

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