Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Delusion Drive"

"Delusion Drive" was one of three John D MacDonald stories published in the April 1949 issue of the science fiction pulp Super Science Stories. This was MacDonald's first appearance in the magazine that would eventually publish eighteen of his tales, and he started with a bang, penning more entries in this issue than any other other author. Still, as one can see from the cover, he wasn't an established name in the s-f community as yet and only received a name blurb: no cover art, no title copy. His novella titled "Death Quotient" was the only story to bear his real name, as the other two were assigned house names: "All Our Yesterdays" was credited to "John Wade Farrell" and "Delusion Drive" was supposedly written by Peter Reed.

Super Science Stories has a rather fractured publishing history, and it probably should be considered two separate pulp magazines. It began in 1940 (six years before MacDonald started writing) as a fairly standard science fiction adventure pulp with writer Frederik Pohl serving as the initial editor. Pohl used his position to publish much of his own work, but also was responsible for publishing early stories by Isaac Asimov, James Blish (his first), Ray Bradbury (his first paid piece) and L. Sprague De Camp, whose collaboration with P. Schuyler Miller -- Genus Homo -- has been routinely considered the magazine's finest moment. This first incarnation of the magazine lasted only 16 issues and ended with the May 1943 issue. (To further confuse matters, three of the 16 issues were titled Super Science Novels.) 

In January 1949 the publisher (Popular Publications' subsidiary Fictioneers, Inc.) launched a second version of the magazine, continuing the same numbering system for volumes and issues. Now edited by Ejler Jakobsson (with author Damon Knight serving as assistant editor), the pulp published 15 more issues before expiring for good with the August 1951 issue. And although the second incarnation of Super Science Stories began in January, its second issue wasn't published until April, the issue featuring these three JDM stories. Another gap followed until the third issue was published in July, when it settled down to a bi-monthly schedule. Then again, in 1951, there was a gap between January and April before sputtering off with its final two issues.

MacDonald's contributions to Super Science Stories seem more impressive when taking into account this sporadic publishing history. Of the second version's 15 issues, MacDonald stories appeared in ten of them, and of those ten, seven featured more than one JDM story. Pretty impressive for an author who was only dabbling in the world of science fiction.

"Delusion Drive" is easily the weakest of the the three MacDonald stories appearing in the April issue, although it isn't a bad effort. It takes a fairly standard plot that had been used in countless seafaring stories and puts it into space. What makes "Delusion Drive" interesting -- and what obviously made it interesting for the author -- is how the issue of long-distance space travel is dealt with, that ageless problem for both author and scientist alike, faster-than-light travel (FTL). Here MacDonald calls it "Space Rip."

The protagonist of "Delusion Drive" is named Bill Torrance, an eighteen-year-old would-be "space rat" whose outer space travels have been limited to the "VEM run." (I assume that's Venus-Earth-Mars.) He's signed on to the Leandor, "one of the middle-sized freighters of the Troy Line" as a cook's helper. Torrance walks with an affected swagger, a ruse he hopes will convince his fellow crewmates that he is a "hardened space rat," not a novice.

"I wanted them to think I'd been outside the [solar] system and knew all about Space Rip, which was the way the Leandor traveled."

But as he is unpacking his bags near his bunk, he carelessly asks his roommate Jameson about "the Rip," and Jameson immediately tags him as a "greeny." "You'll know it when it starts, Greeny," he tells him contemptuously. 

"He had a nasty, superior way about him and I didn't answer. But I saw that he kept licking his lips and that he was afraid."

As the two await the jump to FTL, Torrance lies in his bunk, wishing he hadn't said anything.

"My remark had been stupid. I'd read enough about Space Rip to know that nobody has been able to explain the feeling... I grabbed the bunk stanchion to brace myself, but it wasn't that kind of a jar, the sort that you can brace yourself against. It felt as if I had been swatted by a huge club, and yet instead of a club it was made of sharp knives set close together. The knives were 'so sharp that my body offered no resistance and so the big club passed right through me, leaving me ... sort of misty and vague. Apart at the seams. I noticed the greyness then. All colors gone. Everything was a shade of grey and everything had a slight, almost noticeable flicker about it, like the old movies in the museum. All feeling of movement was gone."

When Torrance is called to the galley to begin work, he engages in a long, somewhat philosophical conversation with the cook about the mechanics -- as they understand it -- of Space Rip. In its most basic terms, the Rip changes the ship into "something that isn't physical and then it reassembles it on the other end." When the cook tells him that what they have been changed into is "a concept," things get deep, and MacDonald veers off into ideas and theories that stop the narrative dead in its tracks. It's not as bad as the mind-numbing "science" in his "Escape to Chaos," but it's pretty close.

Then, as the journey is about to end, the story resumes and we get guns, knives and all sorts of unexpected excitement. And an ending that could have come out of any adventure pulp of the day.

As MacDonald famously wrote in his afterword to Other Times, Other Worlds, "One must be able to sustain one's own belief in order to write believable fiction." He was referring specifically to how "the merciless mathematics of Einstein and Fitzgerald" kept FTL technology from ever being feasible. He claimed that even the simple act of writing about it was "cruel" and "counterproductive to the races of man."(!) Well... MacDonald could certainly be a superior-sounding prig when he wanted to, but it is clear from "Delusion Drive" that he thought something like Space Rip somewhat possible, even back in 1949. Besides, the world of science fiction would be nothing without some means to travel to the stars relatively quickly, and writers have given us many different variations on the idea, from Star Trek's warp drive, to Star Wars' Hyper Space, to the neatest of all (at least from a fictional point of view), Battlestar Galactica's instant FTL "jumps." All of these methods originated in science fiction pulp writing and became especially prevalent in the post-atomic age. From more and more powerful rocket fuels, to atomic motors, to warp drives, hyperspace, wormholes and stargates, s-f authors continually came up with new, sometimes novel ways to transverse the impossibly huge distances of outer space. MacDonald's Space Rip seems to have been inspired by the "space warp" school of thought, one seen sporadically in fiction before 1949 and which gained household name recognition with the creation of Star Trek. MacDonald even gave his Space Rip theory an algebraic equation, calling it "Dakeon's Formula" (For all you would-be inventors, here it is: The square root of the distance in light years equals the cube of the trip time in weeks. Please get back to me if the thing really works.)

"Delusion Drive" is currently available in eBook format, included in the Wonder Audiobooks JDM anthology Death Quotient and Other Stories, which you can find on Amazon or any similar online book store for under five bucks.

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