Monday, September 12, 2011

"Spectator Sport"

John D MacDonald's "Spectator Sport" originally appeared in the February 1950 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Often cited by critics as one of MacDonald's very best science fiction efforts, its subjects include time travel, virtual reality, an impersonal bureaucracy, human ambition, and a decaying society, all done nicely in the relatively short space of 2,200 words. It was included in the author's 1978 SF anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, where editor Martin H. Greenberg referred to the story as "a minor classic," and it has been included in at least three other SF anthologies, beginning in 1952, only two years after it was originally published. What's more, in the sixty-one years since the story was written it has proven to be incredibly prescient, anticipating the invention, popularity and enervating effects of video games, although we are (thankfully) no where near the stage they exist in "Spectator Sport." Best of all, this is a great yarn, as enjoyable and as readable as anything MacDonald ever wrote, with an ending that -- for the lovers of the written word -- takes one's breath away.

"Spectator Sport" begins in much the same vein as another, earlier JDM SF tale, "The Miniature," although in this story the protagonist has arrived in the future by his own design and knows exactly why he is there. Dr. Rufus Maddon is a scientist who has studied and written on the physics of time, and who -- along with a group of other like-minded experts -- has finally perfected a means to travel into the future. Maddon is chosen as the first to try this new device, and he transports himself 400 years into future America, into the same city from whence he came. Expecting to appear to the inhabitants of 2350 as a barbarian, he is astounded to find things relatively the same. Relatively.

"There was a general air of disrepair. Shops were boarded up. The pavement was broken and potholed. A few automobiles traveled on the broken streets. They, at least, appeared to be of a slightly advanced design, but they were dented, dirty and noisy... as he reached the familiar park... his consternation arose from the fact that [it] was all too familiar. Though it was a tangle of weeds the equestrian statue of General Murdy was still there in deathless bronze, liberally decorated by pigeons... Clothes had not changed nor had common speech. He wondered if the transfer had gone awry, if this world were something he was dreaming... He limped out of the park, muttering, wondering why the park wasn't used, why everyone seemed to be in a hurry... It appeared that in four hundred years nothing at all had been accomplished. Many familiar buildings had collapsed. Others still stood. He looked in vain for a newspaper or a magazine."

Dr. Maddon makes several attempts to stop pedestrians as they hurry past him. He wants to announce his presence as the first man to travel through time, but no one is interested in even stopping. When he grabs one man and turns him around, he is rebuffed and told to "go get a lobe job."

But there is one change that has occurred in this seemingly decaying future, and it is the prevalence of a number of "low-slung white panel delivery trucks," all in good repair and all bearing the legend WORLD SENSEWAYS. Upon closer inspection he notices a smaller inscription on the vehicles. Some read Feeder Division, others Hookup Division, and one that reads Lobotomy Division. Unfortunately for Dr. Maddon, one such truck featuring the latter inscription pulls up beside him and two husky men get out and force him inside.

 The scene shifts and we are inside the office of Roger K. Handriss, the Regional Director of World Senseways. He has been informed of the detention and subsequent lobotomization of one Dr. Rufus Maddon, and has been made aware of his claims that he had come from the past. Handriss has been brought the contents of Maddon's pockets, which include some twentieth century change, several membership cards of the era and a letter that references a book on time travel that the good doctor had written. When Handriss confirms that just such a book had been published in 1950, he realizes that they have done Maddon "a great wrong." And it also serves as a literary device to allow Handriss to recall the history of the era, and of how things changed only four years after Maddon's time of departure.

"Imagine what it must have been like in those days, Al. They had the secrets but they didn't begin to use them until -- let me see -- four years later. Aldous Huxley had already  given them their clue with his literary invention of the Feelies. But they ignored him... All their energies went into wars and rumors of wars and random scientific advancement and sociological disruptions. Of course, with Video on the march at that time, they were beginning to get a little preview. Millions of people were beginning to sit in front of the Video screens, content even with that crude excuse for entertainment... Now all the efforts of a world society are channeled into World Senseways. There is no waste of effort changing a perfectly acceptable status quo. Every man can have Temp and if you save your money you can have Permanent, which they say is as close to heaven as man can get."

When the lobotomized Dr. Maddon is brought into Handriss' office, walking "with the clumsiness of an overgrown child," Handriss struggles for a way to try and rectify his terrible error. Reeducating him would take to long, and sending him back might bring a flood of others into the future. No, there is only one thing a compassionate corporate regional director can do in this situation: allow Maddon a privilege it takes most men all of their lives to save up for...

Despite MacDonald's reference to Huxley's 1931 novel Brave New World, the fictional future of the two worlds could not be more different. In Huxley's World State, a paternalistic and all-controlling government has made all resources readily available to everyone. It controls population and has eliminated the family unit. It encourages free sex and conspicuous consumption as a means to provide a stable economy and society. Yet both works feature society's rulers keeping its subjects under control with an external device: Huxley's "Feelies" and the drug Soma, World Senseways' Temps and Perms. In this respect the theme is the same: a future society built on the control of its subjects through the supply of endless distractions to those same subjects. Pleasure, rather than pain, is used as the ultimate controlling device.

Yet the difference in the choice of controlling entity -- government or private industry -- has led some critics to use "Spectator Sport" as an example of the evils of capitalism. Greenberg, in his very brief introduction to the story in Other Voices, Other Worlds, makes reference to the tale's "nature of reality, capitalism and American culture," and makes direct reference to cultural critic H. Bruce Franklin, who reportedly "praised" the story for it's "social content." Franklin is a noted cultural historian who has taught at several big universities, including Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Yale and Rutgers. He has written extensively on the Viet Nam war, on prison literature, and on science fiction. He is also a self-proclaimed Marxist. I suppose one's worldview colors one's observations on just about everything, and so it is with his opinions about "Spectator Sport." To me it is more than clear that MacDonald was writing from the Huxleyan point of view, that mankind's "distractions" are a better way to enslave society than using one's fears, but Franklin sees more than that. Despite the fact that JDM was a Keynesian at best and -- later in life -- fled from that point of view, Franklin sees in "Spectator Sport" a grand dissertation of the evils of capitalism:

"In fact the interlocking Anglo-American empires have decayed so far that they have produced some SF that does indeed border on a Marxist analysis. Advanced state capitalism has now given birth to a whole body of SF works that project the next stages of its monstrous cancer. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, Pohl's "The Midas Plague," Robert Silverberg's "The Pain Peddlers" and "Company Store," Robert Sheckley's "Something for Nothing," J. G. Ballard's "Subliminal Man," John D. MacDonald's "Trojan Horse Laugh" and "Spectator Sport"--all these are good projections of what capitalism might become if it were not destroyed. But capitalism is in the process of extinction, and those who are wiping it out and replacing it with a decent human society are guided by the science of Marxism."

No matter one's political point of view, I find this an utterly wrongheaded analysis of the story. MacDonald was writing about mankind's need to be distracted, and whether that need was met by a benevolent central government or by a global corporate entity was immaterial to the author. The point was that man will do what man will do, and the easiest way out was the way that would be most readily supplied, be it by government or by private enterprise.

 The real genius of "Spectator Sport" is it's precognitive recognition of television as the ultimate drug.  What in 1950 was a kind of a novelty, a "radio with pictures," became -- as MacDonald correctly guessed -- the great opiate of the masses. And its interactive stepchild, the video game, -- something MacDonald could have only dreamed up in his wildest fiction -- is the real prescience of this short story. Anyone who has ever played a well-crafted, involving game, or who has had a child born in the gaming age can well attest to JDM's surmise of an outcome. And do we really have to wait 400 years for the future of "Spectator Sport" to arrive?

Used copies of Other Times, Other Worlds are easy to find at relatively low prices. The other anthologies that include "Spectator Sport" are Omnibus of Science Fiction: 43 Foremost Stories (1952) edited by Groff Conklin (reprinted in 1956 and 1963 as Science Fiction Omnibus), Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales (1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, and Science Fiction of the Fifties (1979) edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph Olander.


  1. This was the first story by JDM that I ever read. I found it in The Science Fiction Omnibus. I was just a kid, and it was several years later that I discovered the novels.

  2. I too read this story when I was a kid but I now have the pulp handy, so I reread the story. The funny thing is there is a letter in this issue saying that JDM, the author of dozens of detective stories, had switched over to the SF genre. Wishful thinking there! Can you imagine Travis Mcgee in a space ship instead of a sailboat...

    You are right about how we don't have to wait 400 years. After 50-60 years I see plenty of people addicted to TV, computer games, texting, and even facebook.

    THRILLING WONDER STORIES and STARTLING STORIES are two of my favorite SF pulps, especially during the late 1940's and early 1950's when Sam Merwin and Sam Mines were editors.

  3. Thanks for commenting Bill. It's a pleasure to have you here.

    Walker, I didn't even think to look at the letters in this issue. (I needed a magnifying glass to read them, though!)That reader's particular observations were certainly wrong, as MacDonald quickly tired of SF and was backing off from it even as "Spectator Sport" was being published.