Monday, August 31, 2015


John D MacDonald’s very first sale to a science fiction pulp took place in late 1947 when his story “Cosmetics” was purchased by John W. Campbell for the February 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It was not MacDonald’s first science fiction sale -- as regular readers of this blog no doubt already know -- for the author had already published three sf or fantasy tales in other types of magazines, ranging from Doc Savage to Liberty to Bluebook. But the real cutting edge of modern science fiction was happening in the sf pulps, where this kind of writing was currently going through what we now refer to as its Golden Age, spearheaded in large part by Campbell and his magazine. Indeed, at the time of “Cosmetics” publication Astounding Science Fiction was probably the premier sf pulp in circulation, with Sam Merwin’s Startling Stories a close second. (Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction were yet to come.)

The fact that MacDonald was able to sell a story in a genre he hadn’t really mastered yet to the premier magazine of its type says a lot about his talents as a writer, even this early in his career, before the novels, before the move to Florida, and before Travis McGee. Still, “Cosmetics” is a bit rough around the edges, with lots of pontification and science details which probably appealed to Campbell but doesn’t sit that well in the modern ear. Tellingly, when the author, late in his career, published an anthology of his best sf work -- well, what he thought was his best sf work, a list some, including me, have issues with -- he omitted this early work altogether. Perhaps he thought it too long winded, too didactic, too poorly written and, perhaps, too derivative. He would be guilty to some extent on all of these charges, yet “Cosmetics” is an enjoyable read and a telling view of a future where one of mankind’s greatest desires could finally be fulfilled and, importantly, how that fulfilment changed society.

Set about one hundred years in the future, the Earth of “Cosmetics” seems a beautiful place. And why not? Thanks to a device called the autocosmeton, every man and woman can, through a combination of drugs, hypnosis and machinery, alter their appearance to any physical ideal they wish for. The cities and towns of the world are peopled with men who were “tall and incredibly handsome," and "long-limbed women [who] were the apex of the dream of beauty which had existed through the ages." The process, called autocosmetics, is primarily a “concentration of the psychic process” aided by drugs and mechanics. Every home has a autocosmeton and there is no limit to the number or kinds of appearances one can produce using the device. The first inclination is, naturally, to become a physical ideal, but many people alternate between beautiful and ugly, “frequently shifting to the grotesque, making life a succession of masks -- the lovely and the horrible, a spiced cookery of flesh and outlook.” But it is the beautiful that is chosen and kept most often, leading society to require that everyone carry an identification medallion pinned to their tunic. It’s the only way to keep track of who is who.

The story’s protagonist is one Jason Blood, a man who has joined with a small group of rebels who have decided not to change into the beautiful. As the story opens he is reading a letter from his wife, telling him that she is leaving. She writes:

“Do you remember when we were first married? You had none of these silly scruples about autocosmetics at that time. Our love was freshened by the rhythm of variety. Remember how I'd leave you a note telling you how I wanted you to look? Darling, you were such a wonderful succession of tall, strong men -- and I tried so hard to make myself into all the types of beauty that you wanted to possess... But now these things which you mysteriously label 'principles' have come between us. You have made no change in four years, and you talk about 'solidification of personality' instead of about what you can do to please me. Jason, darling, I don't like the form you selected for yourself four years ago. By retaining it, you are not living up to your responsibilities as my husband. I hate that lean, ascetic face, the thinning hair, the knobbed knuckles, the harsh look in your eyes.”

She goes on to reveal that she is having an affair with “a man who is something like what [Jason] used to be," but promises to return when he decides that he has "been wrong."

Enter Karl Dane, “a big man with pads of flesh around his small eyes, a mountainous belly and fat, freckled hands. He was an atrocity in a city of beauty.” He is the intellectual leader of this peaceful group of “ugly” rebels, and he begins by telling Jason that their group has lost another member. "He got tired of fighting... He turned himself into a pretty boy this morning and now he's out roaming the city, beaming foolishly at the rest of them." Then he proceeds to launch into a lengthy diatribe against autocosmetics and outlines the long history of the process, which began as far back as 1933. He then goes into the unintended effects of this mass process and what it has done to society.

“The best part of the human personality is conditioned by the face we present to the world. Our actions are in part a compensation for this static impression that we give. Thus, in a world where you can have a new face tomorrow and a new figure... there [is] no incentive to force changes on society in compensation for the static impression that you gave to all people... Much of our great art and literature were created by people who were seriously and hopelessly ill-- conscious of their illness and striving for some sort of immortality... We are in an era where the entire ego of the common man -- and woman -- is built around the idea of eternal change in outward appearance. Thus we have achieved a norm in personality that is deadly. There is no sublimation of dissatisfaction into creative channels. No invention, no art, no creative thought. Just maintenance. That's all. The Age of Maintenance."

When Dane is done pontificating he departs to go visit with a possible new recruit, leaving Jason alone. As he sits thinking of his estranged wife, unbenounced to him two figures stealthily enter his apartment…

This story can be split into three parts: the exposition, Dane’s long speech, and the final bit, which I won’t reveal for would-be readers. What is most interesting to students of MacDonald’s work is the middle section. It is a fictional polemic that is nothing less than the genesis of that form which the author used in his final work, Reading for Survival, where Meyer and McGee (primarily Meyer) explore societal problems at great length through the mouth of a fictional character. (This device was also used in the Travis McGee short story, “Terminal Cases.”) Karl Dane even looks a bit like Meyer, and he certainly sounds like him. And while “spindly” Jason Blood is no Travis McGee lookalike, he plays the exact same role that McGee did in both of those later two works. It’s always fascinating to discover just how uniform MacDonald’s work can sometimes be.

John D MacDonald went on to write a lot of science fiction, and from 1948 to 1952 he produced over 45 stories and two full novels (both based on works that first appeared in the pulps.) It could be said that during this period he was a major force in science fiction, as assertion I’m sure a lot of sf fans might argue with. When the author collected what he deemed to be his best work in the field for Other Times Other Worlds in 1978, he wrote an afterword that seemed dismissive of both his work in particular and science fiction in general, and it pissed a lot of people off. But back when he began he was as enthusiastic as the wildest fan, evidenced by a newspaper column he wrote a few months after “Cosmetics” was published, titled “Fantasy, Unlimited,” which you can read on this blog. MacDonald would go on to write better stories than “Cosmetics,” exploring many different “subgenres” of sf, including space opera, time paradox, alien invasion, dying Earth, and lots of social science fiction. For me, I’d rather read a JDM sf story than one by anybody else, but then, I’m extremely biased.

As far as I can tell, “Cosmetics” has never never been anthologized.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"The Taste of Gravy"

John D MacDonald’s first short story to be published in Playboy magazine appeared in the relatively late year of 1967, long after his work had made appearances in nearly every other major (and minor) periodical in the United States. What took him so long is anybody’s guess, but one is tempted to go back to Travis McGee’s infamous 1966 rant in One Fearful Yellow Eye, where he refers to Hugh Hefner’s philosophy as “laborious,” “interminable” and the writer himself as “pseudo-educated.” This would certainly not put the author in Hefner’s good graces, assuming that Hef ever read a McGee novel. But MacDonald’s work was sold through his agent, and the agent worked not with the magazine’s owner, but with its fiction editor, who happened to admire and respect MacDonald’s writing. “Quarrel,” which appeared in the May 1967 issue, began a series of short story appearances that were marked by a more adult sensibility than that which had been on display in, say, his work for This Week or Collier’s, not surprising given the kind of magazine Playboy was. These included the titles “The Annex,” “Dear Old Friend,” and “Double Hannenframmis,” which was published in August 1970. MacDonald then took these stories and, along with three new originals, included them in his anthology S*E*V*E*N, which came out in April 1971.

But MacDonald would write one more story for Playboy, and it appeared in the magazine’s June 1974 issue. Titled “The Taste of Gravy,” it was one of the last short stories MacDonald would ever write. Both its tone and subject matter make it a good companion for his other Playboy works, and it would have fit nicely into S*E*V*E*N (had S*E*V*E*N been E*I*G*H*T), and would have, I believe, made for a better final “chapter” in that thematically organic anthology than the existing title, “The Annex.”

Paul Catlett, the story’s protagonist, is a close cousin to “Woodchuck’s” Aldo Bellinger and to Wyatt Ross in “Double Hennenframmis”: a corporate leader of questionable morals, a man who has built a business empire using any means available, legal or otherwise. In Ross’s case it was outright larceny but here Catlett skated just inside the boundaries, building “something so big there is a lot less there than meets the eye,” and he has done this by “stealing from the wolves.” As the story opens he has just completed months of preparation to unload the company onto another group of unsuspecting “wolves,” and to emerge “with enough golden booty to last [him] forever.” He is sitting in the first class section of an airliner flying from Los Angeles to New York when he is notified by a stewardess that the plane will be forced to land short of Kennedy Airport and is being diverted to Syracuse. It is then that he notices a passenger across the aisle, a “big girl, young, with a strong pale face... her hair... dark blonde, heavy and healthy.” (A MacDonald ideal from as far back as his beginnings as a writer.) As he is heading for the security check point before boarding the replacement flight he again notices the same girl, this time engaged in some sort of dispute with a security guard at the metal detector. She is triggering the device even though she is carrying no metal, and the same thing happens to Catlett. He makes a suggestion that gets them through this delay, but it is not in time and Catlett and the girl watch as their flight takes off without them.

It lifted into the clear windy night, toward a diamond sky. He turned away and suddenly she took hold of his forearm with such shocking strength it made him gasp. He turned back toward her and saw her staring, her eyes wide and mouth slack, sagging open. He thought for an instant she was having some sort of seizure, but then he looked toward [the plane] and saw a long trail of orange flame, a dirty orange that made an arc, a gentle long curve toward the ground. There was a sudden bloom of orange-and-white flame that made him think of those television pictures from the Cape, when the booster separated and it would look for a few moments as if the whole rocket had blown up. The bigger blossom of fire continued along the same arc, while smaller burning pieces fell out of it. It coasted down out of the sky and disappeared behind a distant hill, and then a bigger flare lit up all of the night. Moments later, there was an audible "Whumpf" sound that shook the big window.

Understandably upset by the tragedy, the two would-be passengers comfort each other and head for the airport bar to calm their nerves. Through their conversation they gradually learn about each other. She is Sheila Christopher, a young woman currently having an affair with a married man in New York. She was flying there to embark on a 15-day cruise with him, hoping that when they return the man will have the courage to ask his wife for a divorce. She learns that Catlett is THE Paul Catlett, CEO of CatCo, made recently famous by a day's worth of congressional hearings investigating his shady business practices. He reveals that he is married, to an unfaithful second wife, and that his trip to New York was to put an end to CatCo by putting "gravy on the blade."

"Steal from the wolves and they come after you. There is a primitive way to get rid of wolves. You freeze a very sharp knife, blade up against the ice, with a little frozen gravy on the side of the blade. The wolves lick the blade. It is so cold they can't feel it slicing their tongues. They taste fresh blood, their own, and keep at it until they swoon and freeze. While I am far away, over the icecap and the mountains, and down the other side.”

Sheila becomes philosophical about the near miss and tries to understand its meaning.

“I have the feeling that something... valuable has happened to me. I want to sort of sit back and put it together and see what it says to me. If I go rushing about, inserting myself back into place, right where I was before, then I won't know what this meant…. we’ve got this chance to change things.”

She suggests that they pool their money, hop a flight to Biloxi, "where nobody will know us or give a damn." As Catlett considers the sudden suggestion, "he felt his heart lift for the first time in a year. He felt a hollow excitement in his belly. He reached to grasp her extended, challenging hand…”

Following that ellipsis MacDonald inserts a three-asterisk section break and resumes in a disorienting place. Catlett, with Shelia not far behind him, is walking through a canvas tunnel, boarding an airplane. They are the last two passengers to get on the replacement flight from Syracuse to New York City…

Without revealing anything further for the would-be reader, let me say that this is not fantasy or science fiction. The device is used as a means to an end, which takes up the second half of “The Taste of Gravy.” and is more about Catlett’s state of mind than any airline tragedy. Shelia is not really Shelia, but Sarah, a much more interesting character. It is an extreme example of the unreliable narrator, a literary device used in all of the stories collected in S*E*V*E*N. The big difference between “The Taste of Gravy” and the other stories in that anthology is in its ending, and it is primarily for this reason that I think it would have made a better final story than “The Annex.” Perhaps MacDonald felt that way as well, and wrote “The Taste of Gravy” as a kind of “what-if” ending to his unifying theme. And while “The Annex” was one of the author’s proudest short story achievements, maybe he thought, as I do, that it was out of place in S*E*V*E*N and belonged in a more appropriate collection such as his sf anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, where is was also the final entry.

“The Taste of Gravy” has never been anthologized or reprinted, as far as I have been able to tell. Used copies of Playboy are very easy to find online and prices can be reasonable. And of course, Playboy has made its entire run available digitally in its online archive, for something like eight bucks a month. There you can read “The Taste of Gravy” and MacDonald's other four Playboy short stories, as well as an excerpt from The Lonely Silver Rain, which appeared in the March 1985 issue.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Ceylon Memories

Another busy work week has thwarted my attempts at writing my weekly blog post, so I’m going to punt and post some of John D MacDonald’s own writing.

I’m slowly developing an essay on the next JDM novel in the order I have been covering them. This one requires my normal two readings of the work, in addition to reading the magazine version and, a rarity, watching the film version of the book. It’s Soft Touch and it will take a while before I have anything ready to read. There is an aspect to the novel that was a standard background point in much of MacDonald’s work, especially in his early short stories for the pulps, and that is a character’s military past, stationed in the China Burma India theater during the Second World War. This was, of course, MacDonald’s own past, and he drew on it heavily, even up to the point of the first Travis McGee novel.

MacDonald was stationed first in India and later in Ceylon. He hated India and loved Ceylon. In 1948 he wrote a brief memoir of the island nation (now known as Sri Lanka) in his weekly newspaper column for the Clinton (NY) Courier.

We picked up some students headed down the hill toward the village the other day, and they were talking about various types of summer work and the relative merits thereof.

We were reminded of Ceylon. The army graciously dropped us into that garden spot for a time. It is a fine island. We were particularly intrigued with the type of summer work that many of the students perform.

During the spring monsoon, the heavy rains swell the streams and semi-precious stones are torn out of the mountains and carried down the steep slopes. During the summer months in the vicinity of Ratnapura, in the heart of the gem area, the streams are alive with students picking over the pebbles in search of semi-precious gems. They find topaz, blue and yellow sapphires, cat's eyes and other varieties.

We tried it. The standard technique is to find a place where a stream curves and has thus heaped up a mound of small stones. You make yourself as comfortable as possible and then start picking up likely looking rocks and holding them up toward the sun. You spin the stone in your fingers and, when you get a glint of colored light through it at any point, you stuff it in a bag.

When the day's work is done, you take the stones down to the proper alley in Ratnapura where the grinders work, You have to watch those boys.If you find something good, they are inclined to tell you it is worthless in hopes that you will throw it away where they can pick it up.

We squatted in the blazing sun for about two hours, getting very bored with the whole process of trying to look through pebbles. We must have looked through a thousand of them. Then suddenly one jagged hunk of stone gave forth a little gleam of yellow light when we held it up. We felt like a forty-niner.

Down in that alley in Ratnapura, the boys who do the grinding sit on the ground by a crude looking lathe with a grinding wheel on one end. The motive power is a bow string with rawhide. The rawhide is looped once around the lathe spindle. The bow is shoved back and forth and the grinding wheel is crudely geared so that it spins, of course, in just one direction. The end of the bow is held in the bare toes of the operator leaving both hands free to hold the stone against the wheel.

An ancient citizen took our precious rock, which we were sure was a priceless yellow sapphire, and ground it without ever seeming to look at it. It made us nervous.

Instead of a sapphire, it turned out to be topaz, about fifteen carats. And a darn poor color.

The man charged eight rupees for the grinding operation (About $2.60.) We have our topaz here and it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever -- because we found it.

Had not the army suddenly awakened to the fact that we were in a garden spot and sent along a cruel travel order, we would still be ankle deep in one of those streams near Ratnapura trying to see through pebbles and acquiring a terrific sunburn.

It is our nomination for the perfect kind of summer work.

    *    *    *

Speaking of Ceylon...

Now that we are on the subject, it is a good time to do a sales job.

Go to Ceylon!

India, to the north, is a big, dusty miserable country that gives the impression of being a circus ground the day after the circus left.

But Ceylon is a garden spot. Lord Louis Mountbatten is nobody's fool. When he was the big wheel of the South-East Asia Command, he put his headquarters right smack in Kandy in the Ceylonese Hills.

In India you are expected to at least pick up a smattering of Urdu. In Ceylon it is recognized that Sinhalese is far too difficult to learn and nobody questions some of the British that have lived there twenty years without picking up a word of Sinhalese.

It isn't as hot as India and there are miles of perfect beaches where the white surf comes rolling in and you can, with a little practice, ride a surfboard for a quarter of a mile toward the beach.

For between thirty and fifty dollars a month you can rent a huge "bungalow" on Bambalapitiya Road in Colombo. Another nine dollars will provide a cook, a houseboy and a combination chauffeur-gardener.

For recreation you can play tennis and bridge at the Garden Club, dance at a very svelte nightclub called the Silver Faun, swim at the Hotel Mont Lavinia, shop in the bazaars.

So you see, it's very simple. All you have to do is save up a hundred thousand dollars and invest it at four percent. The income will enable you to live like a little king in Ceylon for the rest of your days, where you will enjoy all the languor of a tropical island plus all the comforts of city living.
I wonder how MacDonald got that topaz home. Did he hide it in the bottom of a wax-filled canteen?